Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"My, what big teeth you have."

When I first started my lessons, I had set my expectations that I was going to fall at some point and I was probably going to get kicked. The two things sort of came with the territory when you are around horses. Well, I have fallen (twice), but haven't been kicked and I am OK with keeping it that way.

I was taught how to groom safely and I still follow the rules. But, I can see where you can be lulled into a false sense of security if you have been around horses for a long time. Perhaps a bit of complacency sets in. I see it all the time at the stables. No one thinks they will get kicked. Well, you know what? It can happen in a blink of an eye. It doesn't have to be an act of aggression either. Mrs. Mom at Oh Horsefeathers and Wiola at Riding Instructor's Diary have recently mentioned kicking incidents. I have seen Gem kick out once in self-defence and I hope I am never, ever within reach of his kick. His kick connected with the upper part of another horse's stall door, leaving behind two very distinct hoof impressions in the wood. Yikes!

While I can be aware and cautious regarding kicking, biting is another matter. I don't know what it is about a horse biting, but it terrifies me. The thought of those big teeth connecting with my flesh gives me the willies. I know that when a horse pins its ears flat, that's not a good sign. But, I have to say that there are a couple of horses in Gem's barn that pin their ears every time you walk by their stalls. Does that mean they are biters?? Are there any other signs to watch for that can be indicators?

There are a couple of horses that are identified as biters at our stables, including DH, Gem's paddock buddy. In fact, DH's previous owner had a chunk taken out of her forearm which sealed it for DH finding another home. He has a sign on his stall door indicating that he isn't a very sociable horse. DH came up behind me one time when I was trying to put Gem's halter on him. He came out of no where (note to self - always check to see where others horses are) and starting aggressively nibbling the collar of my winter jacket, near my face and ear. I was now pinned in between DH and Gem, with DH way too close for comfort. I had visions of Gem giving DH the business and my face baring the brunt of their scuffle. My heart was pounding outside of my chest, but I walked away as calmly as I could to the gate. DH continued to nibble on my collar all the way there. When I got on the other side of the gate, I was almost in tears and I was shaking. I had STA help me get Gem in. When I told her what happened, she said "Why didn't you swing the halter and lead in front of DH to move him off?" Didn't even think of it.

My first adult experience with horses was my school horse, GM. She tried to bite me from the time I arrived to the time I left. Imagine seeing a round, middle-aged person doing the Chicken Dance in the aisle of the barn next to a horse in cross-ties. That was me. Eventually, I got a reprieve on my humiliation when I had to start tacking up in GM's stall. I would find myself getting more and more anxious as it came time to bridle her though, because I felt that that was the time that it was going to happen.

Gem is mouthy. This is not a new thing. I don't think he will ever stop being mouthy. Part of it is curiosity, part of it is demanding, part of it is neediness. I can usually tell which it is and respond accordingly. Some days are worse than others. I rarely hand feed him because of his mouthiness.

Lesson was not great last night because we are both out of the routine and I really had to push him for everything I asked of him (yes, I am sore today). After I dismounted, I was chatting with one of my classmates. Gem was positioned just behind my right shoulder. In the middle of my conversation he pushed my shoulder - I didn't respond - then he carefully took a piece of the arm of my jacket and yanked the material!! He immediately looked up at the ceiling, looking all innocent. What? No, I didn't do anything. Must have been some other horse. I gave him a stern NO! I turned and continued my conversation and he did it AGAIN! What the heck??!

Technically, he didn't bite my person. But, his teeth did bite down on something that was part of me. A little too close for comfort. In a way, I have to admire his intelligence in getting my attention and reminding me that it was time to go. :-) Correcting his mouthiness while grooming is one thing, but having a sneak attack is a bit scary for me. I don't like the idea that his teeth are connecting, even if it is with fabric. I have visions of him turning into DH! Am I over-reacting? How would I correct this? My Chicken Dance skills are a bit rusty and I'd like to keep it that way!

What was I thinking....?


  1. This is interesting, and I look forward to reading what your equestrian cohorts say about it.

    Our greyhound Quasar is very mouthy, but in play and affection. Still, it can be a bit rough sometime. Greyhounds do this thing called "knitting," -- it means their teeth are chattering very quickly and usually on a person's arm or hand (non-harming and affection-based). It doesn't break skin. Do horses do anything like that?

  2. I've been kicked three times - twice by ponies and once in the jaw by Dawn - and it's not an experience I recommend. In all three cases, I got myself in situations that were pretty stupid and I was lucky not to get hurt worse. Some geldings are just plain mouthy and it isn't really all that aggressive, but I discourage it. Keeping horses out of your personal space is an important skill, particularly if you spend any time around loose horses. Dawn can bite (if allowed to) and Lily did as well, but we reached understandings - no bites allowed.

    Some horses pluck clothing to send a message - sometimes it's just to get your attention and sometimes it's edging into your space. I typically make an ugly noise (hiss) if a horse even thinks about something like that - it's my space and you're not allowed to do that.

  3. That said, there are a few truly dangerous aggressive horses out there - our Norman was that way when we got him - he'd been abused, and would attack anyone who passed him on crossties or anyone who went in his stall. And then there was Miranda - she came close to seriously injuring one of our barn workers and was dangerously aggressive - I think she would have killed someone eventually - but that's very rare and we think she may have been psychotic. There are aggressive biters who do it out of dominance and then there are others who do it out of pain, such as ulcers.

  4. Falling off sucks. I've fallen off more times then I'll ever be able to count. Biting is awful. I was once walking in front of a horse who had his head over his stall guard, and for absolutely no reason at all, he took a bite out of my shoulder. I was black and blue for a week and I never trusted him again (why I trusted him in the first place, I'm not sure?!). Kicking is by far the worst. I've only been kicked once, it it was by far the scariest, because I did absolutely nothing wrong. I was picking out the feet of a mare I used to adore, when out of no-where she strikes out with her back leg. It was completely random, no history of kicking at all! I ended up on my butt against the wall and all I remember thinking was how scared I was. She caught me in the arm. Again, I was black and blue for a week...

    As for the pinning of the ears and biting...My mare is a complete sweetheart, but she gets picked on in the pasture (plus she's a mare), so she pins her ears whenever another horse is near. NEVER has she bitten or kicked another human or horse, but nevertheless I always worry...I yell at her ever time, but I don't know how much I can blame her for the ear pinning...

    The biting would never be acceptable. I just can't stand the mouthiness. Do you hand feed a lot? Some horses are more "curious" and will "test the waters" more than others, and sometimes hand feeding can encourage that, though it really just depends on the personality of the horse. I wouldn't let him "nip" you even if it is just your clothing, because it could turn into a teeth to skin situation, which is not fun. For mouthy horses, I usually make some sort of noise and wave my hand (not hitting them) at them when they use their teeth...

    I do always try to remember that in the horse world, teeth are sometimes used to "groom" other horses and show "affection," so SOMETIMES that's all horses are trying to those cases, I just politely remind the horse that I prefer not to be "groomed," but thanks anyway...

  5. We do tend to get complacent around horses sometimes, you're definitely right about that. I'm confident that I know all my horses pretty well and I know who to be more careful around. None of them would ever intentionally kick but there's always a chance if they get startled. I guess it's good that I always make a point of talking to them when I'm around them so they know where I am at all times. I was cow-kicked only once when my horse Erik was a baby and he didn't want a lesson at dinnertime. When I pulled up the girth, he let me have it in the knee. He was corrected and never did it again in the 15 yrs. I had him though.

    I've been bitten twice, once when a horse tried to chase me and run me down in the paddock. That horse never liked me for some reason (my smell, my face, my voice?)I got bit when I tried to grab his halter to stop his attacks on me and he bit my shoulder. And I used to give him treats in the barn too. The other time was when I wasn't paying attention and simply holding a OTTB while a friend tacked up, she pulled the girth and he got me good on the inside forearm. Hurt for a month.

    I don't know how to stop a horse that isn't mine from not biting, the owner should work with the horse and let them know it's not acceptable behavior. With Gem he's just trying to get your attention I think but if my horse did it to me I would correct with my voice and move them out of my space. What ever works with him, but he shouldn't be allowed to get away with it even once. They're pretty smart about pushing boundaries.

  6. I let Lucas get away with some mouthy behavours. I cannot feed treats out of a flat hand (due to my wrist fusing) so he has learned to take objects with his lips (only when I offer them to him) and then when I let go he will eat them.. I know not a good practice but I am the only one alowed to do it with him.

    Although not a good thing for Gem to do, I did have a horse who would do the same thing if he thought you were talking too much instead of getting on and riding him. Only he would sneak down and snap your breaches!

  7. Well, the good news is (I've read from many sources and experienced it myself) that mouthy horses (specifically geldings) are especially intelligent...always wanting to test their environment.

    Of course, who cares if you get bit right? The caveat to what I say is, somehow, luckily, I've never been kicked or bitten. Probably more luck than anything. Having said that...

    Miles is super mouthy. Yet, I still (gasp!) feed him treats by hand-not infrequently. When I'm holding his lead and speaking to someone, he has tried to get my attention by "mouthing" me 2 or 3 times. Did I like it? NO. And it's not acceptable, because it can escalate.

    Still, I'm not going to wallop my horse in the face for it (which I was advised to do, btw). What I did do the 2nd time he did it (the first time I admit, I ignored it, which was not the right thing to do either) was growl at him and back his ass up 4 or 5 steps. I honestly think that's the best thing to do. Re-establish your place in your little herd and take away his comfort (of standing next to you). Only when he's standing quietly and doing what you want can he come back into your space.

    I hope this makes sense and isn't to rambly:) I do let Miles mouth his lead ropes, crop, etc when we're just standing there and I'm doing something else or talking to someone. Lots of people would say that's horrible, and that it's REALLY horrible that I feed him treats by hand, but I don't care. He's a sweet horse and those couple times he was naughty he wasn't even close to biting skin. Your mileage may vary. My philosophy is don't make mountains out of molehills:) I'm not going to make my horse afraid of my hand or head-shy for doing a natural behavior.

  8. Wolfie, you might remember that Dar was mouthy. I'm of the opinion that a mouthy horse can go on to become a biter, but by no means do all of them. I agree with the others who are guessing that Gem was just impatient for attention. Nonetheless, I also agree that you need to reclaim your space simply, directly and quickly. Like Sarah, I used backing to retrain Dar. The only thing I'd add is that I always got "big" when I answered his barging into my space by mouthing me or pushing at me. I'd draw myself up, tell him "No way," or "Oh no, you didn't!", etc., and then back him several steps, step away from him and keep him waiting at the end of the line, apart from me, for a few seconds. You can do that even when you are talking with someone, believe me. Think of it as an automatic correction.

    As for knowing a bite is incoming, there's a mare where I board Scout who always pins her ears utterly flat when humans or other horses walk by. She has never bared her teeth or snaked her head, nor has she ever shown intent in her eyes. That's because she's a big faker who doesn't realize we can all see through her. Ha!

  9. Good morning!! First, let me say that I am relieved to know that I am not alone when it comes to mouthy horses! Whew! :-)

    Detroit – I have seen horses do the knitting thing on each others backs and withers when they do mutual grooming.

    Kate – I remember when you were recovering from Dawn’s kick! I like the idea of making a negative sound like hissing. I think I can work it as a “warning” noise and still use NO! when he continues to invade my space when not invited to do so.

    Mare – A bite to the shoulder? Yikes! You see, that’s what I’m talking about! I found your comment about getting picked on in the pasture interesting. There are some horses that, when you are riding with them in the arena, pin their ears every time you go near them. Perhaps they are picked on when they are out with the herd.

    GHM – I always let the other horses that are being tacked up know that I am around. A horse tried to chase you down in a paddock??!! Holy crap. Your experiences just show that stuff can happen when you least expect it.

    JPS – Sort of cute that Lucas is so gentle with your hand feeding. I rarely hand feed Gem because of his mouthiness. Actually, I don’t treat him unless he comes when I call him in from the field and when we are finished our lesson.

    Sarah – The vet and farrier have said that they think Gem is smart and LA thinks he’s a little too smart for his own good. :-) Gosh, Gem and Miles could be brothers based on some of their behaviours; Gem chews the lead rope or reins, too. I use backing up sometimes to re-establish my seniority, so I can see how it can apply to this situation also.

    Muddy – You know, it depends on what mood Gem is in. I would say most of the time, he’s pretty well behaved and the mouthiness is almost non-existent…almost. :-) There is one horse that is usually in his stall while I am tacking Gem up. His ears are always pinned. I think he is just unhappy. He hates being in all the time. I allow him to watch me groom Gem and I talk to him and give him little scratches. He craves attention. But, when it comes time to saddle up and my back is exposed to him, I make sure the top half of his door is closed. :-)

  10. My recommendation is the same as Sarah's, bark at him and make his back away from you. If you're talking to someone, ask them to tell you if it looks like he's going to put his mouth on you so you can reprimand him before he actually does it. I really don't think he's doing anything you need to be scared of, annoyed yes, scared no.

    I'm currently dealing with a difficult horse that's not mine (Rocky). I'm stuck in a bit of a hard place: I'm always around, her owner isn't, and she's so pushy and mouthy that she's dangerous to me. I've been forced to do a little bit of clicker training with her to teach her to keep her mouth off me.

  11. Actually, I should add that if you were interested in clicker training I'd tell you Gem needs to learn Grownups Are Talking. This is where you C/T a horse for keeping their head and mouth away from you. It teaches them self control along with how not to be mouthy.

  12. Thanks, Shannon. Good suggestion. I will ask the person I am talking to to let me know if it looks like he's going to interrupt. :-) Grownups are Talking, eh?...

  13. Great topic :)

    My gelding is extremely mouthy, and was pushy about hand feeding when I first got him. I agree with the others about it being a personal space issue, and back my horse up if he gets to be too much.

    When hand feeding, if he gets exuberant, I close my fist, turn my hand over and bump him on the lips until he comes for the treat with respect. This strategy has worked beautifully for us.

    I also use the "oh my, how did your head get in the way of my elbow" move with horses that are swinging their heads around, or getting too close from behind. My trainer says you have to do it absolutely without emotion. Works great.

    I guess it comes down to being aware of body language, but in a relaxed way.

  14. Hello CFS! I don't have an issue with using my elbows. :-) You are brave to offer your fist until your guy takes the treat gently. :-) Thanks for the suggestions and thanks for following!!