Nipping It in the Bud: How to Keep a Horse from Biting
Do Horses Bite?
Anyone who is around horses knows they can and do bite people.
A horse has either no canines or only vestigial ones, and can only open their jaws so far. However, they do have very powerful jaws. The entire arrangement is designed for efficient grazing. When a horse bites a human, he seldom breaks the skin. A horse does not normally tear into the flesh the way a dog does. Instead, a horse bite is a very strong pinch that can leave a deep bruise. (My worst horse bite took nine months to fully heal). If a horse can get its jaws around a limb, however, it can cause serious injuries. Due to the way a horses' jaws are designed, however, this is only a concern with children.
While a horse bite is not likely to result in a trip to the ER for an adult, it is still not something you want to have happen. Here are a few tips on keeping a horse from biting and on dealing with one that has the habit.
Do Not Allow Nibbling
Many horses will nibble at their owner's skin or clothing. Horses are mutual groomers and I have had many horses attempt to groom me back. This is friendly behavior, but it can graduate to biting.
I recommend not allowing your horse to groom you. Gently but firmly push the horse's muzzle away. Do not use aggressive correction— he is being nice, but needs to realize that humans do not need to be groomed and really don't appreciate it.
On a similar note, discourage your horse from chewing on grooming brushes, whips, or your clothing (whether you are wearing it or not). Most people also recommend discouraging licking (some horses will lick, but most will not).
How to Feed a Horse by Hand Without Getting Bitten
Hand-feeding a horse a treat is commonly done by most horse owners.
However, I do not recommend hand-feeding a horse that has a history of biting. Children under the age of six or seven should not be allowed to hand-feed horses.
When you do hand-feed, always place the treat on the palm of your hand, then hold your hand out under the horse's muzzle with your hand completely flat and your fingers pointing towards the horse's chin (not to the side). In this position, it is literally impossible for a horse to accidentally bite.
Do not hand-feed a horse that is prone to trying to snatch treats from hands or pockets, and always discourage this behavior. Searching your pockets may be cute, but some horses will nip when they don't find anything.
Never Tolerate Biting
Under no circumstances should you tolerate a horse biting or nipping at any human, any more than you would a dog.
Any attempt to bite you— even if it's only an attempt, seems playful, or doesn't really hurt— should be immediately corrected. The most effective response is to smack the animal on the end of the muzzle with an open hand, fingers upwards. Do not punch a horse in the nose and never hit the top of the head or anywhere near the ears or eyes. Use the correction immediately and do not smack the horse more than once. Accompany it with a verbal 'No' or a growl. Don't dismiss it as only a nip, and be consistent and firm. Biting is never allowed, under any circumstances.
Look for the Cause
Horses bite for a reason. Sometimes a horse may bite because you didn't give it a treat (I have seen this far too often). However, the horse might be in pain. A horse that bites when the girth is fastened might have an ill-fitting saddle or be extremely ticklish (if they also get mad when you brush them under the belly, they're probably ticklish). A change of girth might be very helpful in this case. Some mares get very snippish when in heat. Flies can cause nipping, sometimes even by accident when you get between the horse's head and the fly on its flank.
Finding out why the horse is trying to bite you and dealing with the cause can help keep a horse from becoming a chronic biter.
Managing a Chronic Biter
I have rarely encountered a truly incurable biter, that is a horse that continues to go for people no matter what corrections are applied. But I have known chronic biters. In these cases, the following should be considered:
1. Never allow small children to handle a horse that is known to bite. Children have been maimed if their arms are small enough for the horse to get its jaws around the bone.
2. For liability reasons, it is best to have a known biter groomed and tacked up only by its owner, a family member of the owner, or an employee of the owner covered by workers' compensation.
3. Consider purchasing a biting muzzle (a grazing muzzle will work in a pinch) and putting it on the horse in circumstances in which it might bite. You can get muzzles that fit over bridles, if needed.
4. Reduce the risk of the horse nipping you in the head or face by wearing a helmet with a visor attachment at all times when handling a chronic biter. Also wear a long-sleeved top, which can lessen the damage if they get you in the arm (which, trust me, is normally where they nail you. That or the...uh...seat).
5. Always put the horse in cross-ties for grooming, bathing, or other intensive handling, so as to reduce the range of motion of the head as much as possible. You may want to tighten the cross-ties a little more than you normally would (of course, do not leave a horse in tight cross-ties for extended periods of time).
First Aid for Horse Bites
Horse bites are seldom serious. In most cases, the only first aid needed is the application of an ice pack.
If the bite does break the skin, make sure that the victim's tetanus vaccinations are up-to-date (all riders should be sure to get their tetanus booster on the regular ten year schedule). If they are not, you will have to take the person to the ER to get a shot.
All horses should be vaccinated against rabies, even if your state does not require it. (Note: Rabies does not generally cause extreme aggression in horses the same way it does in carnivores.)