Horses need both mental and physical stimulation to be happy and content, which means if you don’t give your horse a job and keep his mind busy, he’ll find an outlet for his pent up energy and a way to keep his mind busy. In a lot of cases, that results in the horse developing some sort of vice including being mouthy – constantly playing with your shirt sleeve or nibbling on the lead rope, for example. Very athletic horses and young horses tend to develop this habit. The bad news is that mouthy behavior often turns into biting – a very dangerous vice. However, if you give your horse a job, as simple as making him move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right, his mouthiness will disappear.
Don’t Invite the Problem
If you know your horse tends to get mouthy, protect your space and take the temptation away from him. Don’t let him get close enough to mouth on you. Anytime you’re with him, keep him out of your personal hula hoop space – a 4-foot circle that surrounds you and serves as your safety zone. When you are working with a horse, always imagine that there’s a 4-foot circle drawn around you —almost like an invisible electric fence. Unless you invite the horse into your personal hula hoop space, he should keep a respectful, safe distance from you.
Make Those Feet Move
When the horse does get mouthy, put his feet to work. The most effective punishment you can give a horse is making him move his feet. Horses are basically lazy creatures and would rather stand around with their legs cocked daydreaming about their next meal than moving their feet and working up a sweat. They’ll always choose the option with the least amount of work involved.
So if you’re standing next to your horse and he starts nibbling on your shirt, turn around and put his feet to work and turn a negative into a positive. Back him up or lunge him. The horse can’t mouth on you and move his feet at the same time, especially if you make him hustle with energy and do lots of changes of direction. If you’re consistent, it won’t take long for the horse to connect the two together – when he gets mouthy, you’ll make his feet move. One of the best ways to stop a mouthy horse, and especially horses that bite, is to back them up. Backing is a very humbling exercise for a horse to do. When a horse gets mouthy or tries to bite you, it’s a very forward action; he’s coming forward to get you. When you back him up, it’s the complete opposite; he’s being submissive to you by moving out of your space.
Punish Thy Self
Another tactic is to make the horse think that he’s punishing himself. For example, if your horse tries to nip you when you’re grooming him or tacking him up, without even looking at him, flap your elbow out to the side so that he runs into it with his nose and feels uncomfortable. You have to time it just right so that at the same time he leans forward to mouth you, he runs into your elbow. The secret is not to look at him or act like you’re moving your arm on purpose. It’s like your elbow just developed a nervous twitch. If you look at the horse, it’s like you’re acknowledging that you’re the one making him feel uncomfortable. You want the horse to think that he’s doing it to himself. Every time he leans in to nibble on you, he runs into your elbow. Horses always learn faster when they teach themselves the lesson. It won’t be long before your horse is like “Man, I really need to keep my lips to myself because I seem to be running into his elbow.”
Author note: Clinton Anderson is a clinician, horse trainer and competitor. He’s dedicated his life to helping others realize their horsemanship dreams. Learn more about the Downunder Horsemanship Method at www.downunderhorsemanship.com.
- About Clinton Anderson
- Articles by Clinton Anderson
- Current Issue of Performance Horse Digest
- Follow Us & Subscribe
This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 6