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Will a mouthy / muzzle-y horse become a nipper and a biter?

From: Judy

Hi Jessica

I have a question about my mouthy gelding. He is a "lippy" horse and is always muzzling me from head to toe. We have a very close bond together and a wonderful relationship and I admit I do allow him to muzzle me and I like it. I was bothered by an article I read in a very popular horse magazine by a well known trainer and clinician. This person said that you should never allow your horse to muzzle you, and you should never get close too or touch its face. It said that the horse is testing for dominance and if you allow him to do this, he will become a nipper and then a biter. Then went on to describe immediate punishment such as hitting the horse in the mouth or nose with thumb tacks taped to the back of your hand, and then backing the horse for punishment!!! That is HORRIBLE. I certainly don't believe everything I read, and I don't believe this trainer. But, is there any truth to the muzzling, nipping and biting? My horse has NEVER, EVER tried to nip me. Occasionally, if I wearing something different, he may VERY gently and slowly put his teeth on it/me, but all I do is make the "buzzer" noise, and very quietly at that and he stops what he is doing instantly. What do you think? If you think that this is bad I will follow your advice. Do you think that he is testing for dominance (he is very obedient)? I thought (or maybe I hope) it was a way of showing affection.

I have learned so much from horse-sense. I am very proud to be able to support such a wonderful service.

Thanks for all you do!

Judy & Magic (the muzzler)


Hi Judy! I'm very happy to know that you have a close, loving relationship with your horse. Of course you shouldn't hit him - he doesn't need to be punished. Hitting a horse in the head is not something that any horseman would ever do in any case, and backing a horse for punishment is also inappropriate. You should definitely disregard those recommendations. At this point, he doesn't even need to be disciplined, because what he's doing is what you have taught and encouraged him to do. He hasn't done anything wrong.

YET.

HOWEVER, I am going to suggest that you begin gently discouraging your horse's habits of moving into your space and putting his mouth on you. Of course you can get close to your horse, and of course you can touch his face. But all contact between YOU and your horse's FACE should be initiated by YOU, not by the horse. He should not bring his head into your personal space - he should wait quietly and allow you to enter HIS personal space. This is an important part of every horse's education - at least, every horse with a responsible owner. Hitting is certainly uncalled for. You don't want to make your horse frightened of you, or of having hands on or near his face or mouth. Handling a horse all over is something that every horse-owner and rider (not to mention vet and dentist) must be able to do. Touching a horse's head, face, and mouth are just normal parts of routine grooming and handling - and of riding preparation and medical care. You should be able to brush his head, sponge his eyes and nostrils, put the halter or bridle on his head, slip the bit into his mouth, adminster deworming paste, etc. If you hand-feed treats, you should be able to offer a treat and have the horse pick it up from your palm calmly and politely. I'm sure that you already do all of these things, and your horse doesn't mind at all.

Letting the horse put its head or mouth on YOU is another matter, and a much riskier one - for your horse and for you. There are good reasons for NOT allowing this practice.

Reason 1: Your horse's emotional security. Horses need to feel secure, and part of emotional security for horses is knowing, without any doubt at all, who the leader is. (Hint: if a group consists of one horse and one human, the human should be the leader). By allowing him to move into your space and put his head and mouth on you, you are sending him a confusing message - "I'm not really the leader, maybe YOU are the leader" - and then when you use the buzzer sound, you're saying "Ha, see, I'm the leader after all!" By changing the routine so that you, not the horse, always initiate this particular contact, you'll be able to pet and cuddle him all you want, without confusing him at all. As leader, you should always be allowed in HIS space.

Reason 2: Your own physical safety. Have you ever seen a horse become frightened or startled whilst holding something in its mouth or teeth? What usually happens is that the horse jerks backward, flinging its head up - and at the same time, tightening its mouth or teeth on whatever it was holding. This is all normal - nothing bad or wrong about it. A frightened horse will instinctively try to get into a position where it can see the source of its fear and then run away from it, so the backwards jump and the suddenly lifted head are entirely understandable. So is the closed, tightened mouth - a secure, relaxed horse will be relaxed in its jaw, lips, and chin, but a frightened or startled horse will become tense in all those places. Again, it's a normal reaction. But the EFFECT can be very bad indeed, if what the horse happens to be holding in its mouth is a human hand or finger... or part of a human face.

This is why we offer treats to horses on our flat palms, rather than holding the treat with our fingers - it's a safety precaution. And this is why we don't allow horses to nuzzle our faces or put their mouths on us - it's a safety precaution. I'm sure you've experienced the unpleasant sensation of an over-eager horse (not THIS horse, but some horse, somewhere, sometime) grabbing for a hand-held treat and almost-but-not-quite nipping your hand in the process.

Without meaning any harm at all, a horse can remove a human body part with ease if that body part is in the wrong place... and the horse cannot SEE whatever part of you is under its muzzle or in its mouth. I've seen the photos (pre- and post-surgery) of a young woman who had a very sweet horse and taught it to "kiss" her on the face... when that horse became startled at just the wrong moment, the young woman lost part of her nose and upper lip. Even excellent reconstructive surgery couldn't completely restore her former appearance. And - quite unfairly, but understandably - many other people assumed that the horse had "attacked" her, and that it was a horse that bit for no reason... and treated it accordingly.

Reason 3: Your horse's future safety and comfort. In case you're thinking that your horse is exceptionally sweet and wonderful, and that he has great affection and respect for you - I'm not arguing that. He sounds very sweet, and you are probably right on all counts. You might even be willing to take the chance that your horse might someday hurt you without meaning to. You would KNOW that he hadn't meant to hurt you, and you would forgive him. I understand that. But - can you be absolutely certain that you will always be the ONLY person who handles this horse, and the ONLY person who gets near the horse's head, for the rest of the horse's life? Realistically, you have to say "No."

Even if you live a long and happy life, and keep your horse until he dies of old age, there are inevitably going to be other people in range of his head: Your spouse or child, a friend, your instructor, the vet, the dentist, the vet's assistant, the dentist's assistant, the farrier, a judge or steward at a competition... I'm sure you can think of even more possibilities. Most people, even very experienced horse people, don't automatically assume that all is well when a horse's head appears in their personal space and a horse's mouth makes contact with their face, neck, shoulder, or arm. Like horses that react to a sudden noise by pulling back and flinging their heads up, humans tend to react to sudden, horse-initiated contact by jumping and yelling -and, often, by hitting out. This, too, is natural, but it can have unfortunate repercussions. It can be very frightening to a horse when a human suddenly leaps in the air and whacks the horse in the head or neck - especially when the horse has no way of knowing that it did anything wrong. It's a proven method of making a horse head-shy.

You didn't mention your horse's age, but there's another risk if he is a youngster, say four or younger. When a human pulls back or whacks the horse for lipping, the next step WILL be nipping and the next step will be biting, not out of nastiness, but because this is a game that horses (especially colts and geldings) play with each other. One youngster lips another one's neck, and the other one nips back, and the first one nips the other one, and so it begins... and so it continues. These are very normal horse games, but they are games that horses need to play ONLY with other horses and not with humans. If you were to respond to a young horse's mouth on your face or body by whacking the horse, and he didn't know you, he might become head-shy. If he knows you and sees you as a friend and companion, his reaction will be different - and dangerous. He'll almost certainly react to your whack by thinking "Head bump! ALL RIGHT! She's playing!" and go on playing. If you followed the advice about hitting the horse with thumbtacks, the horse will think that you bit HIM (as part of the game, of course) - which gives him both PERMISSION to bite back, and an INVITATION to bite back. Don't go there.

If your horse already HAD developed a nipping problem, you could use the thumbtacks-through-the-back-of-the-glove technique. Hitting a horse with thumbacks would be horrible, but when this is used correctly, the idea is not to hit the horse, it's to stand perfectly still and let the nipping horse run into the tacks, or the back of a hard wooden brush, with its mouth, so that it teaches ITSELF that its actions have painful consequences. But that only works if you ARE still and quiet and nonreactive - otherwise whatever happens to the horse is not a consequence, it's just an escalation of the nipping game. The second you jump back and/or wave your arm and/or hit the horse - with or without thumbtacks - you've shifted into game mode, and your horse will be terribly confused if you don't want to play some more.

Since your horse does NOT have a nipping problem, you can keep him from developing a problem by discouraging the behaviour you don't want (coming into your space, putting his mouth on you) and encouraging the behaviour you DO want (waiting for you to come into HIS space and pet his head and handle his mouth). Since he responds to the buzzer sound, use that for unwanted behaviours, and since I am certain that he responds to your voice and praise and petting, use THOSE when he stands still and waits, or when he pulls his head back after hearing the buzzer sound. You do NOT have to hurt him or frighten him in order to teach him lovely manners. And if YOU teach him lovely manners now, you won't have to worry about some other human hauling off and hitting him later.

This, by the way, applies to other animals (not to mention children!). Even if you have the most fuzzy, adorable, sweet puppy in the world, that puppy needs to learn NOT to jump up on people, and NOT to grab people by the wrist and pull. You can teach it what's acceptable and what isn't - and you can do it kindly and in a way that keeps the puppy emotionally healthy and trusting. OR, you can wait until the rest of the world begins to teach the puppy for you, usually by methods that are much more violent and nasty than any you would have used. Early discipline from a loving human will help to educate the horse or puppy or child - and if it isn't provided, there will be PUNISHMENTS from not-so-loving humans later in life. Why put a horse (or puppy or child) through all that?

Learning manners can be fun, by the way. It's not a matter of "If you move towards me, I will hurt you", it's "Figure out what I want from you - the buzzer sound means "you're cold" and my praise means "you're getting warmer". Keep it positive. There's a big difference between "Don't swing your head towards me, you're a bad boy" and "Stand still, face forward, what a GOOD boy!" One way focuses on what you DON'T want the horse to do, and the other focuses on what you DO want - and that's the best way to teach a horse! Clicker training is VERY good for this sort of thing, and it's fun for the horse, so please consider that as a training option. Any book or video by Alexandra Kurland will get you off to a good start.

I hope this helps. Good luck - he sounds like a very nice horse, and he's obviously very attentive to you, so I don't think you will have any trouble helping him learn what you want.

Jessica

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