Does punishment work to solve a biting horse problem?
The short answer is “no”.
The middle length answer is “definitely not”.
And the long length answer is “I don’t think so”, in a gently sarcastic tone of voice accompanied by an eye roll. You know, that eye roll accompanied by a hair flick that your teenager gives you when they are being a pain in the butt?
There’s all kinds of reasons for horses to bite
There’s all kinds of reasons for biting horses, but punishment only serves to add pressure to the fear or confusion or resistance that they are already feeling and almost always makes whatever the cause is, worse.
Biting horses can be frustrated because we aren’t hearing them, biting horses can think they are defending themselves, biting horses can be playful, bored, up to mischief, sad, they can be a bit anxious or even REALLY scared, they can be angry about something or they may just have formed a habitual response somehow – but they are never, never, NEVER a bad horse.
We may not have caused the problem, but we ARE the solution.
Bobby’s brother was a REALLY bad biter.
I’ve got a great story about Bobby’s brother from waaaayyy back, before even Bobby’s Diaries was written, to demonstrate very dramatically why punishing doesn’t work to change a biting horse from biting. That’s him in the photo above.
Monty was a VERY bad biter, right up there as one of the kings of the biting business. 17 and a half hands of muscled up teeth who, in his owners words, “had some very dangerous habits, on the ground and under saddle. He was constantly biting – no matter how much I reprimanded him, he would not stop.”
He had savaged her non horsey partner, who was no longer willing to go in the paddock and fed him if he had to, by leaning over the gate with a piece of poly pipe in his hand to protect himself.
Her friends had told her to her face that they were worried about him killing her. “Get rid of him!” they said repeatedly.
What she did to change her biting horse
This is a story from a clinic about 12 years ago and we would do things even better and a lot gentler now.
In the clinic, she did her brand new leadership at liberty work and did it beautifully. And here he was … coming into her with soft legs, soft eyes and the most beautiful energy … and then with the most beautiful energy …
… he bit her again!
I was flabbergasted! I’d never seen anything like it and I remember it sat me back so hard that it took me a moment to figure out what was happening. Monty had only ever been told biting was unacceptable when he was in his, what I call the “oh shit I am dead” zone. In the oh shit zone, the horse can only react the same way that they have done in the past (us too!) They CAN’T think in their Oh Shit Zone, so they don’t learn anything.
The way the brain works, Monty was reacting the same way all the time, even though that reaction was getting him whacked and not serving him at all. Because he was in his oh shit I’m dead zone, he didn’t learn anything at all from the whack that he got whenever he bit – only how to duck faster and avoid the whack.
He had reacted to the whacking, but never actually learned that biting was unacceptable. If you’re not familiar with the expression Oh Shit I’m Dead Zone, then I explain it in The Second Key to Happiness – I’ve put a link to those free lessons at the end of this article.
At the time for me, this was an amazing realization, with implications for all kinds of behavioral problems and training techniques. I have now this proved so often, with so many horses, consistently – that these days that knowledge has become part of my way of being with a horse.
To fix this biting, his owner had to change the way she was dealing with it – obviously the old way of punishing him for biting was not working. (There’s another derrr moment. If it’s not working, we have to change it. 🙂 )
So, instead of punishing him for biting in ways that put him into his oh shit zone, she aimed to keep him in his Not Too Sure Zone where he could learn new things, where he could learn that biting was unacceptable to her – where he could learn to co-operate and try – and where he could respond instead of just react.
In a very short period of time – minutes not hours – he had stopped biting at her altogether. I actually felt him looking at her with this quizzical look on his face, as if to say “You mean you don’t want me to do that?” The way that the biting had been dealt with in the past, he had never understood that before…
This had been going on for ten years, so this was a pretty amazing deal.
We go one step better now.
These days we have an even better way of stopping a horse from biting, using our Feel that you’ll hear me talking about all over this website 🙂 – starting with the early warning signal that something is Not Quite Right to take effective action even earlier, giving us more time to change things, so that you don’t need to be a Kung Fu master with the speed of Bruce Lee, to avoid getting bitten.
There are different reasons for a horse to bite and various solutions depending on those reasons. Start with the whole FREE LESSON series The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse – then it’s Fast Track to Brilliant Riding that will bring you a depth of Feel to make this a whole lot easier to change – and the rest of the solution.
If you only want to stop your horse biting and keep on doing everything else in the same old way, then I don’t think you’ll enjoy us so much – because the work that we do with horses here not only changes your whole relationship with your horse, it spills over yummy things into the rest of your life too. But if you’re up for change, then you’ll have all the support you need to help you here – I’m committed to it.