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cjdarlington 05-30-2010 06:06 PM

Curing Biting/Nipping with Natural Horsemanship
Let me start off saying I am really, really new to learning about horses in general, much less Natural Horsemanship. I took lessons as a kid and had a pony, but then spent eighteen years horseless. Now I volunteer at a local therapeutic riding center and in the last six months have been reading everything I can on Natural Horsemanship. I think I have at least a handle on it but know it will take years to fully grasp. I was introduced to NH by another volunteer at the barn who's a Parelli enthusiast. She's been a horse trainer for 40+ years and is a Level 2 graduate (was getting ready to submit her Level 3). So I got to watch her do the 7 Games in person, which helped me understand that philosophy.

But I don't want to just learn from one guy/gal, so I'm trying to learn from every NH person I can. Frank Bell, Gawani Pony Boy, Eric Bravo (a New Mexico horse trainer), etc.

I really want to learn NH rather than traditional because it just feels right, if you know what I mean. I want to learn how to communicate to the horse in its language rather than forcing it to learn mine.

So... that's just a little background.

I am struggling with learning how to cure biting/nipping in a horse using NH principles. The thing is, I read up on different trainers' philosophies, and some will say hitting the horse as a correction is okay (not on the face), while others say it isn't. I really, really don't want to resort to hitting a horse (I do understand the need for correction sometimes, of course, but I'm just talking about biting/nipping here).

My mind is going like this... the only time I can see it could be necessary to hit for correction is when you have a really aggressive horse that's literally trying to attack you or something. Then you do what you have to to get them away from you. But that's extremely rare.

I understand the first principle is to discover why the horse is biting. Is it out of fear or dominance? Would you say that is the way to cure biting without hitting? Discover the cause and fix that rather than try to put a band aid on the problem by correcting in the moment?

I have also been told that backing a horse up is a good way of curing biting in the moment (make it uncomfortable when he/she bites), and I have seen that work, but it seems to me that if you don't cure the underlying problem that's causing the nipping, then the horse might just go back to the nipping/biting.

Anyway, I know I'm going long here. This is my first post. I'd love to hear your thoughts! :-)

Scoutrider 05-30-2010 06:44 PM

Welcome to the forum, and kudos for looking into several different NH "brands" from the get-go. :wink:

In my experience, biting is either a domineering behavior from an aggressive horse or a defensive behavior from a frightened horse without a "flight" option. Mouthy, treat-searching nipping I lump into the aggressive category because there is no fear factor behind the bite.

For a fear-based biter, hitting isn't the course of action that I personally would take. A horse that is frightened and cornered enough to fight back with teeth is not going to respond well to a smack, and probably isn't in a frame of mind to be "reasoned" with either. For a true fight-flight biter, try to eliminate the frightening stimulus, whether that's a scary object or something inflicting pain. Then, go back to establishing respect and control by moving the horse's feet. If you can direct the horse's feet, you gain respect as a herd leader, worthy of trust. To put it simply, the horse begins to understand that you, as a respected and therefore trusted leader, would not place him in danger. That's the Reader's Digest version, there is a lot more theory and a lot of "brand variation", but most of NH follows a similar formula.

As far as the aggressive/spoiled biter, I would react to an attempted bite the same way a boss mare would toward an insubordinate herd member: nip back. I use a cupped hand, so it makes a lot of noise without much pain; all shock value. For things like being mouthy during girthing/grooming, etc., I like to let the horse punish himself for it. I keep my elbow in a position so that if the horse comes around he bumps into my elbow. That way, biting is made "hard", and I'm not associated in the horse's mind with the correction. Generally, girthiness and the like are the horse associating the tacking process with pain, so first we want to eliminate that, but the biting can remain as a habit once the discomfort is addressed.

I have yet to encounter a truely "vicious" biter of the charge and destroy variety, but they are out there, and personally I'd have to enlist a trainer's assistance or explore other options in such a situation.

Often, there is an underlying reason for biting, and the behavior ends when the fear/pain/confusion is eliminated, but equally often perfectly comfortable horses can be made into biters by the type of handling they receive. Then it becomes habitual, and increasing comfort won't do much to decrease the behavior. I have very little problem with getting after a horse for testing my position of authority. The testing is perfectly natural, as is the response of a higher-ranking herd member unwilling to move down the ladder. A good horseman can readily see the difference between defensive biting and aggressive biting, and respond accordingly.

Sorry, I got to rambling... e-cookies if you read it all. :lol:

cjdarlington 05-30-2010 07:25 PM

Thank you, Scoutrider! I did read every word. :-)

So the first thing to do is recognize the type of biting. Okay, that makes sense. And it also makes sense to cure the problem rather than the symptom.

But even if you find it's dominant biting, you don't think that smacking the horse (even gently) would cause them to become afraid of you? Because even though that's what a herd leader would do, no matter how hard we try we still look like predators to horses. At least that's what I've been thinking lately. My biggest concern is causing the horse to fear me rather than respect me.

Thanks again for your insights!

cjdarlington 05-30-2010 07:27 PM

What do you think of this article on biting?

My horse bites. (Lighten up Horsemanship)

kevinshorses 05-30-2010 07:42 PM

Why not pay attention to your horse and keep the horses mouth away from you? I see no reason for a horse to ever put it's mouth on me. Biting is just a symptom of a deeper problem. If you cure what is causing the biting then the biting won't happen again.

justsambam08 05-30-2010 07:55 PM

I don't like that article. The comparing of person/horse logic in the 8th paragraph doesn't go over well in my mind. Don't think of hitting or anything you may do to correct your horse in people terms; think of it in horse terms. If your horse were to do this in the wild, what would the appropriate action be from the lead mare? If its for aggressive biting, the most answer would certainly be to whoop his butt and remind him that he is under you, not the other way around. Whether that's through round penning, backing, or an in the moment poke of the finger or smack on the muzzle, swift action would definitely be neccessary. For fear biting, I'd say its not the horse that needs correcting, its you.

Also, don't think of horse as fragile-they really aren't. Swatting them on the chest, elbowing him to move their butt over, poking them in the ribs and whatever else we may do really has little effect on their overall mental well being, as long as its not done with the intent to harm.

Scoutrider 05-30-2010 08:16 PM


Originally Posted by cjdarlington (Post 647857)
Thank you, Scoutrider! I did read every word. :-)

So the first thing to do is recognize the type of biting. Okay, that makes sense. And it also makes sense to cure the problem rather than the symptom.

But even if you find it's dominant biting, you don't think that smacking the horse (even gently) would cause them to become afraid of you? Because even though that's what a herd leader would do, no matter how hard we try we still look like predators to horses. At least that's what I've been thinking lately. My biggest concern is causing the horse to fear me rather than respect me.

Thanks again for your insights!

If I have one issue with NH, it is the assumption that a horse cannot possibly see the human as anything other than a predator. If the predator/prey animal gap couldn't be crossed, there would be no way on earth that a human would ever get close enough to smack the horse or for the horse to bite the human; pony-puff would be across the state line, saving his hide the minute he got wind of a human. That's clearly not the case; we ride, compete, breed, and enjoy our horses, whether as partners, friends, colleagues, whatever. IMHO, it takes quite an experience to convince a domestic horse that a human is in the same league as an alligator or a cougar. We might "look like predators", but if we act like horses, and communicate on their terms, any instinctual fear atrophies pretty quickly. There are some good debates on this forum on the predator-prey animal dynamic.

Something that I would like to note is that if I smack a horse, the smack is part of the increased pressure of moving the horse out of my space yesterday. Pinning the horse to the wall and smacking him repeatedly is not the name of the game; essentially what I'm saying to the horse is "That was really bad, and I want you out of my space because my hand's gonna be there in a minute". Something I find key in correcting horses is dismissing emotion from the equation. If I'm leading a horse along, and he darts in and tries to nip, I will have a hand up to pop him and drive his forehand away. Once the horse is respectful, I go on as if nothing had happened.

If you have the opportunity, I strongly recommend visiting a herd of 10+ horses and just watching them interact in the pasture. If a lower-rung horse gets into the space of the alpha-horse, she (it's usually a mare) will react in the same way to a sudden "challenge" like a nip. She'll squeal, pin her ears, and push the challenger away, backing herself up with her teeth or heels if the challenger doesn't heed milder warnings. Just because she's a prey animal doesn't mean that she won't get a little physical to get her point across. When the lower-rung horse does as she asks, she goes back to "neutral".

IMHO, where "natural" horsemanship comes in is using the same kind of mechanism as alpha-mare to get your point across. The horse already understands what you're saying. Instead of going to Germany, flagging a German speaker down on the sidewalk and yelling at him in English, you try to communicate in a language that one party already knows: you take a stab at German. Instead of trying to teach the horse "human", you use "horse" to communicate.

I don't worry too much about my horse being afraid of me. Sometimes, a healthy dose of "fear" is what's needed, if you take my meaning. Not "OMG I hear her car pulling in, I'M GONNA DIE TODAY!" fear, but "she's nice, and she takes care of me, but I'd better do as she asks or there will be consequences" fear. I want the horse, for the safety of all involved, to have that second kind of "fear". I have smacked my horse before, and as far as fear goes, I have never had to do any more to catch him in the pasture than stand at the gate and whistle. 9 times out of 10 he beats me to the gate. :wink: He has several acres over which he could flee from me, but he chooses to meet me with nickering, pricked ears, and a friendly expression.

I read the article that you posted, and while some of the points are quite valid (such as the idea of moving the horse's feet to establish respect, and the difference between fear and aggression), there are others that I would like to qualify, if I may, mainly the portion about bits causing pain and fear: yes, bits are capable of causing pain and fear, but it isn't the bit that does it. It's the monkey holding on to the reins and jerking away, or the incorrectly adjusted headstall. Bitless is fine and dandy, but a bit, snaffle or otherwise, is by definition a communication tool, not a torture device. But, that's another topic that's had a lot of attention on other threads. :wink: Justsambam has excellent points as well.

Good heavens, I'm wordy tonight... sorry about that... :lol:

cjdarlington 05-30-2010 08:43 PM

Thank you all very much for your responses. :-)

I really appreciate hearing these thoughts. They're helping me make more sense out of all the various nuances of what NH really means.

I got in my head to never hit a horse, and I'm certainly not going to go out and start whallopping any for no reason, but being reassured that on occasion with dominance issues it can be necessary (if the correction isn't out of anger or with intent to really harm) helps me.

I saw someone really whack a horse on the face/nose with the end of a lead rope when the horse tried to bite them while being led into a mounting block, and it really struck me as inappropriate. I think I know why now. In that particular case (even though this is a usually dominant mare) she was biting out of fear of the mounting block, I think. Maybe fear out of being whacked again too. So it was just making the problem worse to hit this horse. But I digress...

This discussion teaches me that the best thing to do to cure biting is to first of all figure out the cause and fix it. If you can't do that (I'm a volunteer at a horse barn, which limits any training time I can do with them), then watch for the signs and avoid the mouth, pushing the horse away if they come into your space, using your elbow, etc.

Great discussion!

cjdarlington 05-30-2010 08:46 PM

Scoutrider... I'm glad you're being wordy tonight!! :) Oh, and btw... love your C.S. Lewis quote. Just heard the radio theater version of The Horse and His Boy tonight and man ... to have a horse like Bree. Made me wish horses could talk! But then again... wonder what they'd say to us. LOL

Delfina 05-30-2010 08:48 PM

When I got my horse, she would whip her head around and bite you if you were brushing her or doing up her girth. Why she started, I have no idea but her previous owners idea of "fixing" this problem was to only tack or untack her while she was chowing on a bucket of sweet feed.... not that it helped much, she took a CHUNK out of the owner's arm when my trainer put a saddle on her!

So when I started brushing her, I brushed her with my elbow out, so when she whipped her head around to bite, she smacked her nose into my elbow. After the 3rd or so smack, she decided biting wasn't much fun and gave it up. My 6yr old brushes her now without any issues. She realized that if you whip your head around, your nose ends up hurting! Hmmmm..... maybe I'll just stop whipping my head around!

Overall effect on her mentally? Well she no longer stands around all ticked off trying to chomp me one! More likely to find her falling asleep while being groomed now.

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