Triage Advice: Horse is Mouthy When Haltered
A common complaint from horse owners is that their horse is mouthy when haltered. The horse mouths or nips them, or the halter or leadrope, when they try to put the halter on or remove it. Horses behave this way for several reasons. For example, the horse may want to engage socially with the human, but because they have not been taught acceptable ways to do so they resort to behaviours they might use with another horse. Another common reason for mouthy behaviour is anxiety. Just like with people, a horse who is anxious may fidget and engage in behaviours that may delay the start of an event they feel is unpleasant. For the horse showing such anxiety when haltered, they may have learned that what comes after haltering - like training - is stressful or scary. Common advice for this issue is to use punishment: smack the horse, back them up, move their feet, and so on. There are several problems with using punishment to try and solve this issue: 1. Punishment doesn't address why the horse is behaving this way in the first place 2. Punishment can only say 'No', to the unwanted behaviour, and when we use punishment we aren't teaching the horse what it should do instead.
3. To be effective, punishment needs to happen at every single occurrence of the unwanted behaviour. It also needs to be unpleasant enough to cause the horse to never want to do the behaviour again. This usually means hurting or frightening the horse sufficiently, so that they find this consequence for performing the behaviour just not worth it.
4. As a result of problem #3, using punishment can cause the horse to fear the trainer or anything associated with the training event. This can damage the trust between horse and human.
5. Routine use of punishment during training decreases the horse's desire to learn. 6. Punishment can worsen the existing problem, and create new unwanted behaviours. When I am working behaviour cases, I often need to give people 'triage' advice, to help them decrease the frequency or intensity of unwanted behaviours in the short term, before a longer-term retraining plan can begin. Triage advice keeps the horse and human safe, and prevents the horse from getting more 'practiced' at the unwanted behaviour. Additionally, in cases where emotions such as fear are at the heart of the behaviour problem, it allows the horse to have a mini-vacation from feeling anxious or fearful before retraining begins. This little break from stress primes the horse to be better able to learn once we do begin the retraining process. The advice given in the above clip may be helpful if your horse is showing mouthy behaviour when haltered. For some horses, it may even be all you need to do to forever resolve the issue. If however, your horse shows other signs of fear, anxiety or stress in their daily life, please seek the help of a qualified horse behaviour consultant. They can help you get the root of your horse's problem, and resolve it without scaring or hurting your horse in the process.