Q:My 3-year-old Quarter Horse gelding has been started well on the ground and under saddle. But he nips at me at times and has actually bitten me on my arm twice. I do hand feed him treats, and he does get mouthy, looking for a treat when I'm leading him. What do you suggest to correct this behavior?
A: Linda, you're wise to want to correct this problem now. No one wants to be bitten by a horse. The average horse of any breed has the ability and power in his jaws to take hold of a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound man by the back of his neck and toss him 20 feet.
When a horse bites a human, it's a true sign of disrespect. It's a rude, dangerous behavior and must be corrected immediately.
There are several reasons a horse may bite a human: (1) to protect territory; (2) out of frustration, which he might feel if you push him too fast physically or mentally; (3) to protest being worked - always be aware of your horse's mood; and (4) due to hand-feeding.
Hand-feeding is the most common reason for a horse of any age to start nipping and biting. Most hand-fed horses develop pushy, rude, disrespectful, dangerous behavior toward humans. They learn to expect hand-fed treats and will demand them through aggressive body language.
I give my horses treats and grain in a pan. A barn sign reads, "Please Do Not Feed Fingers To My Horses."
Some people don't agree with me. Even some trainers hand-feed. But most of the top trainers I personally know don't hand-feed, for the reasons just described.
Some people believe hand-feeding is a necessary training reward. It isn't! There are many ways to reward a horse in training. A great reward is giving your horse a soft pat and rub on his shoulder and neck, and telling him he did well. Release of applied pressure is also an effective reward.
Here's how to correct your horse's nipping and biting problem. (As you perform these steps, always stay safe. If you need help, consult a qualified trainer/clinician in your area.)
Step 1. Stop hand-feeding! Give your horse treats and grain in a bucket or pan.
Step 2a. Pop his muzzle. Every time your horse nips or bites you, let him know that you won't put up with the behavior. Immediately after a nip, bite, or attempted nip or bite, use the open palm of your hand to pop him on the muzzle. As you do, loudly and firmly say, "Knock it off!"
Note: You must apply this discipline within three seconds of the nip or bite. Otherwise, your horse won't relate his biting behavior to the discipline, and the discipline will lose its desired effect.
Step 2b. Twitch his nose. If you'd rather not pop your horse on his muzzle, use your index finger and thumb to grasp his nose between his nostrils, and twitch the skin firmly. Do this after every bite/nip, and he'll soon tire of being twitched by your fingers.
Step 3. Reassure him. About 20 seconds after you've disciplined your horse, give him a soft pat on his shoulder, and tell him in a soothing voice that everything is okay. If you neglect to do this, he may cease to think of you as his trusted leader, and may become flinchy around you.