Many injuries working with and at play with horses are not accidents. They can be prevented. The Equestrian Medical Safety Association focuses on the science behind safe interactions around horses – working to prevent leading causes of injuries, including falls, unpredictable horse behavior, failures in barn and travel safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works to ensure that all people have safe and healthy homes and places to play. Preventing unintentional injuries is a step toward ensuring that all Americans live to their full potential.
While everyone experienced with horses has at some point been nipped, most have not been bitten. Normally we think of an animal bite as an act of aggression, but most herd animals like horses only bite out of aggression as a last resort. First they flee, then kick and when those two methods of escape fail: if the threat is close enough a horse can bite out of aggression. There are numerous other reasons horses bite. To understand why a horse bites and prevent it, we have to know about about animal behavior. As most people don’t have much experience with horse behavior it is easy for a novice or child to fail to recognize cues, correct the issue and not get bitten. Biting of humans is dangerous. It generally can be managed and resolved through training and education of horse and human.
An excellent discussion about teaching your horse not to bite is found on the Humane Society’s pet care page. It reviews several motivations for horses to bite and the warning signals horses use to alert that they are about to bite. These signals are easily observed watching horses body language with other horses. Generally other horses don’t get bitten because the recognize the signals and move away.
There is a difference between nipping and biting. Because grazing animals explore much of their world through their nose, lips and mouth they explore with them. Sometimes nip is part of that exploration not aggression. While an unacceptable habit, the can be recognized and halted before the nip occurs. Hand feeding of treats can lead some horses to nip hands or arms whether or not treats are involved. None of this behavior is acceptable and it must be stopped.
The Year With Horses blog has a good post on Why Horses Bite People. Reasons range from assertion of dominance, play, protection of food or foal, aggression, skin sensitivity while grooming or tacking, pain, fear, to frustration or inpatients, and hormonal serge. Careful understanding of the causes is important for effective management and change of that behavior. While horses biting and nipping one another is common behavior within a herd, the boundary of personal space for humans and a no tolerance policy for biting humans is a requirement for any trained horse. Equally we have to train and educate humans to recognize precursor body language and signs from the horse to understand when a horse is apt to bite and the appropriate response to prevent it.