I heard a story about a woman whose abdomen was covered with deep blue bruises. The welts had been caused by her stallion when she was handling him; he would reach around and bite her stomach. While I am fortunate to have only rarely had bruises due to ponies biting me, I definitely have had plenty of opportunities to deal with mouthiness. My good fortune in receiving minimal bruises is because I was told early in my horsemanship journey to back a pony if it started to get mouthy.
My second ever pony quickly earned the nickname “Mr. Lips.” Not only were his lips large and flabby and hung down loosely when he was relaxed, but he also had a tendency to use them to search hands and clothing for anything edible. Unlike my first pony who was always very polite when it came to treats, it was clear that “Mr. Lips” should never be fed a treat because he would be too forward and domineering and it might encourage lippiness to turn to biting. I have had new owners go against my advice regarding treats for their new pony if the pony tended toward mouthiness, and they have come to see the wisdom of my advice the hard way. Stallions especially can develop mouthy behavior because they are often isolated from other equines; the behavior is a misdirected social ploy with the only being they come into contact with.
I read an article recently that caused me to see reasons to say thank you to any pony that is mouthy or threatens to bite. Biting can occur because a horse is scared or unconfident or because they’re trying to dominate; in my herd, I have never seen the former but have seen the latter plenty of times. In either case, the behavior is pretty clear feedback on our horsemanship. They are giving us feedback that we’re not good enough leaders for them. And if they want to play some sort of game to see if they can dominate us, we can feel rewarded that we are worthy of their attention. I was totally struck by the article’s observation that lead horses never have bite marks on them. In addition, they are “calm, self-confident, and totally unemotional.” (1) As leaders for our ponies, we need to model this leadership behavior.
I have found that dealing with biting behavior easily knocks me away from this definition of leadership, especially the unemotional part. My tendency is to get my energy up quickly with a little anger mixed in, considering such mouthiness as an affront. Especially my stallions seem to know when I’ll be most irritated if they get mouthy, and then they follow through. I can avoid this behavior by backing them up as soon as I come near them. I can easily regain their respect if I show up with a stick with a plastic bag tied to the end with which I can enforce good behavior at a distance. It’s much easier to stay unemotional when they’re at a stick’s length!
The article also told a story of a woman who put her young horse’s mouthiness to good use. She first taught him to pick up her cap and hand it to her when it blew off in the wind. “He also learned to participate in the saddling procedure, handing Sharon the pad and then the saddle itself!” (2) I’m working on teaching my young stallion to hand me his feed bucket when he’s finished with it. I’m thrilled to have him wondering why I’m asking him to put it in his mouth; making him think is always a good thing!
The article firmly places the responsibility for getting bitten on our plate as horsemen and women. “If you receive a bite, it’s your fault. What you need to do is figure out how to prevent it in the first place.” The article includes the handy advice, “Don’t smack ‘em; back ‘em!” which I have found to be very true. In addition, it points out “Once bitten, retaliation is fruitless.” The pony has already won that round. Better to spend the energy not on retaliation but on figuring out how to be the calm, self-confident and unemotional leader that they want and will respect.
2) Same as #1
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012