Q&A Questions and Answers:
I found your web site while looking for some insight into a problem I'm having with a 6 year old gelding, "Checkers." He's a sweetie, and gentle most of the time. I've only recently purchased him but have known him since birth and have always been impressed by his gentle spirit and willingness to please. I used to ride with his former owner but stopped after a while because she rode too fast and hard for me taking undue risks. (and drinking alcohol on the trail). I know she had a heavy hand with him.
I've had him for two weeks now, and have been brushing him and handling him several times weekly. He was very well behaved at first, although he nipped at me a few times. When he nipped at me I just gave him a firm "No" and when he actually connected with me and bruised my hip I smacked him on the shoulder and told him again and he seemed to submit. I had to have a friend hold his head while I mounted and he behaved perfectly under the saddle.
Yesterday I felt he was relaxed and enjoying his grooming time, but as soon as I saddled him up and tried to mount him he began to try to nip at me again and again. This time my friend was in another pasture and I was just taking my time trying over and over again to ask him to stand nicely so I could mount him safely. After about five tries he flat out pushed me off of my feet with his head and bit me really hard. I'm bruised from ribs to hip.
What bothers me is this..... I don't want to feel afraid of him, and I feel comfortable smacking him with a crop (which I did after he bit me) but I'm not willing to hurt him or "really lay into him" as his former owner advised me to do upon my return home last night. My other horses have never given me this much trouble as far as me questioning my safety in handling them. I treat them all with a gentle but firm manner and have had excellent responses for years.
He's my first young horse. He's been treated roughly and ridden fast and hard whereas we enjoy a quiet and peaceful trail ride, with some running - but very little. I'm concerned for the safety of my children and feel heartbroken because I love Checkers, but don't want to risk one of them getting pushed around or stepped on.
So my question is... How would you handle this? Is it possible to gain his trust and respect without a heavy hand after it's already been an established way of life for him?
I'm a homeschooling mother of three boys and my time with the horses is precious.... I'd prefer to spend it in a relaxed easy-going style and I wonder if this big guy may be too much trouble for me right now???? It's four a.m. and I can't sleep because I'm now worried about putting my children and me at risk, and also wondering if there is a simple solution to this?????
Thanks for your time,
Of all the vices a horse may have, I have the least tolerance for biting. A horse may buck or rear and you can ride it out and teach him that it doesn't do any good. Biting, however, can do serious damage and - if left uncorrected - turn into a dangerous vicious streak.
I generally advocate a gentle approach with horses, but this is an area where I sometimes get downright harsh. Some folks may not agree with me on this, but I believe that a balance of strong positive and negative responses works best.
Let's start at the beginning: what could be causing Checkers to bite? All young stallions will bite as a way of establishing dominance in the herd, and horses that are gelded later in life tend to carry that practice with them. Even a stallion, however, can be taught not to nip. Part of that training is done in round pen work - where you teach the animal that humans always have a higher position in the herd hierarchy than horses.
Secondly, horses use nipping as a way of communication. Did you ever watch a horse that had an itch? It will walk over to a herd mate and start to nibble the second horse in the same spot that itches on its own body. The second horse will start nibbling the itchy spot on the first horse. As the first itch gets cared for, the first horse will move its nibbling to another spot, and the second horse will respond by nibbling the new spot... and so on.
(In the photo at right, the sorrel had an itch on its rump, so it sidled up to the paint and started nipping at the corresponding spot on the paint's rump. Ol' paint got the message and is obligingly taking care of the sorrel's itch!)
So, let's start by asking what Checkers is trying to say. Is he trying to see if you are truly the "lead brood mare" in this herd or if he is above you in the herd?
Is he trying to tell you that getting cinched up is painful - or something he associates with pain. You know those little D-rings in the middle of the girth? I'd be a wealthy man if I had a penny for every time someone tightened up a cinch without checking to see if one of the rings had flipped up between the horse and the girth. That's gotta hurt!
Also - as I mention in my answer to the "Do you ever get sore?" question -- a well-fitted saddle is important for the comfort of both horse and rider. That fifty-dollar saddle you pick up at a garage sale can be very expensive if it buys your horse a one-way ticket to the dog food factory.
[After I sent this reply to P.M., she e-mailed back to say that Checkers had always been ridden with a Western saddle -- and P.M. was using an English saddle! There's the problem!]
Assuming we've eliminated any sources of pain, how can we break the habit? In behavioral psychology classes they'll tell you that - for maximum effectiveness - both positive and negative responses must be given as quickly after the behavior pattern as possible. (One of the worst things a mom can do is tell a misbehaving child, "Just wait until your father gets home!" instead of immediately punishing the behavior.)
In this case, you need to be constantly alert to the fact that your horse will try to bite - and be prepared to give a sharp negative reward at the first motion toward nipping. A well-behaved horse may look around to see what you're doing. With a nipper, I'd like to train it to just stand and look straight ahead.
As you appear to be focused on grooming your horse, your actual attention needs to be on Checker's head - watching for the first sign of a coming bite. Are his ears laid back? Reach up and bend them forward as you tell him to relax and behave. Is he showing the whites of his eyes? Push his head forward and run your hand down his nose as you tell him to look forward. Are his shoulder or neck muscles tense? Pat his neck and head while cheerfully telling him what a good time you're both going to have.
Frankly, none of these things will stop him from biting, but they help build the base for the positive rewards later on.
Finally the moment will come when he decides to strike. As his head starts its first motion toward you, give him a sharp hit on the side of the muzzle with your fist or elbow. He'll look stunned. You look him in the eye and tell him not to even think about biting you. Harsh, yes, but communication within the herd is not always gentle nickers and whinnies. You have just communicated the fact of your dominance in terms he understands.
You can also reinforce the head-forward position and reduce the chance of him getting to you by hitching him to a ring or post on the off side. Give him just enough slack to feel slack when he's looking forward but to stop his head sharply if he makes a sudden swing toward you.
Next comes the positive reinforcement: After the cinch has been tightened, praise him for his good behavior by giving pats on the neck and head and slipping him a treat before you put the bridle on.
The training doesn't stop here. Try to always end your rides while he's having a good time. I sometimes slip my mount a treat when we're at the most distant point AWAY from home. (Yeh, I know, a horse isn't supposed to be allowed to eat when it has the bit in its mouth, but I do it anyhow!) This communicates the fact that going on a ride away from home is a good thing - not something for the horse to dread.
From time to time, go back to the round pen to reinforce your position above him in the herd.
I won't lie to you and say that this vice will go away quickly. Any horse habit is hard to break. You may need to stay alert to this danger for years. Teach your children to also be alert to this hazard - and how to punish him if he starts to nip. Checkers will need to learn that your kids also have a higher position in the herd than he does. Even teaching your kids how to do round pen work with Checkers is a good idea.
Will all of this work? Well, I've only been bitten once (a few others have tried). I used the approach outlined above, and after a fairly short period the nipping stopped. (But I'm alert to the danger when I'm next to any horse - no matter how well-behaved.)
So what are you doing, sitting there and reading this? You've got a horse to train!
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