Not all horse kicking is a bad thing. Kicking, after all, is natural for horses. But it sure pays to know the difference between spirited play and self-defense before a horse drop-kicks you over a bale of hay.
Why Horses Kick
Horses actually kick for several reasons. When they're happy and feeling great, they frolic and kick as a show of exuberance. This, of course, is wonderful when he's merrily romping around a field. You generally should avoid trying to quell his playfulness, unless his kicking will injure other animals or people, or he's doing it in tighter areas where someone, including the horse, could get hurt.
Outside of play, a horse typically kicks because he feels threatened. His large legs and the hooves attached to them make formidable weapons of self-defense, and he will use them against anyone or anything he fears will hurt him.
He also is likely to kick if he is hurt or frustrated. Horses don't like to be confined anymore than anyone else does, and many horses will punctuate their opinions against a stall wall.
He may kick as a way to show dominance. This type of kicker is less common, but more troublesome to handle. Like any type of kicking, however, its important to learn a horse's body language.
Play or not, never approach a horse while he's kicking.
How To Read a Horse
Horses almost never kick just out of the blue. They give very clear warning signs before they let a kick fly. The most common gestures that signal an impending kick are:
- Flattened ears
- Bared teeth
- Angrily swishing tail
- Lowered head while staring
- Turning his rear end toward the threat
An I'm-the-boss kicker usually will cock his kicking leg before following through. Most horses will start showing signs of agitation if you approach them from behind and get too close.
Never approach any horse from his blind spots. If you see any of these warnings, approach with extreme caution.
Training Not To Kick
The first and most important aspect of training a horse not to kick is to establish trust. A horse who trusts and respects you will have almost no reason to kick at you.
Avoid Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement, otherwise known as punishment, is a major no-no. You will not build a healthy trust or mutual respect with a horse if you hit, hurt or punish him for acting out. Horses are sensitive animals with strong emotions, they will not react well to negative reinforcement.
Clicker training with food helps build trust and a mutually respectful relationship with a horse. The concept is simple: Give the horse a command as you click. When he performs as desired, give him his reward, such as apple slices or carrots, which horses love. It doesn't take a horse long to associate you with reward, and this builds the foundation of trust that will prevent a horse from seeing you as a target for his kicks.
An important part of clicker training for kicking is touch. Approach the horse calmly and from where he can see you coming. It may sound obvious, but stay out of the kick zone. Touch him gently on an area he's comfortable having touched, such as the shoulder. Click and reward him whenever you touch him and he remains still.
Move slowly down the leg while gently leaning your shoulder into his in the way you do to get a horse to shift the weight off the foot when you need to shoe him or work on a leg. Click and reward three times as you lean. Repeat this until he understands that you want him to shift the weight off that leg. This likely will take several tries.
Once he shifts, place your hand around his fetlock joint as if you want to pick it up. The moment his foot eases from the ground, click and reward him, even if only for a slight movement.
It's important to be patient when building trust through touch. You won't be successful right away, but small steps will add up.
The watchword for building trust through touch is "soothing." Touch your horse only in places he is comfortable having touched and slowly expand the touch zone over days and weeks. Do not make sudden movements that may spook him and do not approach too quickly, or you may trigger a reactionary kick.
Keep a hand on his rump while crossing around behind him. This lets him know that you are still in contact with him and you will be less likely to surprise him by suddenly being behind him.
Remember, be gentle, be patient and be aware of a horse's body language. Time and a soft hand will yield a much better relationship with a horse and a much calmer animal who feels safe and secure.