Managing Mouthiness

All forms of equine mouthiness toward handlers can be fairly easily and quickly eliminated.

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Q. My gelding Trenton is about 12 years old, and I have owned him for only a month. The first time I met him, he bit my arm very badly. I have stopped this behavior, but he continually mouths me – my head, my clothes, everything. I wonder if this is behavior that should be curbed, and how? I don't know if this is his attempt to mutually groom me, or if he is attempting to establish dominance. Help?

A. It has always been my opinion that biting, nipping, or mouthing people should be eliminated immediately. It is just too risky, and like you found with the serious biting, all forms of mouthiness of horses toward handlers can be fairly easily and quickly eliminated. I agree with you that it is tough to know what the mouthing behavior you describe actually represents. Horses which are given treats from the hand (instead of from a specific container or from the floor) might nip at you to prompt for treats. Even horses which are fed a treat in response to a polite nudge often escalate to nipping and biting prompts. In both cases, the use of the mouth is reinforced. But that usually is more focused on the hand that feeds them, rather than all over the body.

So, in the case of your horse, that probably is not the reason for the mouthing behavior. The mutual grooming idea is interesting. Sometimes foals which are handled intensively from a very early age have a habit of greeting people as they would horses. Young juvenile horses in particular use their mouths in exuberant greetings, in inviting a pal to play, and in interactions that lead to mutual grooming. Maybe that's it.

But whatever it is, I would just work at eliminating it. You didn't say how you did that for the biting. We always recommend 1) not rewarding it, 2) discouraging any mouth contact with judicious, immediate punishment, and 3) rewarding alternative behavior (such as staying at a comfortable distance unless invited or approached and not being mouthy).

By judicious immediate punishment, I mean a simple swift, stinging smack on the lips no more than a microsecond after his mouthy action. It is best if you can actually get the timing down so that your smack actually interrupts his action. Use a simple reflex smack that actually hurts, but not a protracted battle with screaming or flailing that can confuse the issue. He needs to get the concept that only that specific behavior brings on a negative consequence so that he knows what to stop. As soon as the horse collects himself after the smack and stands quietly without reaching out to mouth or nip, I like to approach his shoulder and give him a soft pat or rub to reward the good behavior. Even when the timing is great, when using punishment like this, some horses will go through a "cautious eye" or mild head-shyness stage while they are figuring it out. Most then come back to trust you once they figure out the specific cause of the punishment and so can effectively avoid it and return to consistently peaceful and predictable interaction.

One other remotely possible explanation for the mouthing comes to mind. I have seen this behavior in horses which didn't have a salt supplement available. They sometimes seem especially interested in mouthing people, presumably attracted to the salty residue on our skin and clothing. But that behavior has typically included more licking. In any case, the same behavior modification procedures will eliminate it.

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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