Our Caroline on staff is an incredibly intuitive, heart centred equine behaviorist and she’s written an excellent addition to the biting horse “problem”.
Caroline wrote: There are many reasons a horse may choose to bite, and the context of the situation will help give you the answer.
So for instance, in the video of Lesson 45, you can see the context is about grooming. It is an innate behaviour to reciprocate, when grooming is offered from their favoured grooming partner. To our eyes, this can be perceived as biting, and not pleasant for us. Some horses learn to just use their lips, which is lovely for us to receive from them.
Another context could be when one horse, asks another horse to move away but the 2nd horse isn’t quick enough in their response to earlier signals, then a bite from the first horse reinforces the request to move away. We can see this as a coping strategy in domestication, when a horse has learned that in order to move their human away they need to bite, usually because they can’t move away themselves, and because we haven’t seen the earlier signals. And there are any number of reasons why a horse might want us to move away.
Another example is play. And this is the one where a lot of us get caught up in the nipping game. Our horse play bites, and we automatically return it with a slap… Game on… If you watch horses at leisure, this is one of the favourite games with their close friends, but because of the escalating nature of the game, it becomes too much for us and we can become annoyed, maybe aggressive in order to stop it, or we can become anxious around our horse.
Hormones play their part too, especially when a young filly starts coming into adulthood. They can become very sensitive to touch, and depending on the horse, biting as they would for an insect, can start looking as if they are trying to bite us. They well maybe if we haven’t seen the early signs that they are irritated.
One of my young mares, became super sensitive to being touched at about 2 years old, and she showed me when and where she could tolerate being touched, with a super quick threat to nip, always just out of reach of my skin.
So before I touched her, I would ask by standing near the spot and waiting. I watched for the first signs of a “No”…. Ears, chin, head turn, the look in her eye, the tension in her skin or muscles, moving her feet, that sort of thing. If she was ok with me standing near, I would lift my hand close to the spot I wanted to touch, and wait again. I would talk to her, telling her and visualising where I was going to touch, and wait for any signs of “No”. If she showed me “No”, then I would step back, one or more paces. She learnt very quickly that I was mindful of her sensitivity, asking how she was feeling before doing anything, and the threat to nip lessened dramatically.
There was still the odd day when just by standing close to her, she would offer a nip to move me away. When this happened, I gently placed my hand on the side of her face, and asked her to put her head away from me. Her positive reinforcement on these occasions was a treat, because as yet, we hadn’t discovered her favourite itchy spot.
But the beauty of her skin sensitivity, created a rapport between us, for I was the best person for removing ticks from her udders, her MOST sensitive part. And even a single tiny tick was perfect, because for me to remove it, she learnt to move her body slowly and gently allowing my fingers to find it.
As we practiced this way of being together, her nipping stopped and she just used facial expressions, and then later all she had to do was move her body slightly away from my hand if I’d touched a sensitive spot. Later still, when her skin sensitivity subsided, she was happy for me to touch anywhere.