What if your horse has a tendency to bite you? How can you solve this behaviour?
The first question that has to be answered is: ‘Why does a horse bite people?’ If you want to solve a problem behaviour start with finding the cause and work from there.
There are many reasons horses bite people. In some cases it is just play or asking attention. Stallions and geldings can play for hours the ‘I bite you, try to get me back’-game. The reaction to the behaviour is usually also the reinforcer. In my experience stallions don’t care about pain during this game, so punishment will have very slim chances to stop this behaviour.
Horses can also bite because they feel a need to defend themselves and all the other body language that they displayed to warn you, has been ignored. The horse is not ‘whispering’ anymore but now he is ‘shouting’ in order to express himself. If horses are consequently punished for giving warning signs, they might decide one day to skip the warning signals and start attacking right away.
A horse can also start biting because he is in pain, for example a poorly fitting saddle or bridle. The horse starts to bite in reaction to the saddle during saddling, cinching or a mounting rider.
Maybe the horse is not biting but nibbling and that is mistaken for biting. Horses nibble out of curiosity, they nibble during mutual grooming or because they like to take objects into their mouths due to teething or being playful.
Biting also can become learned behaviour if the cause of the behaviour is long gone, but they still gain something by it. Horses that are stabled in a very busy environment and are being touched by people all the time without liking it can start biting out of agitation in order for people to let them alone. They can still bite people even if they have moved out of that situation, just because it became a habit.
Mugging behaviour can also turn into biting behaviour if it has been reinforced or if the horse gets frustrated because he doesn’t understand when to expect a food reward and when not to expect it. Some people stop feeding treats altogether, but I would suggest instead of avoiding the problem, solve it.
Sometimes we simply don’t know the cause but we still want to find a solution.
The best solutions are tailored to the cause. If a horse is playful, it won’t help if we buy another saddle for him. If the horse is in pain, solve the pain and make adjustments to prevent more pain.
It isn’t always easy to know or make an educated guess about the cause of the problem. Ask for a professional opinion of a horse behaviour specialist or ethologist to help you find solutions that are tailored to the cause and not just solved by punishing or avoiding the behaviour all together.
Biting can be a very dangerous behaviour. Always take (an attempt) to bite you seriously, even if it is play. It still can be dangerous. I personally know three people who lost a (part of their) finger, two due to their own horse.
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