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Horse Problem - Stopping Horse-to-Horse Aggression - How can I stop one horse from biting another?









QUESTION: How can I stop one horse from biting another? It has taken place since one has been introduced to the other and after years he still bites the other, and it doesn't make sense because when they are separated, they go nuts, screaming in horse talk for each other.

REPLY: Your problem there is not always an easy one to solve quickly, mainly because it is happening probably mostly when both horses are away from you, out in pasture I'm assuming. I.E., out of sight. And horses have a natural herd pecking order instinct they follow, put there by nature. When you have two or more horses together, one will always surface as dominant and the other(s) subservient; just the nature of the beast. Perhaps the #2 horse there is not being properly respectful of #1's dictates and #1 then feels he has to resort to biting to get the other horse properly subservient. That's my guess what's going on, because you say they are still friends and they get "buddy sour" (the term for that) when you separate them. So, it's not simple aggression, doesn't look like. Though it also could be #1 horse wasn't properly socialized how to communicate less aggressively to other horses to get his points across.

There is one exercise you can do to see if you can teach the biting horse that it's not okay to go that route, and it's an exercise that establishes YOU as the "lead mare" of their herd-of-two, allowing you the opportunity to dictate some "new rules" for herd behavior. Here's how it works:

It's actually, in my experience - at least the ones I've dealt with in the past like this - a "socialization" problem sometimes, as well as a territorial/pecking order glich problem, and I've found that the human (trainer) indeed can intervene, break down the problem to start teaching the negative horse involved more polite socialization manners, skills and expectations. And it is using Natural Horsemanship techniques and tenets. This is what I would do:

For our purposes here, I'll call the biting horse #1 horse & the being bitten horse #2. To start this exercise, allow #2 horse to be free/at liberty in an enclosed area, like a round pen, or smaller paddock area or an arena, and let him get acclimated first (20 minutes maybe, to half an hour), watching for him to relax a bit before you proceed. I like that #2 at liberty horse to have access to either grass there (perhaps growing along the edges there/whatever enclosed area I'm working in). If there's no access to natural grass, I put hay in there in one slightly spread-out pile against a fenceline there. Once #2 has finished exploring the parameters of the new environment, is relaxed, generally he will settle in to eat.

At this point, next, I bring in #1 horse, the problem (ruder, pushier, more aggressive) horse IN HALTER/lead rope. I prefer to use a natural horsemanship halter with attached 12-foot lead rope (tied on, not clipped on) for this exercise lesson.

You need the 12-foot lead for this exercise, and the NH halter is designed with knots at strategic pressure points on the horse's face so he will feel the slightest pressure applied. Not all halters are alike and I myself would only use that one.

I walk the #1 haltered horse close to the #2 horse, who is generally by then eating that food/grass, but at first I don't go too close - baby steps! I let the haltered horse just watch the other horse eat, hopefully whetting his appetite. If there is grass under his feet, I don't let him eat it. If his head goes down to try to eat, I snatch it right back up (snapping the lead downward repeatedly brings the head up instantly). I'm the "lead mare" from that point forward and the lead mare will decide when and where the horse can eat. This is natural behavior they understand, as in the wild it is the lead mare who makes those decisions for the herd and they are all born instinctively knowing this. #1 horse can only watch the other at-liberty horse eat at first. I make sure the haltered horse grasps that there is indeed food there awaiting: Right with the #2 horse. From this point on, I will (this is an NH tenet): "make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard" for the being-schooled haltered horse. Having the food there helps to set the aggression/territorial/rudeness situation up to flush it out, as most horses can get very territorial around food, and so this gives me the opportunity to correct this behavior and let #1 learn: there's a better way, a more comfortable spot to be in for him than in the aggressor spot.

I ease the haltered horse closer to the #2 at liberty horse who, again, is generally eating by this point. I don't take my eyes off the haltered horse from thereon, so I can stay highly perceptive to his every response, and at any sign of rudeness or aggression (ears back even, or any negative message they are sending out body-language-wise, to try to move off the other horse dominently - or even to YOU, the human - or just being mean/dominent period), I instantly jerk the lead rope down repeatedly, walk into him while jerking, while saying a loud "Shhhhh!" and, in this manner, he is moved back away from the food/other horse. Into more boring "nothingness land." Standing on a sandy bare spot being ideal. Not allowed to eat. He has to just stand there. And just think. "Time out." Not allowed to move around.

That's the first time he comes to terms that I am the "leader" in this sudden herd of three, not him. He's at this point not allowed to do anything but stand there. I.e.: the uncomfortable spot. Allow the time for him to think, to digest this correction. But keep him facing the other horse/the food so he can only watch. After a few minutes, I put slack in the lead rope again, and allow #1 horse to reapproach the food (i.e. other horse) after the time-out, but again, at any remote signs of rudeness to the other horse, or overstepping his boundaries with me (the lead mare), the disciplining step is repeated. He's sent back, "Shhhh'd," and has to stand away from the food/other horse again in more-boring, non-rewarding-land. And I let him think again. Via thinking, horses learn. And repeat, allowing him to reapproach the food. And so on. Repetitions of this.

There will come a point when #1 horse shifts his mind to start thinking more about the food than the other horse or me, and he'll begin to become more submissive, respectful about it all. (Dropping head, working mouth). Body language for: asking permission now, rather than insisting. And he begins to focus more on, "heck, when am I going to get to eat like I see #2 horse doing there?"

When #1 horse dips down to eat finally, at one of our reapproaches, and if he's not sending any more (even the slightest) "move away" messages to the other horse, or to me, he's allowed to remain there eating. With complete slack in the rope (i.e., more freedom). <---the release of pressure.  All horses learn from the release of pressure what it is that is expected of them, NOT from the pressure itself. Important fact to remember. The release from pressure spot then, in this particular lesson, is: eat quietly, more softly, non-aggressively, near the #2 horse, and near me. The pressure spot is: being sent back away when not being friendly, when being more aggressive. He only has those two choices put before him. Period. We call this: showing the horse the black & white zone. The black zone is when he is acting up, and that's when correcting pressure is applied. The white zone is when the horse is behaving and we don't apply pressure there, all is good and calm. No grey areas are allowed.

Very quickly the "easy" spot in horse #1's mind indeed becomes: eating quietly and not ordering the other horse around or away, or not being pushy towards me either around the other horse. The difficult, more uncomfortable spot is: him communicating rudely and aggressively to the other horse or to me.

Be patient. "Take your watch off" and do this lesson only when you have plenty of time and patient energy to devote to it. It takes a number of times of #1 horse exploring those parameters before he gets it, but they do get it, especially if you can manage this lesson when he's very hungry. I've done this many times in similar problem situations. Horses will naturally lean in the direction of what is easiest, not what is hardest. Part of natural prey animal behavior. Horses are energy conservers. Being moved away, sent back, requires energy from him. Eating quietly does not.

I also, when he's getting it, come in to him to reward, bond on him (stroke the neck), to let him know he's getting it right now. "Good boy!" Important to reward behaviors that you wish. Hand on a horse for reward speeds along learning by 60%

After that is going well, I begin (using the lead rope) to encourage the haltered horse to get closer and closer to the #2 horse, following the same procedure. This time, the only two choices become: eating very close to the #2 peacefully, head to head if I can manage that, or he gets exited back again if he becomes negative about it or pushy (biting, etc.) towards the other horse or to me. I've upped the anty so to speak now when I perceive he's ready for this increased expectation. Black and white zone spelled out more clearly, concisely, no grey areas. I encourage the sniffing of the #2 horse, checking the horse out kindly (with slack/no pressure); I encourage peaceful behavior, but I will correct as explained above, for any signs of rudeness or aggression of any sort. In other words: I'm removing from his behavior repertoire his own perceptions of himself being the leader.

Believe it or not, this works. Takes excellent and instant timing on your part as the trainer/handler, however, because you want the horse to connect up very quickly, mentally WHY he's being "sent back." So get your timing dead-on accurate for this. Which is why you must watch the horse closely, very closely, to remain perceptive to any negative body language whatsoever and react instantly to it. Three seconds or even two seconds reaction/correction is too late. I correct for any negative body language. Nano-second instantly. I'm not harsh nor mean when doing it. Just consistently firm/assertive. There's a difference. I'm giving him the choice, the message: It's okay to be/eat peacefully around this horse and around me, okay to check out the #2 horse, learn to be friends, and be respectful of him & me in this "herd"; it's not okay to be negative or rude or dominant.

Before long, you'll be able to correct even a mildly negative thought or action on that #1 horse's part with a simple "shhh!" because you will have planted that sound into the horse's understanding foundation as meaning "stop it!" and he'll correct himself instantly at that sound, no need to send him back. Believe it or not, they get it. First there in the structured area - later out in pasture. A "shhh" out in pasture when you approach the horses and #1 is acting up, will now go a long, long way. You've laid down the foundation for the future, allowing you a "cue" with the "Shhhh" sound to use from a distance whenever needed to remind him of the behavior expectation should you need to. If horses can be taught like that to eat peacefully right next to each other, you've set them up to get along better even after they are finished eating, and you've taught the more dominant one that: when you enter the picture especially, he has to drop down the pecking order below you, instantly and reflexively. When horses are eating peacefully, their heads are down and they are relaxed. Via relaxation, the horse learns he CAN relax around #2 horse and around you.

After that exercise I just described above, I hang there for a long while in that confined area "classroom," even when they are eating side by side closely, peacefully to make sure the haltered horse fully gets it. I use my gut instincts for knowing when it's time to remove the halter from #1 horse. And that would mean: all is going peacefully for quite a while (no time frame really, more about reading the body language and going with your gut instincts). I next remove the halter, but remain there to monitor for a while longer. If #1 horse regresses to formerly aggressive or dominant behavior then, when the halter is off, I simply take the lead rope and toss it at his back feet and send him away from the food/other horse, "shhing" at the same time. I.e., still able to position myself as the lead mare. Usually he'll ask to come back in at some point there and I allow it, but only if he's coming in "softly" and nonaggressively. If I have to, I'll rehalter, to back up teaching steps, but generally, I don't have to do that by this point, because he gets it. I stay to monitor, but more like the playground monitor in kindergarten. From a bit more distance, but letting them know I'm watching.

Why I feel, and have found, this works so well: each herd has a dominant member - in the wild that would generally be a lead mare. She moves the herd, corrects the youngsters or the unruly ones, and she will push out and banish to the outskirts any who are misbehaving or sometimes even those she deems below her pecking order and not worthy of being with her, and only allows them back in when she feels they are properly contrite and more submissive. In this particular exercise, in essence, I become the lead mare in this "herd of three" to hone the expectation of peace, respectful behavior, and this encourages the formerly dominant horse to shut off that attempt at dominance/leadership himself, so they can better find the easier "get along" spot.

Practice this and see if it works for you, as well.

If you do this for a while, several sessions even; before long, that other horse will learn that proper social behavior involves toning it down, more respect, more friendliness, and that aggressiveness towards you or other horses is simply unacceptable in your own personal "herd expectations."

In my experience, I've seen this particular problem crop up more often in horses who were raised (or stalled) alone away from others during their more formative early years. There's a window of developmental opportunity when horses are young - between being a foal to around age two - when they were supposed to learn proper horse socialization skills by being within a herd. Generally a competent and fair lead mare will teach this to them. If they missed that opportunity due to being isolated or perhaps from being put with horses (like some geldings) that they could push around too easily from too early an age, then proper natural socialization didn't take place. Which is why the best place to raise a youngster is within a herd. Or with a lead mare type. The herd or lead mare does an excellent job of teaching the youngster how to respect, how to be properly social. But if this wasn't the case in their youth, you can fix it by going the route I've explained above. And it is about backing them up in natural training, readdressing their development, going back to what they should have learned long ago, but this time you are the lead mare teaching them that necessary expectation. It's not hard. Just takes patience and as much time as is necessary to teach it. I've done it many times and it works.

To learn a little more about Natural Horsemanship and Prey Animal Psychology in general, take some time to read my "What is NH?" section here:

Hope this helps and good luck with this!

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