Biting is one of those problems that all horse lovers come across at one time or another. It can be a very frustrating challenge to tackle, not to mention a dangerous one. A biting horse can be a real concern for not only the owner but the barn staff, grooms, other boarders, pretty much anyone who comes in contact with him. Hermano was one of those horses. He was majestic, powerful, determined, masculine… and a biter.
I met him on a trip to the East Coast where I went to help with a number of my client’s equine problems. “Hermano” was known to attack people and kick innocent individuals not paying attention to him while on his aisle. He certainly didn’t disappoint during our first meeting. His calm demeanor suddenly turned ferocious with his ears pinned back, and my swift, instinctive move away saved me from losing a chunk of my shoulder. It was very clear that for the safety of everyone in the barn, this was not acceptable behavior.
I asked about Hermano’s biting history and it appeared that most of the behavior occurred either in or close to Hermano’s stall, when he would lunge at passersby, or while on the cross-ties in the barn aisle. As I was listening, Hermano reached toward me with his neck, persistently smelling my clothing and seeking what appeared to be snacks. Without hesitation I announced: “Someone is hand-feeding him treats and this needs to stop as he can’t handle the disappointment if he doesn’t get a treat. He sees humans as treat dispensers and when they don’t deliver he gets very upset.”
“It’s not just me”, my client announced in her defense. “It would be difficult to stop everyone from treating him here in the barn”. I turned to Julie, the barn manager, and asked whether it would be possible to enforce this request and she immediately supported the idea. When training a bad habit or behavior out of a horse, consistency from everyone, and at all times, is crucial and Julie understood that.
The next step was to see Hermano in action. He was led out of his stall and placed on the cross ties in the barn aisle. Although not an advocate of this particular means of tying, it was the norm at this barn and a wanted to reenact the situation as closely to the real thing as possible. Again, Hermano didn’t disappoint. Up came his adrenaline as he grew by several inches in height. While posturing his neck he began to bite at my client as she touched his sides imitating grooming and tacking up. Warning all those around him Hermano raised and danced on his hind feet while swishing his tail in disgust. I could feel the energy bubble he built around himself keeping everyone at bay and instantly demanding respect. He had defined his domain.
Now came the hard part; figuring out the cause of this behavior, not only to establish the depth and degree of his aggression, but also to create a clear plan of action for everyone to follow.
First, I wondered how much of this was Hermano’s true nature? Was he affected by his blood-line, herd hierarchy, previous history, self-defense or was this behavior purely based on inappropriate manners? Many conclusions had been drawn by those who knew him, but I knew that listening to Hermano himself would give us the answers and direction we needed to rectify the current situation.
The Round Pen Experience
I realized the risk I would be taking of a possible attack as I ventured outside to the Round Pen where Hermano and I would engage in a conversation at liberty. Here I began to “reach out” to Hermano, a method I use to determine the characters and personalities of horses as equal partners.
I asked Hermano to do multiple tasks whereby he would come to understand that I spoke his language, the “language of Equus”. Through gestures and movements, Hermano was asked to explore his path in all 3 gaits rhythmically, explore his flight path, as well as listen to my other requests. I would listen to his responses and needs along the way. I then raised the bar, by including turns, gait changes, “whispers” (aka light gestures) and “shouts” (stronger use of body language) all the while Hermano remained respectful, responsive, and rhythmic.
Biting, kicking and being unruly wasn’t his natural way. This was his true nature for he was at liberty and as such we were automatically presented with a situation based on equal terms. No whips, or paraphernalia, just me and him. I had my character read and he knew who I was, creating a base on which to work together.
Vulnerable areas for all?Sometimes issues like biting can be directly attributed to unnoticed physical pain or discomfort. That is one of the first things I look for in an uncooperative horse. But for Hermano this was definitely not the case. Prior vet examinations had all shown that he was not suffering from any pain or discomfort in his body to reflect his behavior pattern. Furthermore, under direct supervision, from a very thorough barn manager, he was on a balanced nutritional plan and regularly received massage and other complimentary therapies.
Next, several staff members joined me in the round pen as we lavished Hermano with attention. Rubbing our hands all over his body we massaged him while exploring sensitive areas, hot spots or pleasure zones. When entering his vulnerable areas (around his rib cage, throat, underneath his belly etc) we reassured Hermano to take our actions on face value and acknowledged his ability to stand still and quiet. We approached him from all angles, all speeds, and included multiple people to induce possible anger or aggression. This didn’t seem to trigger anything. So I could then rule out human interaction and crowding as the cause to his behavior.
The next step; the saddle. My client mentioned that this may exasperate the biting, for up until now I had not been able to trigger any of his biting behavior. The English saddle was brought to the center of the round pen where a number of us stayed to tack up Hermano. It was the first time he experienced this many people around him and yet he remained focused and respectful. As we purposefully took our time, included slight intentional “mishaps” and tacked him up multiple times, there was not one single bite. The saddle itself had been fitted perfectly and checked regularly to ensure its correct fitting. Tacking up & saddle fitting was not the cause.
Close Quarters? Finally, it was suggested that Hermano may be claustrophobic and that could be the underlying cause to all his problems. Maybe he just didn’t approve of people being so close to him in tight quarters and that the round pen was too open to allow this particular behavior to show itself.
I suggested we take Hermano to another part of the barn and not his “home”, an area that he was not necessarily accustomed to and yet would provide us with similar insights. Hermano was taken to a stall used for tacking up with the identical lay-out of his barn aisle. Within this stall he was prepared, once again, for grooming and tacking-up. Somewhat distracted, he was intrigued by the smells of the resident stallions and yet remained calm throughout. Accepting all that we brought to the lesson, Hermano showed no signs of claustrophobia or distress.
With many possible causes tested and debunked, I suggested my client build the following procedures into her training program to:
- Discontinue hand feeding
- Turn-out prior to my client’s arrival to eliminate any excess energy levels
- The use of the “Dually” pressure halter for schooling purposes
- Mutual respect & understanding of Hermano’s space
Hermano had clearly learned to protect his stall and barn aisle and, in my opinion, it all stemmed from the hand-feeding associating this activity to his stall and surrounding area. Unchecked, it then escalated to the point where he had now become dangerous in that particular scenario leading to protecting his surrounding area.
Each scenario we tried was specifically created to explore different possibilities, aspects and causes to Hermano’s behavior. Through these exercises we broke down layer by layer to uncover the root cause of his behavior. Gradually, in Hermano’s own language, he showed us how to place the pieces together to create the full picture. And as it turned out, he was not, as many had feared, a dangerous horse who could not be trusted in any situation with a concern he might take his aggression to unknown heights. Instead, we were dealing with a conditioned response. One that could be reconditioned with the help and cooperation of the same people who has unintentionally created the problem in the first place.