Having a horse who is pushy or nippy is not only unpleasant, it’s also unsafe. You may have been told that your horse behaves this way because you’re not a good enough leader or that your horse is being aggressive, dominant or disrespectful. But this thinking is based on an outdated understanding of equine behaviour. While we humans consider them to be unwanted behaviours, they are natural behaviours that serve a purpose for horses.
What is the purpose of these behaviours?
Nipping, Biting and Mouthiness:
- Nipping and biting are defensive behaviours.
- Generally exhibited when horses feel anxious, threatened or are in pain.
- Mouthiness can also be displacement behaviour*
*Displacement behaviours happen when the horse is unable to move away from a stressful or uncomfortable situation.
Pushing, Barging and Shoving:
- Pushiness is a flight response to fear, a threat or pain
- Can be in anticipation of getting to something good (i.e. turnout or food)
- Can be caused by poor handling that does not respect the horse’s personal space
- Usually a learned behaviour
- Used to get attention or food
- Can escalate to pushing, nipping, or striking
Before trying to stop the behaviour:
1) Check for and eliminate any physical issues that could be causing pain or discomfort to your horse.
2) Check for and eliminate any object or situation that creates stress or fear for your horse
3) Answer these questions:
a) When does the horse do this behaviour?
b) When does he not do this behaviour?
c) What is happening in his surroundings when he does this behaviour?
d) Is this a new behaviour?
Eliminating The Cause May Eliminate the Behaviour
When you have determined and eliminated the root cause of the behaviour, you may find that the behaviour has also been eliminated. In some cases, the behaviour may remain because the horse has learned (and now anticipates) that the situation is stressful or painful. This is much like those of us who are stressed about going to the dentist.
If the behaviour persists it’s time to do some training to change it.
In many styles of horse training, the focus is on “correcting” the horse for displaying an unwanted (the wrong) behaviour. Typical responses might be yelling at or hitting the horse when he threatens to bite, after he has nipped, or after he has barged through someone’s space. Or sharply jerking on the lead rope or bridle as he pushes forward.
A method that is much more effective in the long term – and helps you build a true partnership with your horse – focuses on reinforcing the behaviour you want. You tell your horse when he’s doing the ‘right’ thing. It requires more patience and awareness from the trainer. Especially In the beginning, you will be looking for the try (or an approximation) of the behaviour you want. Those moments may be very brief and it’s critical to reward them as immediately and often.
If you’re not focusing on the behaviour you don’t want your horse doing then what are you supposed to focus on? Think of a replacement behaviour – a behaviour that prevents your horse from doing the unwanted one.
For example, a horse that is standing still can’t be barging through a door. So you could focus on improving his response to “stand”, “walk-on” and “halt” commands with simple in-hand training. A horse can’t nip when there is a certain distance between you or his head is not near you. So you could reinforce those behaviours.
When working with your horse, set him up to be successful.
- Work in a quiet environment where he feels calm and secure. For a horse with separation anxiety, that means finding his comfort zone and being near another horse friend.
- Be calm and patient
- Use a leather or web halter and cotton lead rope (no chain) so that you’re not inadvertently using too much pressure that can cause pain or discomfort.
- Look for any opportunity – the smallest try – and praise him immediately.
- Focus on saying “yes, that’s right” rather than “no that’s wrong”.
- When your horse makes a ‘mistake’ (and he will), ignore it and start again.
This type of training can be done in short sessions – just a few minutes daily. In a few days or weeks (depending on how ingrained the behaviour is and the level of reward he receives for the new behaviour) the old behaviour will be resolved.