Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Halting Horse Bites

In Maine, last February, a man stopped along a road and fed carrots to a stallion (not his) on the other side of a fence. The stallion bit the guy in the face and even took off part of his ear. Then the genius sued the horse's owners!

I've looked on-line, but haven't been able to find the outcome of the lawsuit. I certainly hope that the judge had some sense and not only threw the case out of court, but also heavily fined the moron for something -- frivolous lawsuit... trespassing onto private property... animal abuse -- something.

The fact remains, however, that a biting horse can be a serious problem, if not an outright liability. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a friend wondering if anything could be done about her 4-year old gelding with a confirmed biting problem.

When you walk past his stall, the horse will stand there, pin his ears back, glare at you, show you his teeth and generally act disagreeable.

I think he has three issues, to be honest, she said. He was low man where he was and got by with that agression towards humans. Plus he gets jealous when you give other horses attention. Plus he's establishing dominance in his stall.

Now when you put a halter on him that "almost" goes away. (Not quite, but a lot of that goes away.) It's a broken record. You get on him and ride him and he pretty much does what you ask of him. When you round pen him he does good until you ask for the canter and he pins the ears flat but does what's asked without any tail swiching or kicking out. It's an everyday thing. That's the only bad habit he has that I can tell.

This person knows all about Clinton's theories on groundwork and respect. She says that the gelding does the exercises just fine.

He may do them, but he's only phoning it in.

I believe that you can absolutely cure biting. Some thoughts on the problem:

Obviously biting is aggressive behavior. When you say "Oh, he's a biter," you generally mean that the problem is with biting humans, and not necessarily other horses. However, that may enter into the scenario as well. In any case, a horse that bites is not a horse that feels comfortable with you in charge. He wants to be in control -- at least of what he considers "his space."

Thought horses are not naturally aggressive towards people, they do thrive in a herd. And every herd needs a leader. If a horse is your horse herd's natural "leader," or if he is a herd of one (and, therefore, at the top of the pecking order) he may be loathe to relinquish his control when humans get involved.

If the biter is not the natural leader, he may be biting as a means of finding out where he fits in the pecking order. It may be his way of trying to establish that, while he may not be at the top of the horse herd, he can certainly try to be above the humans...

(I have to say that a bad attitude towards humans is one reason I am ABSOLUTELY AGAINST breaking horses too young. I don't believe in riding a horse until it is at least three. That's just me. I think they need time to grow, to be babies, to mature, and to be horses. Starting them in school too early, in my opinion, is like sending a bright 3 or 4 year old kid to all-day kindergarden. It hardens them too quickly. But I digress...)

One way to cure biting is with a remote controlled electronic collar. The horse wears the collar constantly for two or three days before anyone ever "zaps" him with it. Then, someone nearby holds the zapper, while someone else starts to work around the horse. When the horse goes to bite, the person working around him does nothing. He just continues doing whatever he was doing. But the person holding the zapper zings the horse.

This way, the horse doesn't associate the zap with the person who is working around him. He associates it more with the attempt to bite. Clinton is a big fan of these electronic collars. They can do the job, but it takes some timing, and an investment of time.

If you have a horse that bites, however, I would suggest you first try something much less extreme. The horse probably bites partly out of habit, and partly out of insolence. He's done it for so long, that he has very little respect for anyone on the ground.

Think of the battleaxe broodmare that no one in the pasture dares pin their ears back at. She doesn't put up with bad manners. She runs those upstarts away from their food. Then she leaves them alone. If someone gets snakey or displays bad manners, she runs him off again. Then she leave them alone again. In other words -- don't go near a biting horse looking for a fight. But be willing, ready, and able to use a dressage whip or lead rope to vigorously get them moving if they get snippy.

The "fix" for habitual insolence is, of course, groundwork. Lots of it. Get the horse moving in a direction that you indicate. Get him listening to you. Show him that you are worth paying attention to, and worthy of following. DO NOT respond to his biting by whacking on him. Respond to it by making him work.