I've just bought a new 4-year-old and he is really nippy. He's not mean, but everything goes in his mouth and it makes grooming, handling and rugging him really difficult. Why is he doing it? I want him to stop.
This type of behaviour is not uncommon in young horses and may be investigatory, playful, could be related to anxiety or be a combination of all of these. It is essential to have him checked over by the vet to ensure that he is not experiencing any discomfort which may be contributing to the behaviour.
Try to make sure you are not accidentally rewarding this behaviour – if he enjoys receiving attention any reaction from you when he does this could be rewarding to him so try to avoid this. Equally, it is important not to punish him for this behaviour as this is likely to cause an increase in anxiety and could accentuate the problem further. Sometimes this type of behaviour is accidentally encouraged by owners when treats are given at inappropriate times. If he ever shows nippy behaviour towards you or if he pushes you with his head, nibbles or nuzzles at you or your clothing make sure you don’t give him a treat or any attention. Otherwise it is easy to become a walking vending machine that your horse believes dispenses treats whenever he pushes or nips, and this can increase the behaviour further.
It is important to try to encourage him to carry out another behaviour which is incompatible with him chewing on everything that you don’t want him to. This can be done by either providing him with rewards for keeping his head turned away from you/objects he usually picks up, or more simply by providing him with a tasty haynet to eat whilst you are carrying out these tasks. To reward him you can either drop a treat into a bucket on the floor in front of him when he looks away from you or releases an object, or you can use some super special scratches instead! Most horses have a favourite scratchy spot and a good firm scratch in this area can be extremely rewarding for them if you would prefer not to use food. If you don’t know where your horse’s ‘Ooh’ spot is yet spend some time trying to find this out through trial and error! When you have found his magic ‘spot’ start to say ‘good boy’ when you give him a good scratch, so that in time the words themselves will become reinforcing for him which can be very useful for any future training.
Try to think about teaching him what you do want instead of focussing on what you don’t want and you will be surprised how much this alone can improve your relationship with your horse.
- Focus on what behaviour you want, rather than what you don’t want. E.g. Focus on teaching your horse to remain looking away from you when you rug him, rather than stopping him from nipping when you rug him.
- Be careful not to accidentally reward your horse for unwanted behaviour, or behaviours that could easily escalate into bad habits.