Issues From The Ground: Biting In Showmanship Class

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: When I work with my horse on showmanship, she tries to bite me. What should I do? Should I hit her? Thank you.

Answer: Biting is an aggressive behavior and can be made worse by irritating and crowding a horse’s space. Does he bite at you at other times, or just when you are doing Showmanship or just when you are in the show ring?

My guess is that your horse is actually biting because you are using a standard halter chain under the chin, as is expected in a Showmanship class. Often horses that are trained excessively with a chain develop the habit of biting. The horse may also learn that he can only get away with the biting when he is in the show ring where he learns that you will not correct him for it.

Hitting him for biting will only increase his irritation with the whole thing. While some correction definitely needs to be made, I think you need to avoid escalating his irritation and anger.

Here are some strategies I would suggest for fixing your relationship with your horse:

1) Instead of using a flat halter with a stud chain, practice your showmanship training with a rope halter and 12′ training lead (available on my website). The rope halter gives you way more control than using a chain without the constant pinching, pressure and irritation that the chain causes. Teach your horse to respond to your body signals so that you can fully work him without ever putting pressure on the lead.

2) Once your horse can work well on the ground in a rope halter, practice working showmanship patterns with the lead tied around his neck, so that he is cueing totally off your body language on not from the rope. Then you should be ready to use a regular flat halter and get the same response. You may not even need to use a chain and that should impress a judge!

3) Make sure you are not playing with your horse’s mouth at any time or hanging all over his face. Learn to keep a respectable distance between you and your horse. Don’t crowd his head. He should stand still and keep his nose in front of his chest whenever you are working with him. If he moves his nose from in front of his chest, gently correct it by poking a finger at him or tugging on the halter rope. Set this clear rule with him, “You must keep your nose directly in front of your chest as long as I am working with you.” If you set this clear rule and enforce it 100% of the time, in very short order, your horse will know his manners.

4) Make sure that you are not encouraging biting in other areas by hand feeding treats or letting your horse move into your space. Make sure you have a clear understanding of spatial issues as they relate to dominance. Biting is a dominant behavior. Study up on herd hierarchy and understand how horses establish dominance.

5) If you do correct a horse for biting (and you should), the correction must be made immediately. You only have 3 seconds to make a correction and the sooner the correction is made, the stronger the association between the behavior and the correction. If you can instantaneously correct, just poke the horse in the nose with a pointed finger. Do not hit at the horse’s head. If you are concerned about the horse becoming head shy (he won’t if the correction is timely) an alternative is to pinch the horse around the bottom neck muscle where it ties into his chest. The muscle is like a strap running down his neck and you’ll take about a 2-3 inch pinch between your thumb and index finger and the horse will really feel like he has been bitten back.

To me, the biting is always a symptom of a more important underlying issue that needs to be addressed, like a lack of respect and a lack of leadership. Hopefully in your case, getting rid of the chain is the only issue that needs to be addressed. Good luck! There are some informative articles on horse behavior in my Training Library that may help you.

Julie Goodnight

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