Q. My pony is biting me. He got my arm twice and my bum once. Now I am afraid of him. He bit me again this weekend, just a little pinch when I was just leading him around the paddock when my little cousin was visiting. So now I'm not allowed to have any friends near him until he stops. I need a new pony that doesn't bite. My mom wants to try to fix this pony before we think about getting a new one. My dad thinks that all ponies bite, and we should get a small horse instead. My veterinarian said that you have been telling kids with ponies like this to try some special muzzle. But my mother's trainer friend says a muzzle is too harsh and won't really fix the problem. She thinks that the muzzle will be hard to get on, and it will make him mad and he might just whack me and my friends with the muzzle anyway. She hits him back and now he doesn't bite her. She thinks he bites me because I don't hit him hard enough. She wants me to whack him hard on the nose. What do you think? If you agree that I need a new pony, please explain it to them?

Jillian, via e-mail

A. Thank you for questions. It sounds like you are lucky to have a number of caring adults all trying to help out. To give you and your team a complete, professional answer, I would really need to know more about your pony and the situations in which he is biting. The best approach would be to get a conference call going with you and the entire team, so we can try to figure out your pony and so that everyone can share their thoughts and come up with a plan. But in the meantime, I can explain to you a bit of what I think about biting ponies in general that might help your situation.

Ponies bite for different reasons. And the first step is to figure out exactly why he is biting.

Some ponies are accidentally taught to bite by feeding them from your hand when you don't yet have the skills to get timing just right. The pony accidentally learns to ask for the next tidbit with a nip. And if you don't give it to him, for a few more tries his nip can be a bigger and bigger until it's a bite. And that is because a pony has few options for politely asking, "Treat, please." One option is to nudge or nip, then we sometimes accidentally reward them by giving or dropping the treat rather than just ignoring the nip and moving away. They only need to get rewarded for nudging or nipping a couple times before they get confused about what they should be doing to get a treat. I know it is hard for anyone, but especially a kid, to safely ignore a nip. When I was a kid I would drop the treat or even quickly give it to them. It wasn't until I was a grown-up and professionally trained that I got good at hand-feeding ponies.

I know why your mother's trainer friend wants you to whack your pony. It works well for her. She's also a professional with grown-up skills. It can work, but only if you have the skills to do it just at the right moment and just hard enough. If it's too little, it can encourage the biting. If it's too much, it can make your pony head shy and afraid of you. He might get really scared and kick you. In my opinion punishment is even harder for kids than ignoring a problem. It's hard for most adults, who are not so highly skilled at it like your mom's friend. Since ignoring works, that's my first recommendation, both for kids and adults who ask for help.

Some ponies bite when they are painful or not feeling well. It is as if they just don't want to be messed with, especially by wiggly, enthusiastic kids. In that case it's as if nipping or biting is the way to say "go away" or "leave me alone." That's why I am so happy to hear that your vet is part of your advisory team. She can keep an eye out for anything bothering him that might make him grouchy.

There is something to be said for your mom and dad's opinions. Your dad knows that many ponies do not have the best personalities for kids. They seem to be extra "nudgy" for food and keep trying, and they are very good at paying attention to human behavior, and they are a bit smarter and more persistent than most horses. They tend to be what is called food aggressive. So whenever we make a mistake in how we give them a treat, they are quick to get the wrong message.

But not all ponies are that way, and some of the mistakes we make will have the same consequence in any horse or pony we get. If your pony has accidentally learned to bite for treats, for example, you might get a new pony or horse and that new one might learn the same thing in the same way. So your mom's idea of trying to fix the problem with your pony is worth considering.

Now about the muzzle. I do often suggest a special muzzle in situations like yours. Until a pony such as yours gets figured out, a grazing muzzle made of soft nylon webbing and rubber (like the one in the picture) can be very helpful. It can keep you and your friends safer, and it can help your pony learn biting is not rewarded. The pony can eat, drink, and breathe with it on, but just can't nip or bite you. Your trainer is right that the pony might still nudge you with his head and the muzzle. But if you know he can't bite you, it is usually easier to avoid and ignore the attempts to nudge you. In my experience most ponies just stop the nudging. Your trainer is right, too, that some muzzles are hard to get on. The style I like attaches with Velcro to the pony's regular halter and is as easy to take on and off as a halter.

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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