It is helpful to understand why horses kick. Then we can use this knowledge to teach them to stop kicking. Horses are a prey animal. For thousands of years they have used a herd hierarchy system for the survival of the fittest. Horse herds were developed as a means of defense against predators. When you have several horses living together, natural leaders start to take charge. This is similar to what happens with large groups of people. The goal of this leadership is to govern social interaction, reduce aggressive conflict, and alert the herd to dangers.
Legs are a valuable survival and communication asset.
When threatened or fearful, horses respond with fight or flight. They have strong jaws and can leave a nasty bite. But, their most valuable survival assets are powerful legs. You definitely want to use techniques to avoid getting kicked. Because horse kicks can result in bruises, deep lacerations, broken bones, and in some cases death. Our equine friends can also kick to communicate their state of mind and physical being. If your horse is kicking or threatening to kick, you can bet he is trying to tell you something.
When Do Horses Kick?
Mares Teaching Their Foals
Foals learn to use their legs from the time they can stand and nurse. When her foal gets too pushy and aggressive nursing, the mare responds by lifting her hind leg and gently moving the foal away. This communicates to the foal, “That is bad behavior. Move away from me.”
At weaning time, domesticated horses are usually assisted by their human partners. Horses in the wild, however, have to wean their foals by themselves. Therefore, the gentle nudge will get more aggressive, but not strong enough to do serious damage.
Young Horses Playing
Oftentimes we see young horses rearing and kicking at each other in what looks like play acting. This behavior is crucial in teaching and practicing the use their defense mechanism for survival.
The phrase “fighting tooth and nail to get to the top” can well describe equine herd hierarchy. Why would a horse want to be at the top? They get the best access to feed and water, the first choice of shelter or shade tree, etc. All of these things are necessary for survival.
You may have heard of the expression “Boss Mare.” Some horses just have a personality that encourages them being the “boss.” When a horse is put in with horses they don’t know, there will be a period of adjustment and squabbling while the pecking order of the hierarchy is established.
How to Teach a Horse to Stop Kicking
You May Need Help
The first thing you need to know is it is nearly impossible to get a horse to stop kicking in all situations. With that being said, it is possible to teach a horse that kicking is not an acceptable behavior. If you have a chronic, aggressive kicker, it is highly recommended to get the advice and help from a professional horse trainer. Remember, those legs can be deadly.
All four legs can be used to kick.
Horses can kick with all four legs. Most commonly when we refer to kicking, we are referring to the hind legs. But, all four legs can be used in some form of kicking. The hind legs can kick forward, sideways, and backward. The front feet are used to strike forward and stomp. For this article, I will focus on the hind legs.
Violence Is Not the Answer
A negative reaction to a kick (i.e. slapping or kicking back) will not have a positive effect on getting the horse to stop kicking. Violence is not the answer. It may be our first reaction, but we as horseman have to learn to curtail this reaction.
Take Notes from Mares and Athletic Coaches
Remember the mare telling her foal, “That is bad behavior, so move away from me.” This is the same theory used by athletic coaches around the world. If the athlete has an attitude or misbehaves, they are told to run drills. It is also the same basic training theory used to teach horses not to kick.
Move the Feet
Teaching a horse to stop kicking requires you to teach the horse to respect you as being higher in the hierarchy of the herd. No, you are not a horse, but to the horse you are still part of his herd.
What You Will Need
You will need a round pen where you can turn your horse loose and ask him to free work on the rail. The enclosure needs to be large enough so you can avoid the back legs if he kicks out, but still be able communicate with a lunge whip what you want of the horse.
Rubbing the Hips and Legs
Hold your horse’s head using a short lead rope. Do not lock your fingers around the halter! Take the long lunge whip and gently rub it up and down your horse’s hip and leg. You can use a stick with a flag on it for this also.
If he walks away, stay with him, never stopping the rubbing. If he kicks out and jerks away, let him go and ask him to run on the rail.
After a few rounds around the circle, ask the horse to stop and face into you. Walk up to the horse, grab the lead, and repeat the rubbing.
This lesson is a back to basic ground exercise. Letting the horse run off from you may seem counterintuitive, but if done correctly this method works. The horse will eventually figure out it is easier to let you rub than to move his feet.
After the horse lets you rub with the stick, start rubbing with your hands. Remember to stand to the side and close to the hip. Horses can kick sideways. If he kicks, repeat the same process of rail work and try it again.
Picking Up the Feet
Once you can run your hands down the legs, move on to picking up the feet. Start by putting a long rope around the foot you want to pick up. Stand by the horse’s head and use the rope to pull the foot forward. If the horse kicks out, try to hold the foot up with the rope until he stops.
The idea is for the horse to realize that kicking does not get a desirable effect. If you are unable to hold the rope and he gets away from you, it is back to the rail for a few laps, then repeat. Depending on how bad of a kicker your horse is, this process may take several training sessions.
Horses respond to fear and aggression with a flight or fight instinct. Kicking is a result of this. They also use kicking to help establish where they stand in the hierarchy of the herd. It is possible to teach a horse that kicking is not an acceptable behavior and will not have the desired results he wants. To teach this can take several training sessions.
Moving their feet, because of bad behavior, is taught to horses from the time they are foals. That is why this round pen method works. Again, if you have an aggressive, chronic kicker seek the assistance of a professional trainer!
About the Author
Wendy Sumner grew up on a quarter horse ranch in Wyoming. She helped raise and train horses to be shown in the American Quarter Horse Association. At college, she received her Equine Science degree and pursued her love of everything equine. She has spent the last 35 years raising and training horses and teaching lessons. We are excited that she has agreed to join our team as a researcher and writer.