Most horses have affable personalities, but every now and then you may come across one that's downright disagreeable.
They may be calm when you're riding them, but go into attack mode when you try to do any work with them on the ground. Sometimes horses are so combative that they'll reach out over their stall door and try to bite people as they pass by.
Why Horses Bite
Play. "Colts who are turned out in a field together often spend hours nipping at each other," says Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University. But when a horse applies the same playful bite to a human, the result can be a major loss of flesh.
Pain or fear. Sometimes horses bite people when they're afraid or in pain. A new groomer or handler can prompt a nervous horse to nip out of fear. If you've pinched your horse in the past when you have saddled or harnessed him, he may try to bite you the next time you saddle him.
Aggression. Some horses, particularly stallions, are innately aggressive. "Biting is related to a natural combativeness in males," says Dr. Dean Scoggins, Equine Extension Veterinarian at the University of Illinois. "Stallions tend to use their teeth when they fight. Mares, on the other hand, are more apt to kick."
As biting is a natural instinct, it is important not to reinforce it by playing tug of war with foals or adult horses whenever they want to chew on a lead shank, your jacket, or something else.
How to Cure a Biter
Biting is serious business. Drs. Houpt and Scoggins offer the following suggestions for preventing an injury and breaking the habit:
Discipline him. When he nips at you or tries to bite you, tell him "No!" in a firm tone of voice and jerk the lead rope. Or give him a squirt in the face from a water bottle. Or keep a pin handy and prick him when he nips you.
Defend yourself. Be ready to block him with your elbow if he tries to bite. Hold your fist up near his mouth so as he swings his head around to bite, he bangs into your knuckles, Scoggins suggests. Or, let him bang his head into your raised elbow as he turns around.
Don't pinch him. If you've accidentally pinched him in the past, make a special point to be careful. A horse that bites when being girthed (or saddled) can be cured by careful girthing – although it may take several months before you regain his confidence.
Reward him. If your horse is fearful, give him a treat when he acts friendly. "He will quickly learn that acting friendly is followed by good things," Houpt says, "and learn to like the fact that you're coming into the stall."
Redirect your horse's behavior. When your horse acts like he's ready to bite, have him do something incompatible with biting, such as back up or bow on command. Try to squelch bad behaviors before they happen.
Take special precautions when around a known biter. Carry a small stick when the horse is being led. Put a muzzle on your horse or tie him to a ring on the wall while you groom him. Wear protective clothing so if your horse does bite, he won't do much damage; a thick sweater and jacket and heavy-duty gardening gloves will usually do the trick. "Do what you can to take away the danger and risk of being bitten," Scoggins says, "because a horse bite can be very severe."