A lot of people wonder if giving horse treats is a bad idea. Can that lead to nipping and biting? And what if you don’t ever give treats, but your horse still attempts to nip or bite? How do you break that annoying and potentially harmful habit?

The answer is TIMING.

As with everything else horse related, your timing will be the deciding factor between success and failure.  

Biting Horses

The key to correcting a horse that habitually bites is to get there before it happens. When the horse begins to THINK about biting, put something (the back of your hand, elbow, tip of a lunge whip, etc) solidly in his path so that he runs into his OWN pressure. You are not contacting the horse with the object. He is causing the contact by moving his muzzle towards you to bite.

If you make the biting difficult, he will decide it’s not worth the effort. But the key is to be consistent and have enough awareness of what’s going on in the horse’s mind to catch it when it’s basically still just a thought. That way you can put up the roadblock with good timing. Trying to ‘punish’ the horse after he has already committed to biting or nipping will not be nearly as effective and can be unfair to the horse.

Read Your Horse

Before a horse does anything, he gets ready to do it. Read your horse so that you recognize when he is having a thought of doing an action. That’s when you slip in and either direct it, prevent it, or allow it to come through.

A Biting Story

Tom Dorrance tells a great story about biting. This horse would frequently reach his head around to bite the owner while tightening the cinch. So Tom stood off from the horse’s shoulder, on the same side as the horse owner, and held the rubber tip of his cane close to the horse’s muzzle. The owner began to tighten the cinch. The horse moved his left ear back. Tom recognized that as a thought, and he was ready. Sure enough, the horse began to move his head around towards the owner to bite. But he immediately ran into that rubber tip, so the horse changed his plan. After a few more attempts, the horse determined that biting was not a good idea and the problem was solved.

Yielding Is The Opposite Of Biting

To complete a biting action, the horse must invade your personal space. Teaching a horse to lightly yield his shoulders away is actually the direct opposite movement of what happens when a horse bites. So be sure that element is in place. A horse that only comes into your space when asked will not be the same horse that is constantly biting or nipping because that is not his mindset. 

Do Treats Cause Biting?

Treats could be either totally great or the worst thing ever. It depends on HOW you use them. It’s the same concept as Feeding With A Flag. When feeding your horse, or giving treats, if you do it with bad timing, it will reinforce the behavior you don’t want. Never pour your horse’s grain or give him a treat unless he is holding his ground and not invading your space.

 See more about that here:  Horse Training | Where To Start

Ways To Use Treats As A Positive Reinforcement

If a horse is crowding your space, FIRST have him yield his feet away from you. Have him do the exact opposite of crowding. Then approach him, come into HIS space, and give him the treat. 

Only give the treat as the horse is doing the action you requested.

Suppose your horse is fidgety and doesn’t like it when you handle his feet. Have a friend stand at his head holding the lead rope. The friend will have a treat in their closed hand. Pick up a foot, and if the horse lets you hold his foot, your friend’s hand opens and the treat is given. Progressively try holding the foot a few more seconds each time before the treat is given. If the horse pulls his foot away, the hand remains closed.

More details and tips about handling the feet here:  Handling The Feet

Respecting Space

If treats are not given with good timing, you can end up with a horse that gets aggressive about it. That is one reason why it is essential that your horse is very good and consistent at respecting your personal space. 

Another (even more important) reason is that if a horse will not yield his feet away from you, he will never look to you as a trusted leader. His natural self preservation will not allow him to give himself up to your direction.

Conclusion

It’s perfectly fine to love on your horse, give him treats, and spend time just enjoying some horse/human close up interaction. If your horse is respecting your space with his body, but simply reaching out to you with his sensitive muzzle and whiskers to investigate in a non-aggressive way, then certainly use that time to create a stronger bond. This will only create potential problems if you don’t have the other side of the coin in place where your horse will easily yield out of your space when you ask. 

Listen to my Podcast about treats here: Ask Carson James

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Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.