Babies, Don’t Bite!
Babies like to have their mouths on everything. But the behavior that helps them learn to nurse and get nourishment can become annoying and even dangerous if allowed to continue past the first months of life. Lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) and eventually leads to biting. These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the young horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries to see if he can gain dominance over you.
It has been my experience that horse owners escalate the behaviors by allowing their horses to enter their personal space. By nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time, the horse begins to think that the lipping behavior is acceptable and continues. Another common action that leads to nipping/biting is when you hand feed treats to horses. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you will be the dominant leader and one of you will be the subordinate follower. If you were dominant in his mind, he would not dare move into your space or put his lips or teeth on you.
Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water) and by controlling the space of the subordinate members (running them off, pushing them around). If you allow your horse to move into your space at all, it confuses the dominant-subordinate relationship. Horses are much more aware of spatial issues than humans are. When we get horses in training here at my barn, whether youngsters or older horses, one of the first rules of behavior they will learn is to never move into our space with any part of their body, including the nose. Most people constantly allow their horses to move into their space especially with its nose. In fact, it is often encouraged by feeding treats or by playing with the horse’s nose. All of these actions confuse the horse and make him think he is dominant.
With youngsters, it’s important for you as the handler to establish what distance is allowed and what’s too close. Do not stand close to your horse’s face or pet him on the face and do not allow him to move his nose toward you at all while you are working around him. Every time he moves his nose toward you, correct him by poking a finger in his cheek or just pointing at his nose until he puts it back to its proper place, in front of his chest. I’m not advocating pain at all, but a correction similar to what another horse would do to say he wasn’t pleased with the behavior. If you establish this basic rule (your nose must stay in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn this important ground manner quickly. Also, any time any other part of his body moves toward you, back him out of your space. This will help him to learn a respectful distance and to be respectful of your space as the dominant herd member.
When the colt reaches out to nip or bite, you should instantly correct him. This correction must come instantly without any pause at all on your part. The optimal time for a correction is one-half second after the behavior, in order for a strong association between the behavior and the correction to be made by the horse. There is a 3 second window of opportunity within which to reward or correct a horse, but the sooner in that 3 seconds the correction or reward occurs, the more meaningful it is to the horse, and the optimal time is one half second.
If you are leery of poking the horse in the cheek, then you can give him a pinch on his neck, to simulate the alpha horse biting him. Take your thumb and index finger and give him a hard squeeze at the base of his neck muscle. Wrap your fingers around several inches of the big strapping muscle that defines the bottom line of his neck and then give a quick sharp squeeze. This will give him quite a shock and simulates biting. It gives him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. Your timely and appropriate response will teach him manners instead of allowing the behavior to escalate and possibly become dangerous. A horse that bites is dangerous and you don’t want the baby you love to be exiled or kept away from horses and humans in the future.
I want to reinforce the fact that as likely as not, the human is the one that has made the horse nippy by crowding his space, playing with his mouth, feeding treats and allowing the horse to push him around. So make sure that you correct your behavior too, if necessary, so as not to encourage the horse to be disrespectful.