Q: I work with Ride To Walk, a therapeutic riding program serving neurologically disabled children. I am contacting you to see if you would be interested in finding some way to help us with solving problems for our therapy horses.

We are having a problem with a few of our therapy horses being very mouthy. When they are in session and have a child on their back they try and nip at their leaders. We have a hard time correcting it because of the child. We have tried spraying them with water when they nip, giving them a long lead, giving them a short lead, and overstimulating their mouth. Our leaders have horse experience, but they vary from day to day and it is hard to keep consistency.

The two horses that are the worst are Arabian crosses, and I suspect that what we do is not enough stimulation for this breed of horse. However, their fast gait is great for some of our children, so I would hate to not have them here or have to avoid getting Arabians in the future.

We ride them regularly outside of the program on our short trail and in the arena. All of our riders are not trainers, but they are under my supervision, and I try to keep the horses and riders going in the right direction. We do lots of ground work in the round pen as well. It is hard to work because most of our horses are older or have a minor lameness issue.

I am stumped and am not sure how to handle these horses, or what their job could be if they don't work out. I know that this might not be the job for these horses, but how do I help incoming horses in the future not develop these habits, or how do I determine what horse might be more prone to "mouthy-ness" than others?

Sandy Smyth, Ride To Walk barn manager, Lincoln, Calif.

A: As with any undesirable behavior, if it is ineffective and ignored by the handler (the handler does not respond), it should go away. So my first recommendation would be to try a Best Friends rubber grazing muzzle that you can easily attach to a halter. This works well for most horses because it blocks the ability to nip onto something, which sometimes immediately reduces the motivation to try. It gives the handler the confidence to just ignore any gestures with the head or mouth. Ignoring it and just moving forward will lead to extinction of the gesture to nip. That is very easy for the variety of handlers. They just need to forget about the misbehavior and think forward, so consistency will be easier to achieve between handlers than with other behavior modification methods.

If that doesn't work, the horses could be counter-conditioned to keep their heads forward when being led. This will take more training of the various handlers and the horses, but if it comes to that, why not? If the muzzle doesn't work, get back to me and we'll write detailed instructions and make a video for your staff to review on how to do that.

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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