KBR Quick Tip

Lippy, Nippy Horses

Don't Teach Your Horse to Bite!

1995, Willis & Sharon Lamm

Horse bites are serious business. Whether playful or serious, they hurt, tear clothes, and establish in the horse's mind that it's OK to put teeth on humans. One woman in our area died when her horse bit her in the throat, so even playful approaches can have serious consequences.

Having no hands or paws, horses by nature are very oral, their mouths being the only practical tool with which to explore their environment. Grooming, caressing, scolding, and signs of dominance between horses all typically include oral displays and contact by lips and teeth.

A young colt in a group of older horses will often introduce himself by clacking his teeth non-aggressively. "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" is an expected social behavior among horses and many experts attribute clacking as a request to join in. As horses get older, they will nip or bite each other to test who is dominant in the herd in addition to reciprocal grooming activities. It's important that we understand these different behaviors so that we can redirect them when our horses display these habits towards us.

The Grooming Reflex

Young horses in particular tend to get nippy when groomed. Being groomed without having to reciprocate is not a natural concept, but youngsters must learn early on that they don't put their teeth on humans.

We stop grooming when the colt turns to groom us in return and reassure him that it's OK to accept grooming without having to "scratch back". We don't resume grooming until the colt's head is again straight. If we groom well, massaging the hide, the colt usually enjoys it and will soon learn that this pleasure only comes when he is standing square.

If the colt is already a nipper, an immediate, calm but firm response is required every time the colt attempts or makes contact. We get the colt to stand square, head forward, before resuming our task.

Playful Nips

Colts will learn specific situations where it's not OK to nip but will still test other situations such as biting humans in the back when picking hooves. Be aware of these possibilities and keep an elbow or arm free to move the colt's head away.

When leading a colt we like to keep the end of the lead rope free. When he reaches for a playful nip, we can quickly twirl it across his muzzle and back him off. If a colt nipped an older horse while walking, the older horse would immediately nip back to say "Yes, I'm boss", or land an irate slap of the tail on the youngster. The flick of a rope is a quick, non- injurious way to establish this point. A riding bat is also a useful tool for this purpose for those not handy with ropes.

Teething Youngsters

Some youngsters will experience gum discomfort when teething and will exhibit oral behavior. We don't want these guys learning to chew down the stable.

We like to leave some free choice grass hay out for the youngsters. It gives them some roughage to gnaw on to satisfy their oral urges. We also like to keep youngsters in ample sized corrals or pastures. The additional movement is better for their hoof development and they are less likely to develop chewing habits in order to relieve boredom.

Taking Advantage of Oral Behavior

Another trick we use when working with a lippy, nippy colt is to take him by the muzzle when he reaches to nip and inspect his mouth, probe around, etc. If he wants to be oral, we will use that focus to teach him to accept our dental inspections, wormings, etc. When doing this, however, it is important to be logical and practical with our "examinations," not to torment the horse and go so far as to make him mouth shy.

Key Points

Correction for nipping must be immediate, not severe. Colts recognize dominance and discipline based upon the timeliness and appropriateness of disciplinary action. To overreact often triggers a fear reflex which reduces the effectiveness of behavior modification. Getting angry may make the human feel better, but it does little to solve the problem as the horse may only recognize such displays as eccentric behavior, not discipline.

Be prepared for oral approaches so that they can be corrected just as they start with the least amount of discipline. As soon as the horse corrects himself, back off on the discipline, give him a few seconds to absorb the situation, then resume your original activity. (Most horses will lick their lips when they've absorbed a concept. Give the colt time to "digest" this new thought.)

Be consistent. Young horses will naturally test situations to see if correction still applies. If will usually take a few repetitions, and corrections, for the horse to realize that nipping is never OK.

Ride safely and enjoy yourself!

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KBR Quick Tips, 1995 Lamm's Kickin' Back Ranch and Willis & Sharon Lamm. All rights reserved. Duplication of any of this material for commercial use is prohibited without express written permission. This prohibition is not intended to extend to personal non-commercial use, including sharing with others for safety and learning purposes, provided this copyright notice is attached.
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