My Horse Nips at Me?!?
"I don't want to yell at him. What should I do?"
I recently came across a post on social media in which someone asked the group “My horse nips at me, I don’t want to yell at him. What should I do?”
As you can imagine there was a flood of answers involving punching, elbowing, pinching, beating, and even biting the horse to get it to stop nipping. Sadly enough, no one asked for more information about the circumstances surrounding the behavior or suggested the owner try to figure out why her horse was nipping at her.
I couldn’t help but chime in expressing the importance of both of these points. Reading the comments that flooded in after mine I know my point was lost on some but still thought it was worth it to dive a little deeper on the topic here in the blog just in case it could help someone find a more effective way to nip their biting problem in the bud.
So what are the logical steps to take with a nipping horse and why shouldn't we just shut the bad behavior down with a good wack?
Let’s start with the later…
Smacking my horse when he bites seems to work so what’s the problem with fixing the issue this way? There are a few problems with using fear to shut down a horse’s unwanted behavior. The biggest issue is that fear only works if the horse is afraid of the person it’s interacting with. Most of us have met at least one horse that is very well behaved around horse savvy adults but get it around non-horse people or kiddos and the story changes pretty quickly. “The horse must be taking advantage of the newbies” -Nope horse’s brains don’t use reasoning that way, rather what happens is that the trigger to nip is greater than the learned fear response as the horse is not fearful of the new person or the child. This unreliable “solution” puts everyone’s safety at risk.
But can’t the horse just learn to generalize? Biting = Punishment
Nope. Picture a horse, will call him Nibbles, he lives in a herd with 5 other horses. He walks up to horse #1 and bites it on the neck, horse #1 pins his ears and chases Nibbles out of his space. Nibbles learns biting horse #1 is not a good idea, don’t do it again. Do you think Nibbles will try biting the other four horses? Or has he learned that biting any horse => results in a negative response? Spoiler alert: if he’s triggered to bite the other horses he’s going to even if it means he might get chased off. Horse #1 has not solved Nibbles’ biting issues for everyone just as you smacking a horse for biting doesn’t ensure it won’t bite another person.
Now that we know why shutting down nipping with fear is not a reliable solution what should we do instead?
Understand the trigger and you’ll be able to solve the problem. You’re going to need to observe your horse very closely. When does he nip, what is happening before, during, and after nipping? Make note of as many factual details as possible about the nipping incident. Look at the horse as a whole. What is his health like? Does he have any other behavior issues? Has he had any physical issues such as ulcers, alignment/skeletal issues, dental problems, pain issues, hormonal imblances? What environmental factors might be coming into play? How does his tack fit? How does he get along with his herd mates? Is he eating a balanced diet?
*One thing to note if you are calling in a vet to evaluate possible pain issues as a cause for the behavior you will still want to get the facts down so you can give the vet a clear picture of what your horse is trying to show you. Way too often I hear from people that say their horse was evaluated by a vet and they found nothing wrong when there was a major medical issue going on. Vets only see the horse for a brief period during the appointment. It’s your job as an owner to know and point out specific areas of concern. The owners that throw their hands up and say “I don’t know what the problem is, I’m not the vet – that’s their job to figure out” are doing their horse’s an injustice and making their vet’s job much harder, leading to a lack of medical assistance or misdiagnosed issues.
Another factor to consider is whether or not the behavior is being involuntarily reinforced. For example, if your horse nips during feeding time and is then thrown hay he will learn quickly nipping => hay.
Once you get the facts down try to look for patterns to determine what might be the root cause triggering the behavior. Then you can start to experiment with modifying the situation to see how it affects his behavior.
Don’t be afraid to call in a pro that specializes in equine behavior.
The cause of biting issues can be tough to pinpoint and often have multiple factors triggering them. Calling on advice from an equine professional that specializes in behavior issues is the safest and quickest way to get your horse back to being the happy, trustworthy citizen you know they are capable of being.
When looking to the pros for help with behavior issues be sure to choose someone that is going to see the whole picture not just shut your horse up with fear- they must have a strong understanding of equine behavior. Like we talked about earlier it doesn’t do much good if your horse only stops biting the big scary trainer, you need to be able to trust them not to bite your child or the nosey neighbor who wanders over with a bag of carrots.
If you want professional assistance solving your horse’s current behavior issues please feel free to contact me here. I’d be happy to chat with you further about creating a plan to get your horse back on track.