Q: My 10-year-old all-around gelding has started trying to nip at my hand when we set up for inspection, as well as when we stand in the lineup during showmanship. He’s really good at showmanship, other than this new quirk. How can I break the habit?
—Jordan Meyer, North Carolina
A: This is a pretty big fault in showmanship classes. It’s a learned behavior—somehow, your horse has been made to feel that crowding your space and even nipping at your hand is OK. It’s certainly not, and can even become a safety issue for you as a handler. His nipping behavior can then lead to resistance when leading and less responsiveness to your cues. Both are also faults in showmanship, and just bad manners for general handling.
It’s imperative that you instill respect in your horse for all aspects of handling, whether for showmanship or everyday groundwork. Part of that respect is the horse staying in his own space. It’s also necessary to let the horse know that he can’t control you by invading your space or nipping at your hand.
I’ve heard people suggest poking at the horse’s muzzle when he tries to nibble, but I don’t recommend that. Jabbing at your horse’s face only serves to make the problem worse. You’re getting in his space when you poke at him, when what you really need is for him to get out of your space. Also, he’s likely to jump back when you poke his muzzle, so it’s not a tactic you could use at a show without disturbing the horses on either side of you in a lineup.
Start by checking to see if your lead shank is so short, that your horse doesn’t have any choice but to get in your space. Also, never hold the lead shank by the chain.
With your hand position in check, use the following steps to remedy your horse’s unwanted behavior.
When your horse gets in your space, use a long, slow pushing motion to move him back into his own “bubble” and out of yours. Using this less-aggressive approach, as opposed to poking at his muzzle or jerking the chain, means your horse won’t develop a jumpy mindset when you get into his space. Once his head is back in his own space, get yourself back into proper showmanship position. Repeat the pushing motion every time he gets in your space, no matter if he nips at your hand or not.
If your horse only exhibits this behavior in the show pen, plan regular mock showmanship classes at your barn. It’s likely that your barnmates also have horses that cheat at something or have developed bad show-pen habits, so everyone will benefit from the faux class. Get all the “exhibitors” lined up, like you would in a class, and ask someone to act as “judge.” Put your horse in the scenario he experiences in a show class, so that you’re setting him up for the chance to act out, all the way from inspection by the judge to the entire class being lined up for placing. The only difference in the mock show is that points and prizes aren’t on the line, and you can correct his space-invading behavior without true penalty. If you go to a real competition and your horse acts out, don’t hesitate to correct him—consistent correction is key. Continue to show him that he can’t get away with this behavior in any situation. Don’t ignore his nipping in hopes of winning a ribbon. By doing so, you’d reinforce his belief that the rules are different when he’s in the show pen.
One final word about mouthiness: This behavior can develop from feeding treats. It’s easy to see why, if you hand- feed your horse treats on a regular basis, he’d search your hands—and nip—for treats. If you must feed treats to your horse, try doing so from a bucket, so he doesn’t associate them with your hands.
Sara Simons, Aubrey, Texas. A past APHA Leading Exhibitor and winner of more than 30 world titles, Simons trains horses and coaches youth and amateur riders from Simons Show Horses, which she owns with her mother, Andrea, and sister, Jana. She’s an approved judge for APHA, NRHA, and NSBA.