Question Category: Horse Behavior
Question: Dear Julie,
Thank you for providing such wonderful information. I don’t think any of the other trainers provide anything like it. Also, I really enjoy your TV show and wish you were going to be at the Midwest Horse Fair again.
This is really bothering me. Yesterday I was looking on YouTube for some round pen training ideas. My horses have been off all winter and although they are basically well behaved I need to do more ground work. So I started out in a list of videos about training and working with horses when I somehow got into an area on horse mishaps.
There was one called “Fatal Horse Kick” and I actually thought it was going to talk about kicking. There were over 300,000 views and I’m sure plenty of them were people like me. Fortunately it didn’t show much because it definitely looked like it could have been a fatal kick. The horse was secured in a metal “box” and I could see an arm reaching in with a branding iron. Just as the iron touched the horse it kicked out and, unfortunately, happened to aim just between the bars. It was obvious that the horse made contact and it was fast and hard.
I try to always be aware of where my horse is and where I am. I never walk up behind without being sure they see me coming and then I’m careful to make sure they’re relaxed. But I have to admit that video really frightened me.
Would you please address kicking in general. I want to know why it happens and how to make sure I’m doing the right things to avoid having it happen in the first place.
Answer: Dear Anne,
First of all, let me tell you that video has been going around for years—probably 10 or so. Who knows if it is really true or not? A lot of the dramatic stuff you see on the internet is fabricated; anyway, I wouldn’t put much stock in it. But having said that, I must also add something very important I learned from my father when I was a child: all horses kick, all horses bite and all horses strike; that is their natural behavior. Although through training we can minimize their inclination toward these behaviors, we can never totally eliminate this risk.
Fortunately, for most horses, kicking and biting and striking are rare and they are easy to train not to act that way toward people. Nonetheless, you should always conduct yourself in a safe manner around horses with awareness that they are capable of these dangerous behaviors. So you stay out of the kick zone when you can, be aware of it when you cannot and don’t do stupid stuff like smack them on the butt or play with their mouths (or, in the case of this video, stick a hot iron on the rear end).
Kicking is most often seen as a defensive behavior—kicking to get away from something that bothers or scares them (like a more dominant horse or a predator). In this case, the horse kicks out in order to buy a little time so that he can get away. Occasionally kicking is an agressive behavior—usually accompanied by squealing and double-barrel kicks, and usually aimed at another horse.
When horses kick at people, it is often because they startled the horse from behind (he’s got a blind spot directly behind him), because the person did something irritating like touch a wound or curry too hard, or because the person is “attacking” the horse from behind (like you would in a round pen or ground driving the horse). All of these situations are predictable and avoidable with safe and conscientious practices.
You should be very aware of where the “kick zone” is around a horse. He can reach forward with a hind leg, almost all the way to his front leg. He can reach out to the side almost the length of his hind leg and he can fully extend the leg behind him. Draw a line connecting these three points and it creates a pretty large arc around the horse, which is the kick zone. Any time you are in that area, it is possible to get kicked, so you should always be aware of that. It is not that you will never go into the kick zone but rather that you should always be aware when you are there and don’t do things that might provoke a kick or stay in a safer place when the horse is agitated or frightened.
With safe practices, you can minimize the time you are in the kick zone. For instance, if you needed to apply medication under the horse’s belly (or any time you need to reach under him) always face forward so that if he does kick, it is your padded rear end that is hit and not your head. Whenever you are working behind a horse, always keep a hand on him and talk to him so that he knows where you are, even when you are in the blind spot.
I know it can be hard to get an ugly visual out of your head but you must be logical about this. It didn’t happen to you (maybe it never happened at all) and you would never do something as stupid as that. Don’t let other people’s experience change you and the way you do things, unless it is for the better. It sounds like you have good safety habits and you are very conscientious. That will help keep you safe.
I have been kicked many times (most experienced horse people have) and I can tell you that in each and every case, it was because I did something stupid and each kick was entirely preventable. Luckily for me, I’ve never had more than a bad bruise from a kick. And, best of all, I have learned from my experience and as a result I am smarter around horses.
Do not let this fear consume you. Be smart and practice safe horsemanship and it will minimize your risk.
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