Pony Girthing/Mounting Issues

My 11-year-old daughter is having trouble with her pony nipping at her when she is girthing him, and when she goes to mount without an assistant. He also smacks his tail and pins his ears, almost looking like he might cow-kick at her sometimes. If she has an assistant, he knows he has to behave, so even though he doesn't like it, he knows he can't do much.

We have considered simple behavior modification, as you have described for other problems like needle shyness and picking up feet (see www.TheHorse.com/emag.aspx?id=4085) to reward him for keeping his head straight ahead while he is on the cross-ties. The barn where she rides and takes lessons has a rule that you can't give food treats. Their philosophy is that the food treats cause the nippiness.

Any comments or suggestions on how to address this problem with the horse and communicate with the barn manager on using food treats? It seems like food treats are most often suggested for behavior modification, for example with clicker and target training in horses. via e-mail


 First, do all you can to make sure the pony is not sore anywhere, and that the behavior is not pain-related. Sore backs and/or tack-related discomfort can lead to exactly this type of behavior. Many people conclude that because the resistance precedes the weight on the back, that the horse is just misbehaving. But horses will anticipate and resist well before weight lands on their backs. Girthing itself can cause discomfort, but horses with sore backs often show signs of anticipating weight bearing as the girth is tightened or other steps well before the actual mount. Also, make sure that the ways in which the girthing and mounting are done are correct and not themselves producing undue discomfort.

Concerning the food treats issue, on the one hand I can sympathize with barn rules for no treats. When treats are given incorrectly, horses can in fact become dangerous to be around. And in a student barn, it's very tough to get everyone on the same page with a problem-free protocol. The way to avoid nudgy, treat-seeking horses is to make it very clear when the treat is coming and when it isn't; then you avoid all that anticipatory and begging behavior.

A simple way is to always dispense the treat from a conspicuously unique container the horse will not confuse with other situations. Hands and pockets typically lead to horses asking by nipping. In this case, where nipping while tacking and mounting is the problem, care should be taken to only dispense the food treat into a special food pan in front of the pony when the pony has kept his head straight ahead. This will avoid the pony learning to turn his head back to nudge or nip your daughter to prompt her to dispense a treat. Attending to the treat pan will naturally keep his head forward.

If you lose that discussion, you can find another mode of positive reinforcement. Find a place where the pony likes to be scratched, for example, along the withers, under the mane, or on either side of the tail head. In some ponies, scratching sometimes naturally evokes mutual grooming behavior, so the pony might nibble back. This can usually be discouraged by gently guiding the head and teeth away from the handler.

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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