Kicking is an innate behavior that is undesirable in the domestic horse. The behavior can be suppressed through careful training. In the wild, horses react to predators in one of two ways: by fleeing, or if they feel trapped, by threatening and kicking.
On the ranch or stable, domesticated horses may try this same maneuver on their human handlers if they don’t want a person near them or they sense fear, danger, imminent pain or territorial compromise.
A Defense Response
“Kicking is the horse’s most common defense mechanism,” says Dr. Ross Hugi, an equine veterinarian in Mundelein, Ill. “It’s the thing a horse will do as a response to either not wanting to flee or not being able to flee.” For instance, if a stallion approaches a mare and she doesn’t want to mate, she’ll often kick him. Generally speaking, if two horses get in a fight, they kick each other.
When a horse kicks a human, it’s often due to fear. “A horse may view a certain person as a threat and see no way of escape when that person comes into his stall and so the horse may try to protect himself by kicking,” Hugi says. Or perhaps the horse is just irritable; he might kick to try to prevent his owner, or the farrier or veterinarian, from doing something he doesn’t like.
A horse may also kick when he’s startled from behind. “Your horse has a spot right at his tail and if he doesn’t see you coming, his natural response may be to kick,” says Dr. Kathryn Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University.
Kicking is a behavior that we should not reinforce. Kicking reactions can be reinforced in foals, so you must be very careful how you pattern your training during the early months of development. Foals as early as two days of age will start to “backfire” in response to your needling of them by slapping them gently on the rump, startling them, or approaching them while not clearly in view. However amusing or benign, it is important to avoid this interactions with young foals and to approach them in a slow, methodical, visually obvious fashion. Entering their domain in a crouched position, for example, can help.
Tips to Protect Yourself
- Never approach your horse directly from behind. If you do, your horse may not see you coming and may be startled. Instead, approach your horse from a side angle and talk to him as you walk up to his stall so that he knows you’re coming.
- If you have no choice but to walk past your horse from behind, give him lots of space. Make sure you’re far enough away so your horse’s back leg can’t reach you if he does decide to kick.
- Give a kicker time to learn that you aren’t a threat. Through repeated daily contact, your horse will learn that you bring him food, caress him by grooming, talk to him softly and mean him no harm. Eventually, this will reduce his fear and the consequent impulse to kick.
- Reprimand your horse the instant he threatens to kick you. If your horse turns his rump toward you suddenly, while pinning his ears at the same time, he’s threatening to kick you. Tell him “Stop!” or “Quit!” in a loud, firm tone of voice and walk out of the horse’s range. In general, physical punishment does not work well and sets a bad example for people around you. If the physical penalty does not work, there is the tendency to think that the horse is stubborn or hopeless, and this unfortunately has caused physical punishment to escalate in many cases. This is a bad cycle. Just as physical punishment of a child does not alter fear-based behavior, similar punishments do not work on horses with certain fears.On the other hand, well-controlled and gentle use of the whip, or better, the threatening approach with a whip, may be necessary to bail out of a dangerous situation. Examples are the mare that will not move away from a foal that is very sick and in need of help, or the gelding that sustained a laceration that refuses to be caught and would rather kick the intruders. Use physical punishment only if you’re out of kicking range and do not delay the punishment more than five seconds after the bad behavior. In general, physical punishments should be avoided since they will often backfire, inciting more fear and more protective behavior.
Be Consistent and Patient
In most cases, the issue that cannot be resolved is the threat of kicking, rather than the act itself. For example, we have all known the horse that is difficult to catch and shows his back end. Some horses develop this behavior in a new environment out of fear. There often is a lack of routine in the handling/handler of the horse, such as a new mucker. Alternatively, if there is too much variation in feeding, exercising, or traveling, a horse can get sour and attempt to kick or at least threaten to do so.
Some horses appear to be reacting to chronic pain, environmental stress, or over-training. In fact, only recently was over-training found to contribute to a horse’s physical well-being, specifically giving them sore muscles, making them lose weight and showing signs of depression. Being ‘sour’ is a related sign and must be given attention before more violent behaviors such as kicking ensue.
The threat to kick by turning in the stall is one of the most difficult habits to deter. It must be viewed upon as a fear response. Any form of punishment will strengthen the fear and worsen this habit. Maybe you can catch the horse using force, but the problem will come back. Although necessary at times, the use of wheelbarrows, brooms, and other “armory” also compound fear and should only be used if necessary.
It appears that months of careful consistent gentle interactions, with a single or very few people will improve the situation. Relapses should be suspected, however, so limit the personnel that has access to such a horse for a period of time.
If your horse is actually kicking other horses, it may be necessary to move the horse to a different social group or turn him out alone.
Seek Professional Help
If you’re having little success deterring a habit – threatening to kick or actually carrying the threat out – seek advice from a professional. There are different approaches to behavior problems, including the “veterinary behaviorist” and the “trainer” or “clinician” or “natural horseman.” It is often difficult to choose which person will benefit the horse. The behaviorist and trainer may work with entirely different assumptions and implement different tools.
It is probably a good idea to talk with a veterinary behaviorist first, as they also have the background in physical problems in the horse, which must be considered. Behaviorists are also abreast of new developments and research concerning behavior modification and pharmacologic approaches.
The advantage of a trainer or horseman is that they have the time and experience to evaluate, sometimes repetitively, the actions of the horse, and to work with the horse on the ground and under saddle. This can be extremely effective in getting the problem under control before someone gets hurt. Any use of repeated or harsh physical punishment should be avoided and that goes for anyone handling the horse.