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A horse's mouth, teeth, and lips are tools that the horse uses for many purposes other than eating. Not having hands or paws, a horse uses its mouth as a tool, not only to explore his environment, but to communicate with other horses and the humans in its life. Signs of dominance between horses include oral displays and contact by lips and teeth, and some horses carry these behaviors over to their interactions with their handlers.
A young colt will clack his teeth in a new setting with other horses as a sign it wants to become part of the group. Older horses will nip or bite each other to test who is dominant in the herd.
These same behaviors are often exhibited with the humans in their lives. When these behaviors are used inappropriately, you, as the handler needs to understand what is happening and redirect the behaviors in a desirable direction.
Your responses to biting should be prompt and reasonable. Anger, hitting inappropriately, yelling or over-reacting will not help the horse establish a pattern of acceptable behavior. Instead, a series of well-planned actions to deal with the problem and teach the horse how to interact with humans will make being together mutually enjoyable
Reasons for Biting
- Establishment of dominance
- Teething discomfort
- Grooming reflex
- Playful interaction
- Discomfort -- physical or psychological
Typically horses that bite may be acting out of fear, defiance, defensiveness, disrespect, or, the biting may be a conditioned response from the past because of poor training or handling methods.
Experts say that once a horse decides to bite, the handler has three seconds to respond and firmly let the horse know that biting is unacceptable. Slapping, punching, yelling may or may not work, and, in fact, may make the problem worse.
The best prevention is to beat the horse at his own game. Some horses seem to be born "mouthy" and in some cases this means they are looking for attention. One of the best techniques with such a horse is to realize this need for attention.
By petting, giving head hugs, rubbing noses, ears, forehead, jaws and giving the horse roughage to gnaw on, the horse's oral urges may be met, thereby preventing aggressive nipping or biting of handlers.
Correction for nipping should be immediate, but not severe. When a horse begins picking at you with his mouth, it is important to give him gentle but persistent attention by rubbing his nose and head. Keep this up until he stands quietly with his head away from you.
Another technique is focusing on an exercise that requires movement by the horse. When you focus on getting him to go forward, then backing him up, then having him move to the left or right, hewill soon tire and forget about the prior attempt to nip or bite.
Yielding to pressure is another exercise to help change the horse's mind set. Using a lead rope, concentrate on sending him off at a trot, then bringing him back and asking him to soften his head and neck, stop, then change directions and work on the exercise until the horse works up a sweat. Let him stop and see if he will stand quietly without bringing his head near you.
The horse will learn that certain actions mean that he will have to go to work. Through repetition, the horse will realize that aggressive behavior results in dominant behavior from you, which in turn, results in work; but responsive, respectful behavior brings a reward: rest and extra attention.
A biting horse should be taught to keep his distance by insisting that he stand approximately three feet away from the you. A horse will soon recognize dominance and discipline if it is consistent and timely each and every time he becomes nippy or mouthy.
If nipping and biting continue, a professional horse trainer should be engaged to work through the problem.
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