How do I deal with a horse that nips and bites?
It is important to answer this question within the confines of the horse brain and what the horse brain can understand.
With that in mind, a few words on the horse brain. Horses live in herds, they have a hierarchy to answer to. There are dominant horses, submissive horses, and those that fall in between. The result is a linear pecking order of the herd, with each horse being ranked top to bottom. How do herds figure this out? By the personalities, or horseanalities, in the herd. Horses communicate largely with body language. Humans use words as a primary communication, horses use their ears, heads, necks, rumps, legs, tails, and everything in between to communicate.
Horses exert dominance over their herd mates by moving them around.
They can lower their heads and necks and move their mates, they can kick, chase, and nip and bite. It’s important to know that horses also communicate with body language when they are around humans, and it’s our job to read and decipher this.
With respect to nipping and biting in particular, this is the horse’s way of telling the handler (that would be you) that they are in charge.
Do you really want to climb aboard a horse like that? I wouldn’t! It’s an issue of your own personal space, also. A horse that is allowed to nip and bite knows that he can invade your personal space and boss you around. It starts with allowing him to move his head towards you, or have you come towards his head. We do this when we dote on their soft noses, give them cookies, let them rub their itchy eyes on us, when we let them even turn and look at us or turn towards us when we are leading them.
As a general rule, when you are working around your horse his head needs to be front and center.
If he moves towards you, use your hand high on his neck or his cheek and move him over. Period. He is not allowed to come into your space. If he can’t come into your space, he can’t bite you. This will also teach him that you are the leader, not him.
Poke here as he swings around. Major coordination required.
There’s much debate on what you should do if your horse manages to get a nip or a bite in. I’m not a fan of hitting or negative punishments, most horses don’t understand this.
You can easily train your horse to stay out of your personal space with positive reinforcement (not treats for a biter!). If he turns his head toward you, push him away and reward. The VERY FIRST thing I taught my horse with the clicker was “look away”. I also have taught him “back”, and now I can say the words, make the hand signal, and he obeys. I can even have him do these “tricks” from the saddle, in the cross ties, open in the paddocks!! Here he is (below) showing us his "look away"...
Teach your horse to stay out of your space. This is Comet, demonstrating "Look Away".
If your horse is relentless in the nipping, you can do a few things to just not get nipped.
If your reflexes are super sharp, as they need to be, poke your horse on the cheek as he’s swinging around. You can also hand walk him with your right elbow aimed at his lips, if he swings over he will “punish himself” by getting elbowed in the face/muzzle. The act of raising your elbow is often enough. There are dozens of techniques out there, but remember that you have a nano second to correct the behavior so your horse can make the connection in his horse brain. Wear a brush on your arm, make him back up, pretend to bite him back with a twisting pinch on his neck, the list goes on. I don’t suggest trying any of these things without getting the help of a professional that has credible experience with behavioral issues.
One last thought...
Your horse will always be trying to tell you something with his behavior. Perhaps you know the horse that reacts to grooming or a girth with attacking the cross ties? Maybe this is his way of saying "NO, that hurts." Try and frame his biting and nipping behavior within the context of the situation.
Remember that nipping and biting is a dominance issue - and one that can escalate! How have you dealt with a horse that nips and bites?