using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Biting Solutions

Arlene Colon
(with an introduction by Katie Bartlett)

When horses are learning new skills, it is not uncommon for them to get frustrated.  In horses, frustration is often expressed through active behaviors such as biting, pawing, general crankiness or getting "distracted."  Since one of the goals of clicker training is to encourage horses to actively participate in the training process, we do not want to suppress behavior through positive punishment (if you don't know what this is, read the article on the four quadrants in the articles section).  Instead we look for other ways to keep ourselves safe, such as management, looking at our training skills and training program.

This does not mean we ignore biting.  I will not work in close contact with a horse that bites.  Instead I will put the horse behind a barrier or use some other form of management while I figure out what is causing the biting.  For some reason, biting seems to trigger an emotional response in most people, more so than other ways that horses express their frustration, but it is important to remember that biting is communication. If your horse is biting, he is trying to tell you something. 

There has been a lot written on the lists about horses that bite when being trained and often the best advice comes from other list members who have just worked through the same issues.  Arlene wrote the following post to the list in response to a question and I liked her post so much that I asked her if she would share it and she said "yes" so here it is.


This message was originally posted to clickryder in response to a question. I have included the whole post, not just the list of training strategies as I think it helps put Arlene's approach in context.

Arlene writes: 

..you sounded like me in my head (exclamation points and all) when you wrote:


    "... Jodie is a great girl--but if I want to be with her regularly and comfortably before I die (!!),
somehow I have to stop this nipping before it continues to worsen.  Isn't there some kind of way to say STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!! to Jodie that won't undo clicker work?"


    All I needed to substitute "Charm" for "Jodie" and I might have written it myself recently.  I too am an older beginner, with a young green horse, and no talent for getting tough with any credibility.  We are still in our first year together. 


    The good thing for us was that Charm didn't have any bad memories to overcome, and I didn't have any bad training attitudes to forget (in fact I had NO training "training" whatsoever).  We started immediately with Parelli NH and then discovered CT  nine months ago.  Our relationship was (is) wonderful - she quickly became my dream horse come(ing) true.  We were incredibly successful in almost all of what we tried together. 


    Then, seemingly overnight, Charm  started to behave in ways very similar to what you describe in Jodie.   I am not even counting the accidental bites due to over-enthusiastic treat taking before she learned table manners.  I am talking about real "annoyance" nips.  Although she mostly just "air-nipped" (in very unbecoming ways), on several occasions she did connect leaving me with some pretty ugly hematomas.  In short - my sweet, pretty, intelligent, usually compliant girl was turning into a "talk back at you" brat.  "Did I hear Disrespectful???!!) 


"... somehow I have to stop this nipping before it continues to worsen.  Isn't there some kind of way to say STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!! to Jodie [Charm, Any Horse] that won't undo clicker work?"


    I have to admit, I slapped Charm twice (on her shoulder  :-().  It was a knee jerk reaction on my part, and I felt bad about it when I saw the look on her face.  And it's true ... the benefits didn't last.


    When I referred to your own comments at the start of this post I said " I might have written it myself "  (in the past tense).  I could have - but I didn't, because just as dramatically as the unpleasant nipping behavior developed, it has started to change for the better.  I am very happy to report that we HAVE moved beyond that hurdle ... there IS a light at the end of the tunnel! 


    How did this happen?  First, I encourage you to re-read pp.128-133 in  "The Click That Teaches -  A Step By Step Guide in Pictures" (the first one of Alex's two books in that series.)  Read, then re-read it again.  And if you have anyone else who sometimes may help you with Jodie (your husband or a friend), have them read those sections too.  It's what I did with my husband and a friend who likes to accompany me sometimes.  It really helps to have your supporting persons understand and share your philosophy.  They are also good as sounding boards, observers and reporters.


    How many times have we heard the advice "Go back to the basics" from the experienced clicker trainers in this group!?  It doesn't seem to sink in until you actually experience it first hand.  But it's true ... amazing improvements develop when you do.


    With Charm, I suddenly realized I had to interrupt the "current" lessons and go back to some basics[again] or variations of the basics to fill in some pretty glaring holes in our training. I had expectations of behaviors that I hadn't taken the time to teach her.   I hadn't even been aware the holes were there  because she is usually such a good girl, and she is soooo cute it's easy to ignore some level of misbehavior.


    Recognizing that we did have training holes was the first step in recovery.  We stopped everything else we were doing and essentially started to play a "Yes" game.  I kept up a high rate of reinforcement for anything passing for tolerance and gentleness on her part during all sorts of "actions" on my part.  It's turned out to be fun! 


    Here are some of the things we've been doing ...


    1.  In separate steps, I practiced moving my hands (with and without a treat in hand) near and around her face, her mouth, around her head, ears, chin, cheeks, etc.  Charm practiced ignoring my hands, keeping her mouth closed, or some obvious sign of self control.  C/R.  I allowed turning to look, even touching with lips or licking (at first). Attempts at air-nipping or grabbing were ignored, deflected, or discouraged with a "Pss-st" sound or a drawn out "No-ooh" of disapproval, depending on the severity. 


    2.  We revisited the "Table manners" lessons.  No treat unless one step taken back and no attempt made at reaching out before it was offered at the right position.  (And glory be!  It's true ... from all of this self control my little blond has finally actually developed "THE POSE"!)


    2.  In separate steps and then in a string,  I practiced massaging her face, her eyes, her mouth, her nostrils, her lips, her tongue ... both slowly and then vigorously.  Charm practiced being tolerant (in increments, as she was able) using a high rate of C/R. 


    3.  In steps, I practiced moving briskly from one side to the other, in front and behind her.  Charm practiced doing nothing.  C/R.


    4.  I practiced bending down in front of her, at her sides, facing towards her, facing away ....  Charm  practiced ignoring me.  C/R  She could turn to look, but no nudging!


    5.  I practiced being clumsy with her lead, touching it at various distances near the clip, touching her face with it, rubbing it under her chin, mouth and lips.  Charm practiced ignoring it.  C/R.


    6.  Then I asked my husband &/or other trusted helper to do some of the same things.  Charm practiced "behaving" for another person also (my interpretation - and I controlled the C/R)


    7.  We reviewed backing, and head lowering (AGAIN)... in different places ... different distractions.


    8.  And other little games  ... we keep thinking of all sorts of new variations ... limited only by the imagination.  



    She loves the "YES" game; I love the "Yes" game!  I've kept the high rate of +R schedule whenever things get difficult.  It's incredible the effect that a continuous stream of yes messages has on a sentient being.  The soft look of the eye is so beautiful!  At times it's so touching that it takes my breath away.  It almost makes one want to cry when you see resistance/resentment melt away to be replaced by softness and relaxation ... so easy to generalize to confused children in similar learning situations.


    The variations in these games will continue.  But now we've resumed some of the other work we were doing.  And just one more comment:  you can add me to the list of persons now who have noticed a huge leap forward in lessons that were temporarily interrupted to revisit and improve foundation skills. 


    I expect there will be times when we may both slide back, but I've experienced a great boost in my confidence.  I'm convinced that everything can be fixed with patience and taking the time to go back to the basics.




Long Island, NY





Home | Articles | Clicker Basics | Community | FAQ | Getting Started | Horse Stories | Links | Photos | Resources


Equine Clicker Training