A kicking horse can be dangerous. Even if the horse is just kicking at a biting fly and you get in its way, you can be injured. Some horses have a bad habit of kicking and can be a hazard on the ground or while riding or driving.
Why Horses Kick
Horses kick for many reasons. As mentioned earlier, a horse may kick at flies that sting it on its legs and belly. A horse kicks its belly when it has colic. They kick or stomp when something tickles their legs or belly, such as a thorny weed. Usually, these are not very forceful kicks, because if it were a matter of removing the discomfort, they might be more likely to hurt themselves.
In the pasture, you often see horses kicking each other. When they are playing, they are not powerful kicks and they rarely hit another horse. It may simply be a sign of good humor, as is often seen when the horse gallops and runs to burn off energy.
Horses also kick to defend themselves, and these kicks are usually powerful and well-aimed. Horses may defend themselves by kicking if they feel another horse is getting too close to their food, their foal, or a special herd member, or if another horse is acting aggressively toward them. In the wild, horses kick hard, often with both hind legs at the same time, to fend off predators. A mare may kick a stallion if she does not want to be mated.
This defensive instinct may explain why some horses kick when alarmed, such as when a human, dog, or other animals “comes up” behind the horse. Or if an item of equipment comes loose and crawls behind or next to the horse, the horse may respond by kicking. A horse that is trained to pull may kick the equipment if it is not introduced slowly and allowed to become accustomed to the sight and sound of a horse-drawn vehicle.
When kicking becomes a problem
Kicking while handling, riding, or driving can become a dangerous habit or vice. At some point, the horse has learned that kicking is the best strategy for getting rid of something he doesn’t like. It then becomes a habit that the rider, handler, or driver must always be aware of. Some horses get nervous when another horse is being ridden too close behind them and will kick to warn the other horse to go away. This is a problem when the horse is being ridden in a group or a crowded area, such as at a horse show. Both horse and rider (and spectators) are at risk of injury. I know of incidents where one horse has kicked another and the rider has taken the brunt of the blow.
Horses that have hurt themselves while being saddled or girt up quickly often “kick the cow” in anticipation of being pinched. My daughter broke her nose in one such incident. When she bent down to get under the horse to put on the girth, the young horse responded by kicking the cow, catching her in the face.
Some horses kick out of spite. It’s a sign of disrespect. These kicks are aimed at you, but the horse knows it’s not in range to hit you. This often happens when you work in a round pen.
How to deal with a problem kicker
If your horse has a habit of kicking, there are a few things you can do. When you’re out and about, tie a red ribbon on his tail to warn others that the horse has a reputation for kicking. If you ride in a group, ride in the back of the group and warn others of the horse’s habit. A horse that moves forward will kick less often. If another horse gets too close, you can turn your horse’s hindquarters to one side or the other so that even if your horse kicks, it cannot reach its target.
Dealing with a kicking horse requires extra care. If your horse is in public, you should wear red tape. Anyone who has to work around the horse should be aware of its habits. You and anyone else who needs to get close to your horse should stay out of reach of its hind legs. If you are in a public place, you should place your horse away from people and other horses.
Learn to pay attention to body language
Most horses will let you know through their body language before they lunge. So not only do you need to know what situations may trigger a kick, but you also need to understand the ear, head, and body posture that may occur before a kick. Regardless of whether the horse is cautious with his kick or defiant, you need to recognize the signs of an impending kick and give the horse something else to think about.
It is possible to mitigate the vice by desensitizing the horse. If it appears to be fearful and kicks at a particular object, you need to gradually accustom the horse to that object. If it kicks the cow when saddled, be consistently gentle and slow. If the horse habitually attacks other horses in the paddock, it may be necessary to separate him if he hurts the other horses.
One way to deal with a kicker is to use “kicking chains.” A short piece of chain is attached to each hind leg. The theory behind this is that the horse will feel the chain on his legs when he kicks, and this is likely to prevent him from kicking. Some things can go wrong with shackles. If the horse is frightened, the problem can get worse, and fitting a boot or bandage can become an ordeal. Certainly, the horse may react violently the first time it is put on. Some horses get used to them and they may become ineffective. Or the horse may not kick when the chains are on, but kicking is still a problem when they are removed. The chains could catch on the horse’s shoe or a wire fence (unlikely, but possible). Do not use kicking chains while riding. If you decide to try kicking chains, proceed with extreme caution.