Biting and Snapping Pony

Q. We've been raising a Welsh pony for the kids.  At about nine months of age, he started with constant nipping at your arm and the lead shank, kind of playing with you.  We read on the Internet that this biting is a "colt thing," and that it should go away with maturity. Our vet thought that gelding him as soon as possible would help.  After he was castrated, the incessant nipping and playing pretty much stopped, but he then started less frequent but more serious biting.  When you were leading him, he would make a quick turn of his head and bite your forearm, usually just your sleeve.  After he put a big welt on my daughter's wrist right through her winter jacket, we decided to start punishing him by whacking him on the lips each time he did that. He tested each of us, but once we all had had a chance to let him know he couldn't do that, he hasn't really tried anymore. He has never gone back to the nipping and playing with the lead shank.

But now he has two new problems. One problem is that he has become pretty head shy--it's like he's got his eye on you all the time and can't seem to relax when you are leading him or working around his head. He holds his head high and cocked sideways, looking down at you like he's always afraid of being hit.  The second new problem is that he has a completely different type of attack. Every once in a while when you go to get him in the stall or pasture, for no apparent reason, he just lunges with his mouth wide open straight for your arm or shoulder. It's just one quick snap of his jaws on whatever he contacts. If he misses you, it could be the wall or the gate that he bites, or he might just snap in mid-air.  After the one snap, he immediately retreats and quivers like he knows he was bad.  This morning he came at my shoulder, and when he backed off, he had the hood of my parka and a chunk of my hair hanging from his teeth. I was on my butt in the stall doorway.  He was cowering in the corner of the stall. I realize now that he is too dangerous for the kids.  Any ideas on where to go from here? He's two years old.


A. Let me begin by commenting that you are not alone either in the initial problem or with the apparent complications, where attempts to eliminate biting seem to lead to head shyness or increasingly dangerous behavior. In most horses, correcting biting is easy and quick, but for certain individuals it can be very challenging.  The head shyness and the quick attacks you describe mean that the pony has failed to get the message that it is only the biting that is bad.  As you said, he is confused about what caused the punishment and is afraid of people. Now that he is truly dangerous, it becomes difficult to relax and behave normally, let alone respond effectively to his misbehavior.

At this point, the savage attacking represents a serious safety threat that must be addressed immediately. I should mention that some horses, usually intact stallions, periodically attack people as if they are trying to kill the person.  These horses typically have no history of biting or any type of aggression toward people other than the sporadic savage attacks. Unlike with your pony, the savage attack is usually much more than a single lunge and bite.  The recommendation for a truly savage horse would be euthanasia or very specialized management (similar to management of stud bulls) in which people are never in direct physical contact with the horse. It is difficult to be sure your pony is not one of those rare savage horses, but my long-distance guess is that the attacks you describe likely represent fear-related behavior resulting from your attempts to correct his milder form of biting. If that is correct, then there is hope that the behavior can be corrected and that this pony can be a useful and safe companion animal.

At this point, I would recommend a trainer who is experienced and competent with rehabilitating this sort of case. It would be great if you could find someone who specifically appreciates pony personalities.  The trick now is to get the pony to feel completely safe with people and to understand that it is only biting that will result in punishment. Most successful trainers use a gentle, reassuring handling technique.  They use ample positive reinforcement for good behavior and very well-timed, judicious punishment for the biting.  After the well-timed punishment, they immediately relax and proceed.

It typically takes a couple of weeks or less for the pony to return to normal, dependably safe behavior. I have seen horses and ponies with very severe problems get the message within a few minutes of interaction with an expert.  The trainer might wish to take the pony to his/her facility for initial evaluation and retraining, then later work with you and the pony together.  There sometimes is an advantage to beginning the retraining in an environment that is new to the animal, and working with one or more expert handlers who are relatively consistent in their methods. Some trainers prefer to work with you and the pony in your home farm environment from the start.  This has the advantage that the pony and you learn together. It is very frustrating when the pony becomes a gentleman with the new trainer and returns to his old ways with you. It has been my experience that for the particular problem of biting, and especially for ponies, relapse is a lifelong concern. So, once the behavior has been corrected, you or anyone who ever works with the pony should handle him consistently in this regard.  This often is a challenge when the goal is to have a kid's pony.

On one hand, this might be an opportunity for your family to learn a lot of good horsemanship. On the other, it might be wise to find a pony without the biting tendency and history for your family project.

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Your Horse's Behavior by author and equine behavior specialist Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB. The book is available from

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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