Trenton is about 12 years old, and I have owned him for only a month.
The first time I met him, he bit my arm very badly. I have stopped this
behavior, but he continually mouths me -- my head, my clothes,
everything. I wonder if this is behavior that should be curbed, and how?
I don't know if this is his attempt to mutually groom me, or if he is
attempting to establish dominance. Help?
It has always been my opinion that
biting, nipping, or mouthing people should be eliminated immediately. It
is just too risky, and like you found with the serious biting, all forms
of mouthiness of horses toward handlers can be fairly easily and quickly
eliminated. I agree with you that it is tough to know what the mouthing
behavior you describe actually represents. Horses which are given treats
from the hand (instead of from a specific container or from the floor)
might nip at you to prompt for treats. Even horses which are fed a treat
in response to a polite nudge often escalate to nipping and biting
prompts. In both cases, the use of the mouth is reinforced. But that
usually is more focused on the hand that feeds them, rather than all
over the body.
So, in the case of your horse, that
probably is not the reason for the mouthing behavior. The mutual
grooming idea is interesting. Sometimes foals which are handled
intensively from a very early age have a habit of greeting people as
they would horses. Young juvenile horses in particular use their mouths
in exuberant greetings, in inviting a pal to play, and in interactions
that lead to mutual grooming. Maybe that's it.
But whatever it is, I would just work at
eliminating it. You didn't say how you did that for the biting. We
always recommend 1) not rewarding it, 2) discouraging any mouth contact
with judicious, immediate punishment, and 3) rewarding alternative
behavior (such as staying at a comfortable distance unless invited or
approached and not being mouthy).
By judicious immediate punishment, I
mean a simple swift, stinging smack on the lips no more than a
microsecond after his mouthy action. It is best if you can actually get
the timing down so that your smack actually interrupts his action. Use a
simple reflex smack that actually hurts, but not a protracted battle
with screaming or flailing that can confuse the issue. He needs to get
the concept that only that specific behavior brings on a negative
consequence so that he knows what to stop. As soon as the horse collects
himself after the smack and stands quietly without reaching out to mouth
or nip, I like to approach his shoulder and give him a soft pat or rub
to reward the good behavior. Even when the timing is great, when using
punishment like this, some horses will go through a "cautious
eye" or mild head-shyness stage while they are figuring it out.
Most then come back to trust you once they figure out the specific cause
of the punishment and so can effectively avoid it and return to
consistently peaceful and predictable interaction.
One other remotely possible explanation
for the mouthing comes to mind. I have seen this behavior in horses
which didn't have a salt supplement available. They sometimes seem
especially interested in mouthing people, presumably attracted to the
salty residue on our skin and clothing. But that behavior has typically
included more licking. In any case, the same behavior modification
procedures will eliminate it.