The specific area in which a bite is placed may appear random, yet this particular manoeuvre is not without its tactics. Full force biting is very different from nipping, as many owners of domestic horses could no doubt corroborate. It would be very unusual for any owner that has been around horses for many years to have not felt the gnashers of an equine on their skin. My own gelding would periodically bite, and my bottom was always his favourite location. The bite was never hard enough to cause injury, or even a bruise, nonetheless hard enough to make me squeal, which probably pleased him greatly. Yet knowing the grievous injury that horses can inflict from biting, it is evident they know exactly how much force to apply, and in which area to apply it. In my case bottom biting always occurred in the stable. Bearing in mind he was usually a very mild, and gentle mannered horse, this behaviour was less about being dominant, and more to do with communication, and indicating his frustration at being in a box.
It is this behaviour which is more likely to be observed in domestic horses when at pasture. Biting is not always intensely aggressive, because at times a nip will suffice when instructing another horse to move, or when showing or confirming dominance. Bites are more often than not always on the rump, barrel and/or shoulder. Biting can also occur when a stallion intends to mount a mare in oestrus, before mounting and during mating. Therefore, it seems horses have several distinctive forms of biting, and for different reasons depending on the situation.
Full force biting is without a doubt severe aggression with the sole objective of causing grievous injury. Something has gone catastrophically wrong, and for a very long time, for a domesticated horse to do this to a human. To coin a phrase this would be a horse that has become so frustrated or confused by bad training and incorrect handling he has literally lost his shit. Recent or ongoing pain can also cause aggression. Usually however in these cases most attentive owners circumvent such an aggressive event occurring by treating or euthanizing the horse.
For non-domesticated horses, aggressive full force biting is usually seen between two battling stallions when either securing females or when attempting to keep them. The two main areas to inflict catastrophic injury are the neck/face area and the legs. To be able to force a horse to the ground would be the ultimate way to show dominance. Horses as prey animals instinctively understand that being forced to the ground by a predator could potentially result in death. Moreover, if the legs are rendered useless the horse loses the capacity to kick and defend itself, or even run away.
There are abundant images across the internet of horses sitting like a dog, or laying down. These are not comfortable horses, and it is far from cute. Many show the horse pinning its ears, and I can personally testify that even when instructing a trained horse to sit or lie, they pin their ears and demonstrate unwillingness. Laying down to sleep or rest is completely different, and is done through choice, and only when the horse feels the environment and situation is safe to do so. In general horses do not like to be forced to lie on the ground!
Hence, a stallion can disarm his adversary, display his dominance and ultimately win the battle by successfully flooring the other horse. The floored horse could also find himself utterly defenceless in evading further attack from bites and kicks. As in part 2, the capacity to rear in order to avoid serious injury to the head is now absent, therefore the horse is defenceless. It is not just the pain of bitten knees and hocks that floors the horse, the actual victim bends the legs to avoid the bite also, in order to evade injury to the area. In the same way a horse will rear (in a fight situation) to both evade and inflict injury, horses will also drop to their haunches to protect their legs. Either way however, whether he has been forced to the ground through injury, or to protect himself from injury, he will at this stage have lost the fight.
The only option at this point is the same with most animals, including humans, in that if fight didn’t work, the only option left is flight. Of course, anyone that has owned horses will have observed they are extremely adept at getting to their feet in a blink of an eye. Losing has its place in nature, and more often than not the horse will survive to fight another day, and gain more fighting experience with each battle.
Image below The Battered Warrior most of the injuries are concentrated around the neck and rump from bites and kicks…and to think many owners worry about a few fly bites!
Next Time – Kicking!
All Images – By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell