Why Horses Kick
Here's what your horse's kicking means and what you can do to deal with this potentially dangerous behavior.
By Jennifer Williams, PhD
Sometimes horses kick out of simple playfulness. | The kick is one of your horse's most powerful forms of communication. Just as pinned ears or bared teeth send unmistakable messages, a kick--or even the threat of one--speaks volumes about a horse's state of mind or his physical well-being.
Of course, the sheer mechanical force of an equine kick underscores that it is an urgent message. Emergency room personnel have likened the destructive potential of an equine kick to that of the impact of a small automobile moving at 20 miles per hour. A kick can shatter bones and traumatize soft tissue. In fact, medical journals document people going into cardiac arrest after sustaining a kick to the chest. In addition, a horse can seriously injure himself by kicking; a powerful impact with a cinder block wall, for example, can fracture bones within the hoof.
So if you have a horse who kicks, habitually, periodically or even only occasionally, it's important to figure out the reasons behind the behavior. Some situations will compel practically any horse to lash out--to protect himself or to relieve pain--but in other cases kicking is a bad habit that must be addressed before someone is hurt.
Generally, a kick delivers one of six messages. To discern which one your horse is sending, you'll need to closely observe his body language, take stock of the circumstances leading up to a kick and identify factors that may be contributing to the behavior.
Message: "I feel threatened."
At its most primal level, the equine kick is a defensive weapon. Horses in the wild can and often do repel predators by lashing out with their hooves. This response is instinctive so, depending on the situation, you may see it with even the most placid and agreeable horses.
You can recognize a fear kick by what precedes it. A horse who is truly scared will not kick immediately. First, he'll try to move away from the threat. If that doesn't work, he'll likely try to intimidate the threatening presence by pinning his ears or raising his hind leg in preparation for a kick. Only when both escape and intimidation fail will the horse strike out.
In my work as an animal behaviorist, I've seen this time and again. Hooves are likely to end up flying when a horse is pursued and cornered by an aggressive herdmate. Likewise, a horse may ultimately feel threatened enough to kick if he is forced to do something he finds genuinely scary, such as walking into a dark trailer.
If your horse is kicking out of fear, the only way to address the problem is to assuage his anxiety. This may require reorganizing your herd to reduce conflict and bullying. Even if a horse learns to avoid his tormentors, he may not be able to relax enough to graze or even rest.
Also be watchful for fear kicks that occur during training. The remedy for these is usually a review of the basics, which will help the horse feel comfortable again. A horse cannot learn when he is afraid, so you can't simply work through it. A compassionate, professional trainer can be very helpful.
Finally, there's one type of fear kick that is closely linked to your behavior. If you surprise a horse--by walking up behind him while he's dozing on cross ties, for example--he may react by striking out without warning. In his mind, he's defending himself against a predator who crept up on him. That's why one of the first lessons of horsemanship is to always let a horse know where you are so you can avoid startling him.
Message: "I feel good."
Sometimes horses kick out of simple playfulness. You'll often see horses frolicking in a field, galloping, bucking and kicking as they go. It's a way to burn off steam and stretch their limbs. This type of kicking isn't intended to cause harm but may do so by accident.
Playful kicking isn't something you need to--or even can--correct. Instead, focus on doing what you can to ensure your own safety and that of the other horses. If possible, avoid putting a doddering pensioner out with a rambunctious youngster who may try to instigate a game of chase.
And, for your own safety, be extra cautious when turning out a rambunctious horse. Lead him out to the pasture, turn him to face you as you remove his halter or lead shank, and take a step backward out of the gate as you release him. Also, be watchful because playful kicking may escalate into more dangerous, aggressive turnout behavior that you'll need to address.
Message: "I hurt."
Some kicks are a response to pain. For example, we are all taught to recognize that kicking at the belly is a clinical sign of gut pain. Similarly, a horse with a sore back might lash out or "cow kick" sideways when the saddle is placed on his back or the girth is tightened.
Horses may also kick out of annoyance. If your horse seems to strike out for no reason while he's being groomed, he may be telling you that he finds the experience unpleasant or even painful. If you treat these kicks as a behavior problem without investigating what's prompting them, you're likely to compound the situation by creating more negative associations.
You can recognize the pain kick by observing what leads up to the behavior and whether it stops when stimuli are removed. A horse who kicks from pain doesn't typically posture or threaten first; he simply kicks when he feels discomfort. Once you've relieved his pain, the kicking will usually stop immediately. If your horse is kicking while being groomed, for instance, the solution may be as simple as a switch to a softer brush or terry towel.
It gets more complicated, of course, when observant horses begin kicking when they anticipate pain--a sore-backed horse may strike out when he sees you approach with a saddle, for instance. In these cases, it may take time for the kick response to diminish even after you've eliminated the unpleasant stimuli. The horse will need to learn that the object that previously pained him no longer causes him discomfort.
Message: "I feel frustrated."
We've all known a horse who kicks at the stall wall if you aren't, in his opinion, quick enough to deliver his grain. Horses who kick the inside of the trailer when they arrive at the destination but haven't been unloaded are probably similarly annoyed. You can recognize a frustration kick by the body language that typically accompanies it. Head flipping, pinned ears, lunging forward or even rearing slightly are all indications of impatience. The horse doesn't appear frightened, just antsy.
Frustration kicks can be dealt with in several ways. If the horse strikes out only at mealtime, simply feeding him first may solve the problem. If you're worried he is going to hurt himself, you may want to install kicking boards. These structures, which resemble a two-foot-deep shelf running along the stall perimeter at stifle height, prevent a kicking horse from connecting with the stall wall.
Horses aren't as likely to hurt themselves kicking in the trailer because they are so close to the wall they can't build up enough power. I've seen some people successfully use kicking chains, which are suspended from a cuff secured just above the hock and swing into the horse's leg with each strike. But I've also seen many horses stop kicking when the chains are on and resume the behavior the moment they are taken off. Hobbles have a similar drawback--they work only when they are on.
You might also choose to ignore frustration kicking if the horse isn't putting himself, another horse or a person at risk. As with playful kicking, however, you'll want to keep an eye on the situation to make sure it doesn't escalate.
Message: "Back off."
A horse who kicks while being ridden is usually reacting to another horse who has gotten too close to his hind end. How close is too close varies with each horse's personality. Some, particularly dominant mares, are very strict about their personal space and take offense when any horse comes within 20 feet of their hindquarters. Another horse may become agitated only when a herdmate draws within a foot of his tail.
I know many horses who have never kicked at a person but will not hesitate to take aim at a horse who comes up on their rear on the trail or in the showring. Tailgating kicks are typically mild "warning" kicks but can still be powerful enough to break the bones of any rider who might take the brunt of the blow.
Because of this potential for injury, it's never a good idea to allow kicking under saddle to go without correction, even if a kick seems justified. When a horse you are riding kicks out, instantly give him a sharp pop with a crop or the end of the reins to let him know it isn't acceptable. The correction must be immediate, however, so he will make the appropriate connection.
If your horse has kicked under saddle before, you need to take special precautions to protect others. First, tie a red ribbon around his tail to warn that he is a kicker. Also, when riding in a group, position yourself at the back.
Finally, as much as possible stay out of crowded arenas and be extra vigilant about where you are in relation to other riders, keeping your horse's focus on you and your aids. It is your responsibility to protect the other riders, not their responsibility to avoid you.
Message: "I'm the boss around here."
When a horse kicks to tell you he's in charge, you've got a serious problem. In the wild, kicks are used as a last resort to enforce the herd hierarchy, which is necessary to keep order and establish breeding rights. When a horse tries to gain dominance over a human handler, however, it's a sign that bigger training issues are afoot: The horse has learned, somewhere along the line, that intimidation is an effective way to deal with people.
Bossy kickers tend to be dominant mares or geldings. They posture and threaten before they kick with pinned ears and "mean faces." They will usually aim their rump toward you and cock a hoof before letting a kick fly. Unlike horses who kick from fear, they do not try to escape a situation before they kick; they respond to things they don't like with a threat. These horses may be aggressive in other ways, such as lunging over their stall doors at passersby. They also tend to have little respect for the personal space of others, crowding handlers in a stall or barging past them while being led.
Typically, bossy kickers act this way because it works for them. At some point they got what they wanted--usually to be left alone--by threatening to kick or actually kicking someone. It doesn't take long for this lesson to be learned. I once rescued a 3-year-old filly who kicked whenever you asked her to do anything she didn't like. Even at that young age, she had learned she could make humans fall in line by letting her hooves fly.
Reforming a bossy kicker can be very difficult. If you have the time and inclination, you may want to review the very basics of training, possibly with the help of a professional trainer, to reestablish the ground rules of hierarchy and personal space. Unfortunately, for many older horses, kicking is such an ingrained resistance that this approach isn't successful.
Punishment is another way of letting a bossy horse know that you are not intimidated by kicking. Some horses, particularly those who are testing the bossy kick for the first time, can be corrected with a tug of a lead shank or smack of the palm and a sharp word to remind them of their manners. Other horses will respect a tap with the crop on their hindquarters, but it has to be delivered instantly to be effective and you'll need to make sure you are standing out of striking range.
Indeed, I cannot stress enough how risky it is to punish a kicker. It requires the ability to read a horse's body language quickly and accurately and consistently mete out the appropriate punishment, no more and no less. Because of the precision and risks involved, I recommend that you entrust this assignment to a professional trainer.
Which leads me to the most troubling of kickers: the aggressive horse who has kicked to get his way for years. This horse may simply take any punishment as a challenge and respond to it with a more forceful, more targeted kick. This is a fight you cannot win and one that puts you and other people in danger.
Personally, I will not own an aggressive kicker. It's not worth the risk. If you choose to own a horse who kicks to demonstrate dominance, recognize the risk you are taking on and do everything in your power to minimize it. This includes being very open and vocal about your horse's tendencies, letting anyone who may ever deal with him know his habits and posting a prominent and clear warning on his stall door or pasture gate.
Kicking serves horses well. In addition to being a powerful weapon against predators, it's an effective form of communication. The injuries that a kick can inflict, however, make it one of the most dangerous behaviors in a domesticated horse. Whenever a horse kicks, then, it's a call for an investigation to determine why--and whether something needs to be done to keep it from happening again.
Jennifer Williams holds a master's degree and Ph.d. in Animal Behavior from Texas A&M University.
This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of EQUUS magazine.
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