Grumpy Joggers

Q. I have two well-mannered mares who display the same “rude” behavior when trotting in-hand. My 8-year-old show horse pins her ears and tries to nip at me every time we jog for soundness at competitions. My 5-year-old youngster also likes to reach around and try to nip at me when I trot her on a lead. I find it interesting that both these mares have the same antics when jogging and are otherwise very pleasant horses. Is there a reason why horses (or mares) do this? Any suggestions for preventing it?

Renee, Lexington, Ky.

A. Without seeing your particular mares’ behavior, my first comment would be that most likely something about the way the horse is being led is causing physical discomfort—something that doesn’t affect them when being ridden or led at the walk. It could stem from the poll or jaw area as a result of the halter contact when the horse is asked to transition from the walk to the jog.

The way we evaluate such undesirable behaviors in our lab is to watch video footage of the behavior frame-by-frame, looking for signs of discomfort leading up to the nipping. In this case, with two horses reacting with similar behaviors, we probably have an even better chance of identifying what leads to the behavior. We would then try jogging these mares using different halters that have different points of contact, or even using just a rope around their necks. We might also see how they transition from a walk to a jog while being longed in a round pen wearing no halter or lead. We would also watch the horses with various handlers. Then we would try teaching the horses a voice command or visual signal to transition to the jog, so the handler would not need to apply any halter pressure. Teaching a horse a voice command rarely takes more than a few replications of giving the signal just before and as you are directing the horse to pick up pace.

It would also be good to see what you do and how you react when these horses nip. This can provide insight into whether they are inadvertently being rewarded for a play or avoidance behavior. If it is avoidance behavior to pain (even though it would be a bit of a coincidence that they both have soundness problems affecting this transition that are not apparent in other work), it goes without saying that you should have a vet examine them for soundness.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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