My horse bites

by Pat Parelli (and annotated by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns)

I have created 2 articles from the work I have done with Pat and Linda Parelli over these past few years. I would recommend that as an introduction you read "Learning about human behaviour from natural horseman Pat Parelli" first. There are notes there that will put this article in context.

You might think you are reading about horses that bite and owners that hit .... but indeed you are reading about students who

are disruptive
don't do homework
don't turn up on time

and teachers and trainers who

make emotionally and psychologically damaging comments
withhold love and support

Learn well, this is an important piece for all trainers!



Let us strive for intelligent approaches in all our teaching endeavours - what I would call 'artistry' and Pat would call 'savvy'


by Pat Parelli

When asked what I'd do if a horse bit me, I often reply, "I'd say 'dang' and I rub my arm. Then I get smarter." This is not normal. Most people cannot believe it. "You mean ... you wouldn't smack him for it?!"

The normal way to react to being bitten is punishment. Most people strike back and hit the horse on the nose. Not only does this not solve the problem (horses are still biting years later), it usually turns it into a big game for the horse. The game now is to be able to bite and then dodge the swinging arm coming back at him ... it's great fun!!

Some schools of thought even urge you to "kill" the horse for this monstrous behaviour, to very aggressively punish him as soon as he bites. This is still the punishment approach and to become aggressive with a horse is unfair, unnatural and can be dangerous if the horse retaliates. Aggression is something that comes from lack of savvy, a lack of a more natural alternative using communication, understanding and psychology.

Punishment doesn't work with prey animals. If they read emotions such as fear, anger or aggression in you, it has an interesting effect on them. It produces conniving, if such a word can be put on a horse. They learn how to push your emotional buttons and get very artful about the biting. Most of all, punishment causes a horse to lose respect for you.


Have you ever had a student who was just in your space all the time - needing to tell you something important, about what is wrong, what could be done better, what they think others need?

Respected trainers are rarely approached in this way.

Pat's 7 Games that horses play have a direct correlation to the games that humans play. Learning the 7 Games in the context of

teachers / trainers / coaches / managers -


students / participants / athletes / employees

was one of the themes in the seminar I presented at Randwick Race Course with Pat present in November 2000.

For Training To Train graduates or those who have read Artistry in Training, this is my notion of anticipation. It is a "preventative" measure used to ensure certain behaviour difficulties do not even arise.

Here's how to handle the behaviour with savvy:

1. Don't let the horse get close enough!

Most people hold horses too close, by the snap right under the halter. They are inadvertently pulling the horse closer to them and are giving him all the opportunity in the world to take a bite. Teach your horse the Yo Yo Game (one of Pat's teaching games that establish behavioural rules) so you can back him out of your personal space and teach him to respect it. If you're out of reach, it's very hard for the horse to bite you. Backing a horse up is also one of the four ways to cause a horse to become more respectful and this is where the real solution lies.

2. Earn your horse's respect.

If a horse respects you, he wouldn't dream of biting you. It's like a teenager ... all those naughty things they do come back to one root: disrespect. And no amount of punishment is going to cause a teenager to become more respectful, in fact they get more resentful. So the real question is how do you earn a horse's respect.

The answer is "the 7 Games". It's the same way horses get respect from each other. The one who is the fastest, the strongest, the bravest and the quickest during play and dominance games, is the one who becomes alpha. The alpha horse is respected and trusted and all other horses look to him for leadership. After years of observation I discovered that there are seven distinct games that horses play - so I called them the 7 Games. Then I gave each one a number and a name to help my students learn and remember them, and most importantly to know how to play them in the right order first. When you can play the 7 Games and "win" them, the horse will have a whole new respect for you and you'll have a much better relationship.

This is called "prevention". It means you do what it takes so it never has to happen. The sad fact is that most people won't do what it takes, they stay stuck in the old "hit him for it" mentality because they think it takes, too much time to learn the 7 Games! Take the time it takes so it takes less time. The problem could be solved in a day instead of being something you are still dealing with in a negative way years later.


Take responsibility for the behavioural responses of your students. They weren't confused, bored or agitated about the subject you're teaching them before they walked in the door!!


Sort out what it is that you 'do' that leads to that behaviour response in your students.


Perceptions matter!!


Remember you may be the only one giving that particular student attention, nurturing and encouragement. It may be they are just seeking more and more of that which you so generously provide as a leader.


Students and employees DO forget that we are real live humans and not automatons that unscrew our heads and store them in the cubboard over night!

3. A bite is an invitation to savvy.

If a horse bites you, there are two things you can be sure of: he had a reason, and you don't have enough savvy.

Some reasons for a horse biting could be fear, defensiveness or disrespect. If you punish a horse for biting out of fear, it is very unjust. This would be like spanking a child because he was scared and wet his pants. How could he ever trust you? And if the horse was defensive, what did you do to cause him to have to defend himself? Sometimes it can be caused by entering his stall without permission. Try to look at it from the horse's point of view, how is the horse perceiving you and your behavior? Are you polite, are you too pushy and demanding? Are you too critical of him? Do you give him enough mental and emotional stimulation every day? Sometimes it's a legacy of his past, but rather than physical abuse being the case, it's more like what wasn't done to help him trust and respect humans.

Secondly, horses know who they can bite and who they can't. They have an acute savvy detector which goes on the moment they see a person approaching. They can tell by the way you walk, the way you approach, the way you get (or don't get) the horse's attention, the way you halter, the way you touch ... it's endless. Don't ever think that a horse hasn't got you worked out within the first 10 seconds! The answer of course is, get more savvy. Savvy horsemen rarely, if ever, get bitten.

4. Mouthy horses lack respect and lack fulfillment.

Young colts and stallions are particularly notorious for nipping and biting. In a young horse it's important to know that mouthing and nipping is very natural (it's Game #2 of the 7 Games!) and it is especially prevalent in horses kept in isolation and in orphan foals raised by hand. They see you as a playmate and can't wait to start playing horse games with you. Often, the rougher you get at smacking them for it, the harder they'll play. (Refer back to punishment not being effective). They have no concept that you are not as resilient as another horse so don't expect them to be gentle with you!


First: play Games #1 and #2 with foals, and from the time of weaning on, play all 7 Games. This will help you develop a respectful relationship and also give him mental and emotional exercise as well as physical. A horse that is confined and isolated lacks social interaction and is apt to develop undesirable behaviors around people. Their pent up energy and frustrations can make them very difficult to handle. You can do a lot to ease that frustration by playing with him, so you become recreation for him.

In my recommendations file I suggest you all get a copy of Pat's book, Natural Horse•Man•Ship. All trainers, teachers and coaches who are interested in human behaviour, learning and communication should read this work.


Second: give them plenty of attention in zone 1 (the muzzle and mouth area). If he wants to chew ropes, stuff more and more rope in his mouth until he loses interest in it. Rub his muzzle vigorously, but lovingly. Give him major massages of the lips and chin. Hold his tongue and teach him to lead by the tongue (this takes a fair bit of feel, timing and balance so you don't grab and pull on it if he tries to pull away, i''s also a Level 2 task in our Program).

Stallions are a whole other ball game. They need someone with a lot of savvy. A lot. I hesitate to give advice on how to handle a biting stallion because using the techniques without the right attitude, feel, timing, balance, savvy and experience could get you in a lot of trouble. Stallions are pretty dominant and full of energy and play. Their job is to be dominant and they don't take kindly to things getting in the way of their sexual responsibilities. All the solutions I've suggested for biting horses relates just as much to stallions as to other horses, it's just that it takes more expertise and savvy on your part to be able to play games with a stallion. I strongly recommend that one becomes more skilled and savvy at the 7 Games with other horses before starting with the stallion. I urge my students to be Level 3 in my program before playing with a stallion, and I forbid my instructors to handle them until they are Level 3 or 4. What I care about here is safety, and the best way to be safe is to have savvy.

In closing

I hope you now have a different, more natural view on the biting behavior of horses. They bits and nip for a reason and the best way to solve the problem is to find the reason and to dissolve it. Fear, frustration, defensiveness, anger, disrespect, playfulness, aggressiveness ... these are the roots. Develop your savvy, and get to the root. Play and win the 7 Games.

Savvy Secrets

  1. Understand why the horse bites, there are many different reasons
  2. Don't let him close enough!
  3. Earn his respect through the 7 Games
  4. Don't punish him, it breeds resentment
  5. People with horse savvy rarely get bitten, so get more savvy!
  6. Give zone 1 plenty of attention


My own final thoughts

by Stephanie Burns

I am re-inspired as an educator and communicator every time I read a piece of Pat's work. I can feel very tired sometimes - teaching others takes a great deal of effort. Especially the effort required to begin again with a new group. After so many years it is quite natural to begin to feel that way.

In many cases I take my motivation from others. Those who are still so enthusiastic about teaching how to better manage the behaviour of others - be they horses or dogs or humans.

I feel fortunate to have the use of Pat's written work to use to inspire and educate my own students. It would take years for me to put my own knowledge in this area on paper. So let us all be grateful that Pat allows us to use his work in this way.


PS: You can find a lot of free articles are behaviour at the Parelli website




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