How to deal with a horse that bites?

There are so many different ways that people choose to deal with a horse that bites, what do you do?

I own a horse who is lovely and respectful while I lead her and ride her, but when I groom her, brush her, or tack her up she snaps and throws her head around or bites.(Her saddle is custom fit to her and she did this before I owned her, so health issues aren’t the cause of the problem)
My trainer used to tell me to give her a hard poke on the neck/ yank on a chain lead rope/ a hard whack to get her to stop. I really hate doing that, so I tried to avoid it, but the times I did it my horse wouldn’t really care, or she would only stop nipping for a little while. I tried leaving a lead rope on while she was cross tied so that if she tried to bite me I could jiggle the rope to get her to stop, but it only made her stop once she already went to bite and didn’t carry over to when she was without the rope.
Now, I try to talk to her/ let her know she is ok even more than I did before and if she tries to snap or bite I push her neck so her face is facing away from me. She still snaps but it is much less/to a lesser degree than before and she seems so much happier and genuinely happy to spend time around me.
So, I am happy that her bad behavior lessened and that she seems to be all around happier/warmer, but I would like to stop the nipping all the way.

What do you think? How do you respond when(if) your horse goes to bite you? Some people are ok with hitting their horses if they bite, others go for alternate methods: what is your stance? Any suggestions for my situation?
(sorry for the ramble!)

Luckily I haven’t had to deal with a biter, but I’ve heard pinching the nostrils (“biting them back”). And if you don’t do it right away you’ve missed the window so you shouldn’t try to correct it because the horse won’t understand why.

And of course the famous Black Stallion trick of putting a hot potato under your shirt.

I start with a loud noise. If that doesn’t deter, a quick rap with my hand on the neck.

I did have to escalate with a lesson horse once. He would bite when you girthed him, even very loosely. He would snake his head around and bite at your thigh/hip/side. He connected once and got my shirt and a bunch of skin. It hurt! So I immediately bit him back on the neck near the withers. He looked surprised and we eyed each other for a minute. But after that I could always girth him up without any issues.

Horse doesn’t like being groomed or saddled, clearly. Some do, some don’t.

Might be a health issue, anything like tight muscles, ulcers, or even just ticklish skin. Might be a health issue in the past, and she has remembered this behavior. She might just feel like you are invading her space, and that it is OK to express that.

Since you sound like a relative beginner, the first thing I’d say is: don’t groom or tack up this horse without her being on cross ties or tightly enough tied that she can’t get at you to bite. Simple saftey step. She will still toss her head and bit the air, but you aren’t going to lose blood.

Second, spend time with her on the ground outside of being in a rush to tack up for a lesson or scheduled ride. Experiment with touching her all over, to see where the “ticklish” parts start and stop. See if she feels differently after a ride, when she is warmed up and relaxed. Etc.

In general, you want to respond to aggression from a horse at a reasonable equivalent level to what’s been offered.

If a horse came lunging at me, teeth bared, I’d have no qualms about hitting it anyplace to ensure my safety! But for a known, habitual nipper with a know trigger (grooming, saddling) I would not start slapping the face or anything like that as you will just compound the problem.

My mare hates being groomed and saddled, and has drawn blood in the past (mostly on my butt). I found that slapping her on the chest or shoulder was ineffective. We could play nip slap nip all day. What does work for her is to send her back sharply and decisively with the halter, make her scuttle her feet back the moment she does something aggressive. That’s how she play with other mares: the one that moves backward loses that round.

For this, of course, you need to horse to not be tied, and to be somewhere they can scuttle away (we have a stall/runout combo). You also wouldn’t want to do this with a loose saddle on her back! And while I found it effective in shutting down the head tossing and air snapping, she then started swinging her back feet around. I decided that was worse, and toned down on stopping the head tossing.

I started clicker training several years ago, and I found it effective to click and reward her for standing stock still for the saddle to be girthed. But that doesn’t stop her pinning her ears for the saddle pad, or for being brushed on her belly!

BTW, I did not find that handfeeding treats made this horse more nippy. Her bites were always when she was annoyed. She loves clicker training and tries very hard to be a good, good, girl for the duration of the session.

If it truly is she’s just a biter, and it isn’t an underlying physical issue, you DO need to do some quick and abrupt to interrupt her EVERY time she attempts to bite.

The reason smacking a horse in the nose rarely works to stop the behavior is because it’s late. If this is just nasty behavior, you need to not be late. So you position yourself in a place where you know she is going to try and bite. You wait it out and keep an eye on her but otherwise go about your routine. Soon enough, she will try it, and when she does your hand or elbow just happens to be there.

In other words, you don’t react. When the horse goes to bite, they run into your hand or forearm, instead of you hitting them. Small difference to us, major difference to the horse, because in their minds they caused the run-in. Much more powerful than us going after the horse.

I’ve resolved biting in two horses this way. It takes focus and timing, but it’s far more effective than almost anything else I’ve tried.

I once heard John Lyons say that a bit or a kick directed at a human is a horse using it’s “ultimate weapon” and that this means the human should react with massive retaliation.

This bothers some folks but considering that a horse is a one hp engine and can kick a full sized man several feet or crush bone with a bite I’m wondering why anyone would even consider half measures.

Even if the horse is in pain there is no, I say again NO excuse for aggression against a human.


Just don’t give her the chance to bite. Any time you interact with her, figure out the physical path she would have to take to bite you and block it. E.g. brushing her left flank? Keep your left elbow ready to block her muzzle as she turns to bite. Always keep her in your peripheral vision so you are ready.

My first horse was a habitual bitter. He was 13 yrs old when I bought him and had probably had this habit for years.

He mostly tried to bite when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. I tried literally everything to try to stop him.

One day he bit me and I was so frustrated that I grabbed his muzzle and bit him hard on the corner of his mouth! He was so shocked by this that he didn’t even try to bite me for two weeks!!

I realized that I couldn’t bite him back all the time, so I just got good at having eyes in the back of my head. I do think I have better peripheral vision because of him.

Difference circumstances slightly but I had a 4 mo old colt that tried to bite me, once. As he was closing in on my arm, I managed to completely connect with a flat hand whack on the side of his mouth (I swear I could hear the echo :slight_smile: ).

He never tried a bite again and no, never headshy afterwards either.

I managed to nail him once with the perfect ‘you have to the count of 3 to correct’ rule on a very effective correction and that is all it took.

Gentle jerks on a rope or mild whacks on the neck are not going to have near the same level of impact to her as if another horse were to bite her. She needs to get the memo as G implied… biting is wrong and she’s a 1000 lb animal.

If she is trying to bite you, she doesn’t respect you. I had a grumpy mare that would get real pinny eared and swishy tailed when tacking. I did lots of ground work for respect, then “practiced” tacking up with just a saddle pad and surcingle on a long lead (not tied up). If she pinned her ears or swished her tail, back to work she went. No big deal if the saddle pad or surcingle fell off. Did not take long for her to understand that any little act of aggression on her part meant HARD WORK.

My daughter’s pony used to bite when girthed; tying short (all our horses hard tie) and meeting my elbow when he turned stopped it.

It then started again, combined with difficulty loading on to the float, reluctance to go forward (she started having to carry a crop) and trying to bite when brushed. We called the vet: sore back from old injury and poorly fitting saddle, and had him scoped - severe ulcers. New saddle, physio, rest, omeprazole, and lots of work on her riding to get him using his back correctly, and we got back our plucky, forward, self-loading, happy pony. I maintain him with careful shoeing, regular saddle fits, omeprazole around intense riding times, and he will still try to bite her sometimes will being girthed, but is okay with me. Having more strength, I can do his girth up more smoothly, without the jerking she does, so she now does part way, and I do the rest.

My mare stopped trying to take a piece out of me after three days on omeprazole. She then tried again when I was saddling her with an excited, not horse-experienced kid around; later that day with just me, she was angelic to saddle up.

If you can figure out why they bite you might be able to fix it, but you do need to prevent an injury to yourself while you’re doing it.

I once heard John Lyons say that a bit or a kick directed at a human is a horse using it’s “ultimate weapon” and that this means the human should react with massive retaliation.

This bothers some folks but considering that a horse is a one hp engine and can kick a full sized man several feet or crush bone with a bite I’m wondering why anyone would even consider half measures.

Even if the horse is in pain there is no, I say again NO excuse for aggression against a human.

Indeed, a bite or kick in your direction is a Total Act Of War, and should be treated as such – Massive Retaliation, quick and forceful.

“1 HP Kick Engine”, LOL. Not funny, but that’s a good way to put it.

A horse is allowed to show its’ opinion - that’s ear pinning, tail-swishing, head shaking, maybe the hairy eyeball. A horse is not allowed to show his opinion physically; that’s kicking, biting, lunging.

I don’t tolerate that behavior, at all – you need to act quickly and forcefully. This means you immediately retaliate, with a SHARP voice or growl (“AH!” “NO!” any will do) and a hard rap on the shoulder or whatever the offending body-part was that advanced you (if it was a kick, be careful). I do not think you should hit a horse across the face, as I think that invites the horse to bite you, but you need to tell them that their advances on no uncertain terms are acceptable. You do not shank the #### out of them for 5m straight. The key to getting them to understand the behavior will not be tolerated is to act just as forcefully back, but immediately release/relent when they take a step back/away from you. You are not “punishing” them, you are reprimanding them. Big difference.

IE I worked with a horse at a barn local to me that was horrible about being girthed. I girth up very slowly as a general rule (as in you could fit a fist through the girth/barrel) and there was no reason to accept that behavior other than she had been allowed to get away with it. She would, while you were fastening the girth, try to fully stomp your foot. The first time it happened she nearly clipped my toes off - in protective boots. I started to carry a whip and any time she tried that behavior again she was smacked once and HARD on the offending leg. The first time I did that she about jumped out of her skin in surprise, but she learned.

She stopped doing it with me, but still continues to do it with her owner because her owner does not reprimand her.

She probably, definitely has ulcers, but her owner won’t pursue treatment. Any horse that IMHO is aggressive about being tacked up in any way has some form of major physical discomfort: either has ulcers, saddle fit issues, SI or hock pain, or kissing spine.

theres biting, and BITING…

BITING i would absolutely have a CTJ moment over and i would use whatever i had in my hand to make damn sure i didnt get hurt and to punish that, yes punish!

biting, nibbling,chewing i think you have to play the long game on.

what actually works the best on my stallion is just to push him away, he likes to suck and nibble on hair/hoods/jacket sleeves whilst being rugged or bandaged and actually just firmly and calmly pushing his head away every time has worked wonders. On the rare occasion its more a sharp nip i kick him pretty hard in whichever leg im nearest too and he looks all “whoooooah how did that happen” and doesnt do it again for weeks if not months.

Years ago when I had a yearling who was nippy I was told to make a glove that was very effective…
Basically take a cheap stretch knit… the ones you find at checkouts at the grocery store or at the dollar store. then get a hairbrush with the plastic nubby bristles ( the detangling type) or if you if you want something with more bit a dog brush with the metal bristle.
Take the bristle part off the brush and put it inside the knit glove so the bristle poke out thru one side. wear the glove when grooming… if need be when the horse swings around to bit it gets an uncomfortable poke in the mouth.
It worked wonders for my yearling. Thinking about making another one for my OTTB. He just turned 10 and raced until he was 8. So he still tends to be very mouthy. We have treated him for ulcers and he has improved with the biting from when we got him, but he seems to do it more ass a game or when he feels you are a little too rough with the brush ( which can be anytime… lol he is somewhat sensitive). So far a harsh word/sound has been reprimand enough but I may want to try the glove with him if he escalates again.

Good point on the difference, from the horse’s point of view, between “biting” and “mouthing” or “nipping” in play.

But from the human point of view both hurt!!! :slight_smile:

One day I was moving young colt who was getting “mouthy” back to his paddock when he reached over and bit my arm. It was a clear invitation to “play” as his ears were up and his whole demeanor was “playful.” I spun on him and cussed him like a boatswain and sent him off to the end of a 12 foot lead rope. I clearly scarred the be-jesus out him but never touched him. He moved off and stood shivering a bit, then lowered his head submissively and tried to approach me. I said “not just no, but HELL NO!” verbally and with an aggressive posture and he moved back. For the next three min. or so I kept him out at the end of that line. Then I took up a softer posture and invited him back. He came easily and we completed our walk back to his paddock very quietly and comfortably for both of us. He never again tried to mouth me; I didn’t hear of incidents with others.

You can severely punish a horse without physical contact. Horses are herd animals and they know, based on 2 million years of evolutionary instinct, that to be alone is to be vulnerable. I made that colt very much alone and let that instinct work for me. You can do the same with an adult horse, but using a round pen where you have control of the situation is much easier.

If you have a genuine, aggressive horse who has lost his instinctive fear of humans then you have a dangerous animal on your hands. I’ve only dealt with two that I can recall (one a BLM mare and the other a Walker). I didn’t own the BLM horse but had to tell the owner to find somewhere else to board. I sent the Walker to our local “buyer of last resort” and said to make sure the mare ended up in a can.

Horses are always horses.


i will pop them in the mouth for trying to bite. i am always ready for a horse i can’t trust who will try to bite, and a few smacks in the mouth at the right time usually ends it.

John Lyons said you can “kill” them for three seconds - any longer they have forgotten why they are being punished and then they fear you. I think there is a place for that sometimes.

Has your vet checked for ulcers/health problems.

Sensitive skinned horses really hate being brushed, so brush lightly with a soft brush, and do not slap the brush down when you apply the stroke.

If you have made some progress, then continue on with what you are doing.
If she’s telling you something, tune into it - horses do not lie.

I’ve often tried a severe back-up to tell a horse off.

theres biting, and BITING…

BITING i would absolutely have a CTJ moment over and i would use whatever i had in my hand to make damn sure i didnt get hurt and to punish that, yes punish!

biting, nibbling,chewing i think you have to play the long game on.[/QUOTE]

I agree with this and totally agree with beowulf.

I have a lovely filly who decided to full on open-mouth bite me one day while I was putting out grain for my group. I managed to smack her hard as she was biting and then got real big, screamed and chased her away and threw all three of the scoops I was holding at her butt and made it a big, big deal for about 10 or 20 seconds. She is still just as lovey and cuddly as she was before and hasn’t so much as nibbled at me since. My reaction, btw, was pretty similar to the way my alpha mare reacted when the filly first moved in and pulled a similar move on her. There was a 20 second “you’re going to die by my hoof and teeth” reaction and then it was over and they get along great now. And if you watch horses, the good alphas are absolutely consistent about keeping the rest of the herd in line every minute of every day.

But a “bite-R” (versus a single bite) is kind of a different story. I’ve had several geldings that were mouthy, mouthy, mouthy, and constantly nibbling and biting at things in a super obnoxious way. For those I’ve found that hitting and yelling and making a big deal do absolutely nothing - or maybe worse, they actually reinforce the behavior because often that type of horse loves to get a reaction. For that type of horse I jab them in the gums with a fingernail every time they try to nibble or bite. Only hurts them enough to be an unwelcome consequence, and if you can manage to get them every time they start the behavior most horses learn pretty quick to knock it off.

Also, I have two horses who act snarky whenever I girth them up. Both came to me with significant shoulder/rib/body issues that made the behavior understandable (though not acceptable). We eventually “fixed” the discomfort component via chiropractic, acupuncture, and body work. But the snarky faces and gnashing teeth never went away. I consider that behavior different than either of the biting behaviors above. With my gelding I give him a sharp poke in the meat of his shoulder every time he paws or bites in my direction (and I poke, poke, poke, poke until he puts his foot down and stops pawing), and he’s ALWAYS cross-tied or tied when I girth him up. With my mare I ignore it (if it was directed at me I would not ignore it) and also make sure she’s always tied or cross-tied when being girthed up. My feeling with both is that if they bit me it would be MY fault for not setting the situation up for success. (Neither, btw, are actively trying to bite me, for which I would react in one of the ways above).

With all of that being said, I think your assessment of the situation is off and you are walking a fine line of enabling to a degree that will get you hurt. And I totally acknowledge that I may be reading between the lines too much here. But I feel like you need to hear that horses don’t “like you more” because you don’t discipline them. That’s actually a really easy way to make a horse dislike you and not trust you because they can’t gauge where your boundaries are. Clear, consistent boundaries that include IMMEDIATE repercussions when they step out of line and consistent reward when they behave are what make a horse trust you, and in turn, like you.

I guess the easiest comparison to me is to think of yourself as a school teacher. Which teachers did you like in school? Was it the tough teachers with clear and fair expectations who genuinely believed in you and rewarded you whenever you did a good thing? Or the teacher who was inconsistent and played favorites and punished students in an arbitrary manner (and I think most of us have had at least one of those)? Because that’s what you’re sounding like here. Your job is not to be your mare’s literal best friend. It’s to be a kind and beneficent leader to whom the mare can look up to and try to please within an easily understandable framework of discipline and reward.

A good horseperson will NEVER hesitate to dole out discipline when it’s required. Same as a good parent NEVER hesitating to discipline their child in the name of making the child “like” them. A real relationship develops from respect. Ignoring bad behavior in the hopes that the horse will realize that it should have been punished but you’re super nice and so they should like you for NOT doing the thing you didn’t do…it just plain doesn’t work. Not (usually) with people and definitely not with animals.

I’m going to take the time to type out this story because I hope to offer an alternate to the CTJ approach.

First of all, in my opinion one needs to separate “aggression” type biting from “defensive” biting.

Years ago I bought a “new to me” 10 year old mare. When I went to try her out before I bought her, she was in cross-ties and I did not note any negative behavior. Weeks later, after I purchased her and brought her home, I had tied her to the stall wall and was grooming her in preparation fr our first ride. While I was brushing her ribs/belly area she swung around and snapped her teeth at me (without making contact) and that was immediately followed by flinging her head up in the air away from me and trembling all over. I was immediately struck with the understanding that her anxiety about being brushed in a sensitive area was more powerful than her fear of being beaten. She had clearly been hit in the face for such a transgression in the past and she stood there trembling waiting to be hit. I didn’t hit her, or shout, I just put my left hand on her neck fairly high up so she couldn’t swing her head toward me, and started talking to her soothingly. Soon she stopped trembling and she was peeking at me from the corner of her eye with an expression of amazement, that’s really the only way I can describe it. As she lowered her head, I gently returned to brushing her while keeping one hand on her neck. A few times she reached forward and bit the wall in front of her and I ignored that and kept brushing. She is now 23 years old and in all the ensuing years she has never offered to bite me again, although she will still occasionally bite the wall. She is an excellent horse and very cooperative in all ways. I don’t think beating her would have had the same result.

All that said, if a horse comes at me aggressively, like for instance, darts their head out of the stall to try and nip as I walk by, I am going to be all over them and you can bet they won’t do it again.

I just wanted to say that making an absolute statement about how to handle something can miss the nuance of a specific scenario… For what it’s worth.

I think you are talking a whole big huge difference between a horse who is ulcered and doesn’t want to be girthed or sensitive to grooming and a horse who flat out attacks you.* I had one who would come from behind and bite, just me, if I entered her stall or she’d come at me from behind in the turnout.* I had an animal communicator tell me once that she didn’t like my smell. Now I’m not too offended bc she was obviously the only one in 20 yrs of horses. But how I dealt with it was I sold her ass. Full disclosure and no one returned her.