I hear this question a lot, "What if my horse bites me though? (or does anything else I don't like) What do I do? How can I resolve this with positive reinforcement?"and I wish there was as simple and easy of an answer as the positive punishment answer is (smack the horse, make it wish it had never even considered biting you), but it's a little more complicated than that. Don't worry though, I DO have a very practical answer for you that is very effective and should resolve the biting or kicking once and for all. We just need to ask some questions.
Why is your horse biting or kicking?
No, your horse isn't biting because because he hates you, or because he's mean and rude. He's not a killer, he's not out to get you and dominate you. There's actually a very logical and non malicious reason behind your horse's behavior. Your horse is trying to communicate that something is wrong, and we just have to figure out what it is that's wrong.
Is he in pain? Could it be ulcers? What about the saddle, does it fit right? Is he scared? Believe it or not, horses often bite out of fear. Most biters I've worked with use their teeth to defend themselves, kickers too; defending themselves from a current or a perceived threat, causing them to experience fear. That threat could be... putting on the saddle, it could be walking towards your horse's shoulders, and it could also be just approaching the horse at all. The horse is desperately trying to get you to stop whatever it is you are doing or trying to make him do, and you need to listen.
Here are some possible causes for biting and kicking, please talk to your vet and other equine professionals to discuss the potential for one of multiple of these...
Inadequate or inappropriate diet for the species or the individual
Poor equitation of rider
Poor fitting or too painful of a bit
Negative Associations with tack/rider/environment/behavior
And soooo much more...
What's your horse doing before they kick or bite?
Usually horses begin communicating discomforts and fears long before they resort to kicks and bites, but when a bite is what gets the attention of the human... they start biting earlier and earlier. In the beginning, the horse may have put their ears back slightly, shaken their head, widened their eyes, or wrinkled their muzzle, but when that was ignored they escalated to perhaps threatening to kick or bite, which likely was met with a swift smack. The punishment stopped the threats, but it didn't resolve the problem for the horse.. and if the problem continues, the horse will be forced to speak up in a way that gets listened to.
When it comes to preventing dangerous behaviors we have to listen to our horses long before they are even considering kicking and biting. And when dealing with a horse that has already learned that kicking and biting are the only way to make a human listen, we have to pick up on even the most subtle of signs.. the signs "before" the signs, and respect those (even reward them possibly) by stopping whatever it is we are doing and begin the process of asking "why". Why is the horse biting or kicking?
What are you doing to help the horse understand the right answer?
It's really easy to blame the horse when they bite or kick. "How rude!" "Why did you do that?" "Brat!", but clearly we can see the cause of the kick or bite typically stems from a root cause. Sometimes though, it's a training issue as the behavior lingers even after the root cause is resolved.
If we don't want the horse to bite or kick, we can't just punish the biting. Punishment tells the horse what NOT to do, not what it should do. As the trainer, as the one that doesn't want to be bitten or kicked.. we have to say "no... that's not what we want.. this is what we want." And the "this is what we want" has to FAR outweigh the "don't do that". In fact, positively reinforcing the good should so heavily outweigh the punishment of the bad, that you should never need to use punishment.
This involves setting the horse up for success though. You can't just walk into a stall with a horse that has a history of kicking at anyone that enters and expect to not get kicked. Instead, you start outside the stall, you watch the body language of the horse, you listen to what they are saying about this situation and about you, and you reward calm relaxed behaviors there first. you start where the horse can get it right, and then build from that point, never pushing them to the point where they will feel the need to defend themselves again. The more often the horse has to defend themselves, the more they will learn that that's the only thing that works, and the more they will do it.. whether you're punishing it or not.
And... what about when it's too late and the horse feels trapped and defends themselves? What happens when you make a mistake and push the horse too far?
It's unfortunate really that it's not just possible, but probable, that most equestrians are going to find themselves in a situation where a horse is coming at them teeth bared, or experience having a hooves is flying by their heads. With experience, patience, understanding, a healthy lifestyle, and realistic expectations these kinds of situations should be few and far between, but the reality is... nobody is perfect and most horses do not live the low stress lives they should. Horses often come to us with unknown histories and lots of baggage, we don't understand equine body language as well as we should, and we are prone to mistakes... So while yes, it would be amazing to say we will never put a horse in a situation again where they kick or bite.. it's not practical, so what do we do when it DOES happen?
I plan to discuss "emergency situations" more in my next blog post. Situations where... you're just having to do the best you can with what you've got. Where sh*t is hitting the fan and you're trying to keep both you and the horse safe and clearly nobody intentionally wanted to be in the situation, but for now... let's talk about... what if you're putting the saddle on your horse and their head whips around to bite you? What then?
If possible, it's ideal to avoid the use of positive punishment. Maybe the lead rope caught him before he could reach you, maybe you jumped out of the way... but a correction is sometimes necessary for self defense or stop a behavior in the moment. I will tell you though, that the correction you choose to use must be swift, appropriate, and cool headed. You may NOT correct in anger, you must NOT blow up at your horse, you must NOT be slow about it, it MUST be instantaneous, and you MUST immediately follow up with asking all the questions talked about in this post. What caused the bite? What signs did the horse give me before the bite? What can I do now and what have I been doing to show the horse the right thing to do?
You can NOT hold a grudge against your horse. If you're going to be upset with anyone, be upset with yourself for not listening to your horse before they were forced to bite. And... you can't rely on positive punishment to be the training protocol. I've used positive punishment in very very rare situations, and each time my immediate thought was "well, that wasn't desirable, what can I do now to change this situation around and prevent that from happening again?" My goal as I grow as a trainer is to use less punishment, not more. I do want to know how to use it better when I do have to use it, but I aspire to never need it again.
I directly link the skill level of a trainer to how often they resort to using punishment, especially for resolving behavior problems. Punishment is like a band-aid .. it temporarily covers up an issue, but doesn't heal it. A skillful trainer listens to their horse, heals the root cause of problem behaviors, and avoids the need for punishment.
Read more on this subject....