Why Horses Bite and How to Respond

horse bite


Horse have powerful jaws designed to rip and tear. Horses that bite are dangerous. Owners know that, but don’t know what to do about it. Biting is a symptom of a different problem. Respect plays a part, but so is helping your horse build confidence and security.

In answer to a reader’s inquiry about a biting issue I identified ways to diagnose the relationship difficulty, four steps to build respect, and two essential behavioral clues.

A reader asked:

Q: I am having biting issues with my gelding.  He doesn’t respect me as his leader.  

How do I begin to change this?  I believe this behavior has grown worse since winter and I can’t work him right now.  Do you have any suggestions?

A: Thanks for the question! Horses bite because they are afraid.

Bullies behave badly because they have poor self esteem and are fearful. It sounds counter-intuitive, but balanced happy individual don’t act out. Teenagers challenge parental authority to test boundaries and limits of parental enforcement. Without sufficient push back, teenagers escalate bad behavior until they meet a brick wall. It’s sad if that wall is in a police precinct.

Horses behave poorly for similar reasons. Too many horses lose their homes because no one set boundaries and enforced them.

Horses That Bite Have Relationship Issues

Horses that bite, are cinchy, or refuse to be quietly bridled seldom have teeth, girth, or head problems.

The last place I go to address a horse’s problem is the problem itself because it’s a symptom, not the cause. These horses have leadership problems. Going right to the spot of battle is like poking the bear – disrespectful of the horse and proves that you don’t understand the horse or his problem. Resolve the relationship issue and biting, cinchiness, and bridling issues often disappear.

Horses, like people, give respect where it is due. Respect isn’t demanded or conferred – it’s earned. The answer to your question is that you must deserve respect. Demanding respect just proves that it’s not deserved.

Using proper correction is an act of regard, intended to improve or make perfect. It’s a teaching tool, never punitive or intended to dominate. You correct because you care.

Simple Steps to Earn Respect and Build Faith

Begin by making simple a request your horse is guaranteed to say “yes” to. The instant you get the yes, stop asking.  Make another easy simple request, get a yes. Quit asking. Repeat.

  1. Ask something simple
  2. Get a yes
  3. Quit asking
  4. Repeat

That’s horse training in a nutshell because the best teachers and lessons aren’t that entertaining to watch. There’s no dust or drama. Perfection is knowing how to ask, recognizing a yes, QUIT asking when you get the yes, and always saying “thank you.”

If your horse says NO it’s because he’s either unable or unwilling to say YES. Figuring out the difference is your responsibility. Every NO means you have to either make him ABLE to say yes or motivate him so he is WILLING to say yes.

Two Essential Foundational Cues or Behaviors

I teach every horse two foundational cues, (1) Back away, and  (2) Yield the hindquarters. If done well the horse will say YES with little more than a tiny gesture in the space of 5 or 10 minutes. Even horses I’ve never worked with before make the change easily.

Think about it, there’s no concern about getting bit if your horse will always back away or yield space to you with a mere gesture because you control how close or far away is mouth is to your body.

Handling Horses That Bite When Led

What’s your normal response if your horse is a sneaky little imp who takes a gratuitous nip when you turn your back? This often happens when leading or cleaning feet, but sometimes when grooming. You take your eyes off your horse’s head for an instant and he runs his teeth across whichever body parts is most handy.

This is another instance where claiming your space and having a horse who backs up easily with just a LOOK totally solves the problem. If your horse bites you when being led then he’s too close. I prefer my horses to walk with their muzzle about a foot behind my elbow.

Some folks don’t like that position because a horse that spooks might run them over or believe it places the horse too far behind the action for showmanship-type maneuvers. There’s no one right way. I trust my horses to keep their cool because they trust me to keep mine.

Invite Horses Into Your Space

If I want a horse to move closer to me I ask it to come closer. However, if the horse steps on my feet, taps me in the back, or tries to grab a quick bite – it isn’t going to get anywhere close to me until we straighten out the underlying issue of inability or unwillingness.

Resolve relationship deficiencies and you don’t have to fix the biting thing. Set parameters. Teach them. Enforce them-every time!

Teach your nasty-nipper to keep his head at least a foot behind you and to AUTOMATICALLY back up one or two steps every time you stop. If a horse really wants to crowd me I teach it to stay back several feet from me and back up when I stop. Once the lesson is learned I allow the horse to follow more closely.

If your horse is WILLING to follow you exactly where you expect it to the chance of getting bit are slim to none. You have its respect and attention. The biting takes care of itself.

How do I begin teaching my horse to back away from me?

Backing away begins with a simple question: “Will you please move one hoof just a tiny bit backward?” Ask without touching the horse. Create energy out in front of the horse with your hand, quiet arm gesture, or easy shake of the lead. Start small and focused. Build only as necessary – until one hoof lifts a bit to the rear. QUIT. Take a step or two forward or to the side, turn and ask again. Don’t use cluttered cues.

Some horses need a more direct initial cue. Whatever it takes, make it tiny. If you have to move YOUR feet the cue is too big. If you haven’t already, watch Journey’s video linked above. At the end I ask Journey to back up one step. It is the first time I asked and you can see the cue I used. I didn’t plan to ask him, but habit took over as it usually does.

Teach Back up And Hip Yield

Step-by-step instructions for both maneuvers are found in Discipleship with Horses . If you have a covered area anywhere you can teach a horse these skills even when it’s wet or cold. Tiring horses out in order to train them is really a silly concept. It either makes a horse dread your appearance, gets it fitter so you have to work it harder the next time, or proves that you dominate rather than lead.

Failure in anything is always the result of someone’s inability or unwillingness. Many times it’s the leader’s inability or unwillingness.

Food Aggressive Horses

Q: What do I do when my gelding runs over me at feeding time?

A: Biting is a fear response. So is food aggression. Other horses viewed as competitors for grub escalate bad behavior. Build a stronger relationship with your gelding individually so you have a foundation to stand on when he’s in with other horses. Whether he bites from jealousy or making a power-play, he needs the same lesson.

Never feed a horse who isn’t pleasant because it rewards fear and the choice to bite. Teach your gelding to back out of your space consistently – every time. (See previous answer.) Eventually you can hang up the feed bucket or stand between him and the feeder and ask him to back up and be patient. When he is, tell him he’s a good boy and leave him alone to eat.

Stay consistent and persistent. Soon you can walk in whether he’s eating or not and move him around without a negative reaction. He’ll have a pleasant expression and cute ears. Why? Because he isn’t as afraid. Consistency is powerful.

A note about working with stallions:

I specialized in stallions for many years. Rules were simple, clear, consistent, and unlike geldings and mares, enforcement came without a gimmee clause. Any infraction was corrected every time.

Stallions respect people who deserve it and demand respect in return. Stallions resent being picked on or disciplined when they don’t believe they did anything wrong. No horse likes to be treated that way, but stallions generally give their leaders less leeway for error before losing respect or retaliating.

“Horses, like most animals and people, are naturally attracted to calm, confident personalities. One must be worthy to be a good herd leader.”

“Confident horses and secure Christians seldom react in fear; they are trained by relationship to use the thinking side of their personality.” – Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace

If Your Horse Bites You

There’s a hundred ways to physically react if your horse actually nails you, so there’s no simple three-step list to share with you. What’s important is that you do something. Until you step up the quality of your relationship, the options range from a smart loud smack on the neck together with a stern (no yelling) one-word reprimand like no, quit, or stop to tying the horse up in a safe place for a time-out.

Mark the instant he did wrong with some physical and verbal response, the do what you feel most comfortable doing.

Do NOT beat or pick at your horse. Don’t hit him in the head. Don’t keep after him for more than three seconds. And once you’ve reacted, pretend it never happened. Your horse didn’t bite you because he has excessive self-esteem.

  • Teach him boundaries, don’t draw battle lines.
  • Build his confidence in you as a fair and able master.
  • If you have a horse you can’t manage, ask for help.

Forgiveness is as necessary in the barn as in the home.

Related post: The Upper Hoof – Who’s Top Dog in Your Barn

Click for informationbooks on relationship horse training

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Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

2 Responses

  1. I appreciate your comments/advice. My 7 y/o gelding was gelded only a year ago. Very pushy and dominant. I sent him to Parelli trainers for a month. It’s helped but he still bites. Today was when my back was turned. I smacked his side stomach with my mini’s muzzle. It’s a constant battle for leadership. Any more advice?

    1. Thanks for your question, Pamela. This is a nasty and painful problem that needs to go away. You’ll remember from the article the simple (not easy) formula for correcting a biting horse:

      Ask something simple
      Get a yes
      Quit asking

      This isn’t something you do when you think about it or in addition to other lessons unless they are organized the same way. The first thing you do is to set NEW RULES. That means you prepare each interaction with your horse to get obedience, a simple yes. Then you let him know what a smart, handsome boy he is. I kid you not. 🙂

      Can you describe the circumstances when he is most likely to bite? Has he ever bred a mare? How is he stabled and does he have pasture mates? What kind of exercise does he get?
      Maybe I can suggest alternatives.

      I look forward to your response. In the meantime, don’t give him the opportunity to bite. Limit his opportunity.
      Blessings, Lynn

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