Episode 182-How to deal with a mouthy horse and prevent biting.
A listener asks how to correct her mouthy horse and how to keep mouthiness or biting from happening in the first place. In this podcast, I explain why biting happens, the most common problem I see people making, and I give actionable instructions on how to be more engaging, interesting and clear.
Learning how to prevent this behavior will also teach you a skill that is useful and transferable from groundwork into ridden work too.
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Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] What ultimately you would love your horse to do is be able to read you at your core, but that also is going to put some responsibility on you to show up in a way, to your core, that is interesting and engaging.
Announcer: [00:00:18] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:37] Hi, I’m Stacey Westfall and I help writers become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is Q&A. Today’s question is all about how to handle a mouthy horse. Let’s listen to the question.
Caller: [00:00:57] Hi, Stacey, My name is Heidi. I have a four-year-old Appaloosa who seems to be quite mouthy. He likes to mouth and nibble his lead rope and he might even kind of nibble a piece of clothing or things on the shelf or the cross ties. Sometimes he stands quietly in the cross ties just for 20 to 30 minutes, no problem, and other times he’s just kind of dancey. I’m just wondering how to correct the mouthy-ness and what the best way is to keep it from happening in the first place. I obviously don’t want it to turn into biting. We have worked a little bit on keeping him outside of my personal space but it’s not just personal things, personal space that he steps into. It’s also things like the ropes and the shelves and the blankets hanging up, etc. Thank you for your podcast. I sure love it.
Stacy Westfall: [00:02:11] Thanks for the question, Heidi. I have decided to answer this with three different points. Why it happens, what mode I often see people showing up in, and a different way to look at this issue. First of all, many people are in your situation where they see a mouthy horse and they fear the horse. Learning to bite and biting is a problem worth being worried about. However, I think there’s an even bigger problem here. But before we go there, let’s talk about why this happens. I always think it’s interesting to look at horses in a herd and see why this would start and why this would continue and why this would stop. So when I do that, I look at a young horse out exploring and we end up seeing something that we see across the board. We see puppies do this, we see human children do this. They explore with their mouths. And when we see foals turned out with other horses, they are mouthy. I mean, right off the bat, learning how to nurse and then touching everything with their noses. And then they’re exploring things with their mouths and their noses. And if you watch groups of horses like this, what you’ll start to see is that the foals begin to learn who tolerates what and for how long. And so when you tell me that you’ve worked a little bit on keeping him outside of your personal space, it’s a concept that you definitely see inside the herd. So there are some horses that just don’t even want the foal even near them, and they’ll drive them away and the mother will even take them away. They start to learn where to go and where not to go, where to express this, and where not to express this. If we then jump much further up, you know, let’s just go up to like maybe a yearling or a two-year-old. Those are really interesting to me. When you put the younger horses like a–yearlings together, a lot of times those horses haven’t clearly established kind of who they are almost. You know, some, some–the really strong ones maybe have. But it’s much more common to have a group of younger horses that are all together like that, that are still working it out. They have questions. They are not quite sure about what the other horse’s boundary is, what their boundary might be. And so those are interesting stages to watch groups of horses and because there’s a lot of physical body contact, there’s a lot more shoulder to shoulder contact, bumping into each other, mouthing, nipping, scratching that’s biting that’s not questionable anymore that now it’s biting, biting. They kind of blur all those lines together while they’re trying to work out where the different boundaries are. And that’s always an interesting time because it’s so physically interactive and it looks so loud and yet not as clear cut as it typically does when the horses get older and stronger and more clear about who’s who. But even then, you start seeing these different bubbles.
Stacy Westfall: [00:02:11] I made a video quite a while ago where I had some yearlings turned out together and they were bumping and biting and then I turned an older horse out and they do all this bumping and biting in a big circle around him because they don’t go into his bubble, even though he’s standing there, and it doesn’t look like he’s giving off any signs. It’s because they already knew where his boundary was. And what you could clearly see in this video was that his bubble had been established and they weren’t questioning it at all. But this nippy, shouldery, little–like all these little movements that they were doing to each other were basically all these questions about where they were going to end up stacking up and how much this was going to be allowed for how long and with who. So often people think they’ve got this mouthy horse and the first thing to do is keep them at a distance. Number one, keep them at a distance. Number two, figure out how to get close without getting chewed on too much while training them not to bite. And then number three, the end goal, I’m able to comfortably be close without fear of being bitten. Now what I operate on is, number one, keep them at a distance. So what you said about your personal space I agree. Number two, what I do, I become engaging and interesting and clear. And then number three, I’m able to be comfortable while close and not fear biting. Can you hear the big difference there? Often people think, number one, keep them at a distance. Number two, figure out how to get close without getting chewed on too much while training them not to bite me. Number three I’m able to be comfortable while being close without fear of being bitten. If you go instead with number one, keep them at a distance. And number two, become engaging and interesting and clear then what’s naturally going to come from that is that you will be able to close that distance without the fear of being bitten, which leads me to my next point and to your question, what is the best way to keep this from happening in the first place? I decided to tackle this from what I’m going to call, how you show up or observer mode. So let’s just make a more clear example of what observer mode might be. Imagine that you are visiting a barn with a friend and your friend is taking you out to a pasture to see a horse. So as you’re walking, you can look across this large parking lot and over in another area, you see somebody struggling to load a horse into a trailer. You’re walking with your friend who’s talking to you about the horse you’re going to see. And you’re kind of watching the friend, but you’re kind of watching what’s going on over at the trailer. Maybe you’re curious what method they’re using or how well it’s going, or what they’ve tried and you’re listening to your friend. Likely in this situation you are in observer mode. Your friend’s leading you somewhere. You’re not even really making those decisions. Your friend is leading you. You’re listening to the friend. You’re half-listening to the friend. Because remember, half of you is watching what’s going on with the horse trailer, kind of making guesses about that. You’re just kind of showing up in what I’m going to call observer mode. And observer mode is not a bad thing. It does, however, tend to be a more passive mode. And what is interesting about this is that horses can tell when you’re in observer mode. And so what I often see with people when they tie their horse up is that they tie their horse up and they go into observer mode. An observer mode might sound like this: Hmm. What’s happening over there? Can you hear how that would apply to whatever was going on at the trailer? You’re walking with your friend and you’re thinking, Hmm, what’s happening over there? Or you tie your horse up and you walk 20 feet away and you’re standing there talking to a friend and then you think, Hmm, what’s happening over there with your horse in the cross tie?
Stacy Westfall: [00:09:55] So even if the horse had ideal behavior before being tied up. Even if horses do have that ideal behavior, often they’ll recognize that change in the way of being, that rule change when you tie them up and walk away, if that’s what you’ve done over and over again. Because when you go into observer mode, it lacks that feel of leadership or guidance. When you go into observer mode, you basically kind of shut off that feeling that radiates out from you when you have a plan. So remember, observer mode is a way of being. It’s an energy that you bring or you don’t bring. And then what’s interesting about thinking how often you may or may not show up in observer mode, one thing that’s interesting about that is that it does change how corrections are made. Because if you are standing there, your horse is in the cross ties, you’re talking to a friend 20 feet away, the horse is dancing around, you’re in observer mode, and then something brings your attention back to the horse, even if you kind of try to make a correction from there. It’s interesting because the horse almost sees this as like a break in the way you’re showing up. It’s a little bit like when I tell people that when they’re lunging their horse and their whole core is kind of drawing away from the horse, like they’re scared or slightly intimidated or not confident, we’ll at least go with that. But then they’re reaching out with the lunge whip to kind of tap on the horse what it looks like to me is their whole core is pulling back in a way, but the one little whip is out there kind of like tap, tap, tap, I hope this works. Well there’s kind of a disconnect in the way you’re showing up in that example. And that’s a lot of times what the horses experience when you’re in observer mode and then you turn around and you try to make that correction without actually being in that leadership energy. And then what tends to happen is that the horses will often get better and better at reading when you’re serious and when you’re not, because you’re basically not always serious about it, or they will get less serious about whatever, let’s just say the correction you’re trying to make because you’re not coming to them with that energy that actually shows up as leadership that they’re used to feeling in the herd, this clear, congruent kind of energy that matches up. So this is what happens horse to horse. Like when the young ones are trying to work it out, it’s kind of a mixed-signal thing going on. Be aware if you’re showing up in observer mode around your horse because what ultimately you would love your horse to do is be able to read you at your core, but that also is going to put some responsibility on you to show up in a way, to your core, that is interesting and engaging, which brings me to point number three, a different way to look at it.
Stacy Westfall: [00:13:10] I think another way to look at this and I think the biggest problem that this points to is that you have a horse that is so ready to engage his brain more. When I see a horse that is being creative and chewing on things and knocking things off shelves and touching and doing these things, I think it’s a symptom of a mind that is ready to be engaged in more thinking. When I look at the behavior, I literally think he wants more engagement. He wants more. He’s ready for more. And so a lot of times more you can look at it a couple of different ways. More can be a physical work cycle, which I think a lot of times people go to and they think, okay, I’ll untie him and I’ll go give him more by lunging and then coming back. All of that can be done in an unengaging way or an engaging way. So let’s not even take him away from that situation. Let’s even stay in this situation for a moment. How do you know when your horse is ready to advance? When they’re giving you signs that they’re definitely not overwhelmed with the amount of what’s being asked of them. So that may be looking kind of bored like this horse is giving these signs. So let’s review. Number one, I’m going to keep mine at a distance. Number two, I’m going to become more engaging, more interesting, and more clear. And so for the sake of this podcast, I’m going to pretend that in your voicemail you left me, that you told me that your horse has a basic understanding of groundwork. I’m going to say that you can lunge him around you in both directions and get at least a B-minus grade. Not perfect, but a proficient level of understanding. He’s not dragging you away. You’re able to get him to walk, trot, and maybe even canter around you, you know, depending on his age and what you’re expecting of him. He’s four, so we’re going to say he’s walk, trotting, and cantering. So he’s–and you can stop him and you can back him up. And preferably by the time you’re expecting him to stand well in cross ties, preferably this also means that you can use a stick and string and whip around him while he stands quietly facing you because you’ve done this groundwork. You can lunge him clockwise, counterclockwise, walk, trot, canter, you can stop, you can back him up, and you can whip around him. Now that we know you have that foundation and you’ve had him over in the cross ties and you want to start figuring out how you can work on all of this, I want you to think, okay. Number one thing I could do to change this is I’m going to walk him up to where I normally cross tie him and I’m going to teach him ground tie instead. I want you to walk up to where you normally cross tie him and this time I want you to approach it as teaching him to ground tie instead. Because if you approach this like you’re going to teach him to ground tie, you’re automatically going to feel the weight of the responsibility of being engaging and precise and clear. You’re going to keep him on a long lunge line. You’re going to stop him in the spot that you normally would cross tie him. You’re going to say, whoa. And I use that hand signal like the stop signal like a crossing guard would hold their hand up and ask you to stop. I use that signal and I step back a couple of steps and the first time I do it, the horses follow me. And since they already moved, I back them up again and I do it again. I back them up, put their feet back in that spot, say, whoa, hold my hand up in the stop sign thing and start to step back. If I feel like they’re really following my body because they’re kind of drawing towards me stepping back, then I’ll kind of pulse that stop sign hand and be like, Don’t follow me. And keep in mind, I’m still holding the end of that long lunge line. And I’m going to repeat that over and over and over again until he doesn’t follow me.
Stacy Westfall: [00:17:09] Now, maybe your horse didn’t follow you. Maybe he completely disconnected from you immediately and turned to the shelf to knock things off. And that’s when I want you to move back and put his feet back in place. Hopefully, he’s parked in a spot where he can’t touch things on the shelf without moving his feet. If he is, you need to pick a better spot. Put him in a spot where he can’t touch the things without moving his feet and then put him back there. And the next time that he reaches out, you’re going to move him back. And over and over again what’s going to start to happen is he’s going to start to pay attention to your body because you keep moving your body and then moving his feet, moving your body and moving his feet, and keep you keep putting him back in the same spot. You’re going to start becoming interesting. He’s going to be getting his questions answered. Because the secret about ground tying is that it really isn’t about the ground. It’s really about you, the way you’re showing up, and you teaching the horse a concept. And that first main concept is that you are paying attention to them and you are directing them or redirecting them every time that this happens. You are responding. You are proactive. Now, personally–I just gave you that example, like you were going to just step back and watch. But I don’t prefer that because it does tend to put you into observer mode. And so what I do is I prefer to do this while I’m grooming. So it’s the same exact thing, except listen to this. I park the horse there, I give them the stop sigh cue, and then I start brushing their neck and I’m still holding on to the end of that long lunge line. And a lot of times they’ll put their head down or forward and they’ll start like stepping toward something. And I’ll reach up and I’ll back them back up and I’ll say, Whoa again and I’ll start brushing again. I think that this makes a lot more sense while I’m grooming to teach it, because it keeps me focused. It keeps me in that more engaging mode, not in the observer mode. Because when I do step back, when I do get to the point where let’s say that I’ve been ground tying, I think doing this while grooming makes more sense because it makes sense that they would be focused on me while I’m grooming them. And even with that, my horses still tend to want to wander and I get to move them back. But there’s this sense coming from me that I’m still connected and doing something and I’m correcting them, redirecting them back to that spot over and over again. Then when I start stretching it is when I go to change brushes or change to the hoof pick. So that’s when I’m more likely to step away from them, give that stop sign signal, that pulsing stop sign signal, don’t follow me while I step five feet over here and grab this hoof pick and come back over. So I’m doing this and what I’m doing is it might look like I’m just trying to get the horse to stand in one spot, but I’m teaching this horse to pay attention to me. I’m teaching this horse to keep his feet in one spot, and I’m teaching him that I can be moving around him while he stands still and continues to focus on me. I make sure that while I’m doing this, I’m staying in this engaged mode and not just in observer mode. And once this concept has been trained, you can start to see where it’s a mindset for both the horse and the handler. So every time I’m around my horses and I’m moving, my horse is keeping at least one ear on me. So even Willow, who’s very finished at this, she’ll stop and she’ll stand there. And to the casual observer, it might not look like she’s watching me because she might be noticing my husband leading a horse somewhere or a different horse that just got turned out and is running around. But every time I move, I walk a little bit forward. I walk a little bit back. I go to change brushes, one ear jumps to follow me the whole time. So at a high level, they can have this relaxed look while following you.
Stacy Westfall: [00:21:21] Now Presto tends to make more of a mistake like he’ll be standing still but I’ll notice that while I’m walking up to change brushes that his attention, even though his feet haven’t moved, he is fully looking out the door. And when I move to get the brush, his ear doesn’t jump to follow me. That’s actually the first sign that he’s not paying attention. The first sign that he’s not paying attention isn’t that he moved his feet. The first sign is that he’s not paying attention to me. When people tend to put the horses in cross ties or even just regular tying them up they tend to hand the responsibility over to the cross ties. And the unfortunate thing is that the ropes don’t mind being chewed on and that the horse learns they can swing left and swing right and there’s all kinds of these movements they can make. So when you say it’s not just like personal things, like your personal space that he steps into, it’s also the ropes and the shelves and the blankets and those things, can you see how this is more of an attention problem? Because the horse isn’t paying attention to you. And for me, that bubble starts when I’m out lunging them and I’m getting their attention at a distance because I don’t want to be that close. And then when I’m getting close to them out there, when I’ve done the groundwork out there and the horse is understanding these signals, then even when I come back and I’m teaching them to ground tie, I’m paying so much attention and being so detail-oriented on my expectations and the boundaries and where I want them. Then as I start to expand it and I’m walking, you know, back and forth to get the brushes or back and forth to get the saddle, what they’re learning is they’re learning what I’ve talked about in previous podcasts, which is they’re learning that when I come into their viewing area, when I come into their space, I’m something to pay attention to. But why would they pay attention to you if you’re just in observer mode?
Stacy Westfall: [00:23:20] Observer mode has a place. And the place for observer mode is after you leave the barn. Your brain should be running like a video camera the whole time. And then when you leave the barn, you can kick into observer mode. Remember the phrasing I used earlier? Hmm, what’s happening over there? It’s going to sound a little bit like that. Hmm, why is this happening? What was happening over there? If you really want to be excellent at observer mode, set up a video camera. Whether you’re riding or whether you’re doing groundwork, that is the best way to kick your brain into observer mode later. And you’ll also be able to verify how accurate your little video recording in your head was. Because a lot of times, if you’re not really skilled at doing this, what you remember or recall or even the experience doesn’t actually look that much like what it does on video. But what you want to do is eventually be able to have this little video recording in your mind that’s really accurate. So that’s what I do. I go into observer mode after I leave that horse’s face, after I’m outside of there. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t observing in the moment, but it means I was showing up with this clear guidance leader-type energy with a plan. You already know what the issue is. You’re not surprised by it. You need to have a plan and then you need to be in this leadership mode or whatever word you like that has more of that energy and vibration. You need to be showing up with the plan and you need to be in that mode the whole time. And the number one thing I would recommend for you is that it isn’t about correcting the horse. The prevention comes in the horse being, wow, she really has a plan. Look, she actually cares if I move my left front foot. Does she move it back? She did. What if I do it again? Look, she moved it back again. What if I move my hip? Oh, she moved that back again. Look at my friend over there. Wait a minute. She moved me back again. You’re going to become very interesting. And as you become very interesting, you’ll be dialing in the most powerful tool that you have, which is your horse’s brain, looking at you and thinking, Wow, this person is so interesting. This person is so clear. And those are the things that make you very engaging. I think this is a really important concept for you to study on the ground, because when I’m teaching my courses or my private one on one, what I see a lot is riders who are doing this when they’re riding, they’re riding their horses in observer mode. And the problem with riding a horse in observer mode is that you’re not bringing the number one tool that you have, which is literally the way you show up with a plan. Like just showing up with “this is my plan” will put you into more of a leader or guide type energy versus observer mode. You’re far better off to go in with the plan, to go in with the purpose, because if you ride with a plan and with a purpose, then you’re going to show up in this energy mode that especially if you’ve been doing on the ground with a plan, with a purpose, engaging, interesting. If you’ve been showing up like that on the ground and you transfer that over to the back, that is the most transferable skill that goes from groundwork to riding is literally your way of being.
Stacy Westfall: [00:26:52] Did you notice that I recorded this whole podcast without giving super specific instructions on how to handle the horse as it tries to nip or bite you? That was intentional because to me, by the time the horse is taking that swing to nip or grab at you, you’ve already missed the signs that were coming. The horse that is grabbing at you is the horse that you didn’t notice was in your bubble, that you didn’t notice was ignoring your cue to back up, that you didn’t pay attention to that he wasn’t moving when you asked him to move, stopping when you asked him to stop. I think when you start looking at this as something that is preventable by the way that you show up and in the way that you give him instructions–which could be specifically when you’re leading him, that you start having this same level of detail I talked you through with the groundwork, that you start expecting him to keep his neck straight, that you don’t let him look to the left and bump into your body just a little bit, that you don’t let him look to the right and talk to the horses while you’re walking, that you expect him to slow down when you slow down and speed up when you speed up by following your body. I think that if you stay very engaging and interesting and clear and that you hold him to a higher level, that this action will actually prevent him from consistently making these mistakes and learning those as habits. Thanks for the question, Heidi, and thanks to all of you for listening. I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.
Announcer: [00:28:32] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.
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I loved this episode. I have a little dun QH that is so smart and does everything you described. He will come running to the fence and stare at me as if to say, “Hello! Let’s play.” He is a ‘tough nut’ but always wants to be near me. I have said to myself many times that he wants more attention. I’m starting with the ground tying training tonight. He’s a cool little horse and very smooth. Thank you for the motivation and ideas on other things to do when I can’t ride. You’ve said things like this before but today it stuck! 🙂
Hello Stacey, I understand the thought process of why you did not explain how to fix the nippy mouth, as in missed the signs. I was hopng to get some comment on that rypeof horse though. I bought 5 yr old that can make a threat to bite, while tacking. He has never made contact, just pins his ear and swings his head towards you. know hear the lips…
Physically he is fine, when you are out in the pen,you can tighted the cinch as much as you want. No concerns anymore. I can only assume, previous 5 years he was able to scare people from actually riding… as far as know the first time he loped was with me. he has been a project, but has come leaps and bounds. Do you think this behavior will ever go away regardless how many times i correct him. My bubble space, was not present at all, but he is getting better with that. any suggestions, or any insight on how much change I should expect thanks, love the podcast, Patty ps this behavior happens tied or ground tied. Does not matter.