Mouthy horses are like little kids; they’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it in. If you don’t give a kid something to do, he’ll stick things in his mouth, climb on the furniture, draw on the walls or do a number of things that’ll drive you crazy. Horses need both mental and physical stimulation to be happy and content. If you don’t give your horse a job and keep his mind busy he’ll find an outlet for his pent up energy. In a lot of cases this will result in the some sort of vice including being ‘mouthy’ – constantly playing with your shirt sleeve, nibbling on the lead rope etc.
Very athletic horses and young horses tend to develop this habit. The bad news is that mouthy behaviour often turns into biting, which can be very dangerous. The good news is if you give your horse a job, as simple as making him move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right, his mouthiness will disappear.
If you know your horse tends to get mouthy and nibbles on you, protect your space and take the temptation away from him to begin with. Don’t let him get close enough to mouth on you. Any time you’re with him, keep him out of your personal ‘hula hoop space’ – a four foot circle that surrounds you and serves as your safety zone. When you are working with a horse, always imagine that there’s a four foot circle drawn around you, almost like an invisible electric fence. Unless you invite the horse into your personal hula hoop space he should keep a respectful, safe distance from you.
Move those feet
When a horse gets mouthy, put his feet to work. The most effective punishment you can give a horse is making him move his feet. Horses are basically lazy creatures and would rather stand around with their legs cocked daydreaming about their next meal than moving their feet and working up a sweat. They’ll always choose the option with the least amount of work involved.
So, if you’re standing next to your horse and he starts nibbling on your shirt, turn around and put his feet to work and turn a negative into a positive. Practise some backing up, side passing or circling. The horse can’t mouth on you and move his feet at the same time, especially if you make him hustle with energy and do lots of changes of direction. If you’re consistent, it won’t take long for the horse to connect the two together; when he gets mouthy, you’ll make his feet move.
One of the best ways to stop a mouthy horse, and especially a horse that bites, is to back them up. Backing up is a very humbling exercise for a horse to do. When a horse gets mouthy or tries to bite you, it’s a very forward action; he’s coming forward to get you. When you back him up, it’s the complete opposite; he’s being submissive to you by moving out of your space.
Return the favour
There are some horses that just like to put things in their mouth. Most people’s first reaction when the horse grabs a hold of the lead rope or halter is to try and tug the object out of his mouth. However, the more you try to pull something away from them, the mouthier they will get. It’s like a puppy with a toy. The more you try to yank it away, the more he grits his teeth and hangs onto it.
Instead of getting into a tug of war, use reverse psychology and ‘mouth’ him back. Use both of your hands to vigorously rub the horse’s muzzle for a good twenty seconds. While you’re not hurting the horse, you’re rubbing him firmly enough to make him feel uncomfortable. It’s like when your uncle would scuff your head at a family get together. Every kid in the world hates that. It didn’t hurt when he tousled your hair but it was annoying and you didn’t like it, and you soon learned how to avoid him. It’s the same philosophy with your horse. If he wants to get mouthy, take all the fun out of it for him by roughing up his muzzle with your hands.
Let’s say that your horse grabs the halter in his mouth as you go to put it on. As soon as he grabs it, instead of trying to pull it out of his mouth, stand beside him and tug one end of the halter up in his mouth and then the other end to make him feel uncomfortable. When you do that, the horse might throw his head up in the air but you’ll continue to tug up on the halter. You’re not really hurting him but you are making him feel uncomfortable. Do that for 10 seconds and then let the horse lower his head and spit the halter out of his mouth. Then dare him again by waving the halter in front of his nose. If he grabs it, repeat the process. You’ll only have to do that two or three times and pretty soon those horses wise up and want no part of grabbing a hold of the halter.
You might be thinking, ‘Well Clinton, isn’t that going to make the horse head shy or not want to accept the bit?’ No, because you’re only making him feel uncomfortable when he gets mouthy. You’re not physically putting the halter in his mouth and then roughing him up. He’s choosing to take the bait and be mouthy. As long as you use common sense and only make him feel uncomfortable when he grabs a hold of the object, you don’t have to worry about him getting head shy or not accepting the bit.
Another tactic is to make the horse think that he’s punishing himself. If your horse walks up to you and starts playing with your sleeve, flap your elbow out to the side without even looking at him so that he runs into it with his nose and feels uncomfortable. You have to time it just right so that at the same time he leans forward to play with your shirt, he runs into your elbow.
The secret is not to look at him or act like you’re moving your arm on purpose. It’s like your elbow just developed a nervous twitch. If you look at the horse, it’s like you’re acknowledging that you’re the one making him feel uncomfortable. You want the horse to think that he’s doing it to himself. Every time he leans in to nibble on you, he runs into your elbow. Horses always learn faster when they teach themselves the lesson. It won’t be long before your horse is like ‘Man, I really need to keep my lips to myself because I seem to be running into his elbow.