Chances are pretty good you understand what your horse is saying when he nickers as you bring him his feed. The meaning of a pinned ear and cocked hind hoof are also pretty obvious.
But not all equine communication is quite so clear. Do you know what a clamped tail indicates? What a foal is saying when he clacks his teeth? Even more important, can you recognize subtle signs of fear or frustration before they escalate into a blowup? Kicks are serious business. They can be disfiguring and even fatal.
What His Ears Say
One of the first lessons a novice rider is taught is that when a horse’s ears are forward he is alert, paying attention and/or interested in what’s in front of him, and when his ears are pinned back close to the neck he is angry and about to bite or kick. But the ears have more to say than just that:
Turned out to the side. The horse is asleep or relaxed and may not be attuned to what’s going on around him. You don’t want to march up to this horse and pat him because he may be startled and react by running over you, whirling or striking out. Instead, call his name or make some noise, and don’t approach until he turns his head or otherwise indicates that he’s paying attention to you.
Turned back. If your horse’s ears are pointed backward but not pinned, it often means he’s listening to something behind him—he may be deciding whether to run away or turn around and check out the sound. When combined with a swishing tail or other signs of tension in the body, turned-back ears may be a precursor to pinned ears.
Rapidly swiveling. Ears that are flicking back and forth are a sign that the horse is in a heightened state of anxiety or alertness. He may be trying to locate the source of a frightening sound or smell, or he may be overwhelmed by too many stimuli.
The position and movement of a horse’s head are easy to see and can tell you a lot about his mood and what he’s thinking:
Lowered. A dropped head is a sign your horse is relaxed and feeling good, and his ears will often hang to the side as well. If he’s standing in his stall or pasture with a lowered head, he’s probably either resting or asleep; call his name and make your approach obvious so you don’t startle him.
Elevated. Your horse is focused on something in the distance, and he’s probably trying to figure out whether he should flee, investigate or ignore it. As his handler, you need to realize that he is not paying attention to you, and he may be about to spook or bolt; to prevent that from happening, you must regain his focus.
A horse who raises his head while being ridden may be in pain, especially if he also hollows his back, pins his ears or wrings his tail. Carefully examine your tack for protruding screws or other sources of discomfort and check for proper fit. If the behavior persists, have a veterinarian check your horse for back pain.
Snaking. Lowering the head slightly and waving the neck from side to side is an aggressive act, often used by stallions who are fighting or herding an uncooperative mare. If you see a horse do this, it’s a red alert. You need to ascertain why the horse is aggressive and defuse the situation. This may mean refocusing his attention, moving him out of the area or just getting away from him.
Standing splayed. A horse spreads his front legs out to the sides and leans back a little when he is scared—he may be seconds away from a spook or bolt.
Pawing. Horses paw—an arcing action with the foreleg that may dig a trench in soft ground—for a number of reasons. The bored or impatient horse paws when tied—he’s saying that he’s tired of standing around and he’s ready to go! Stressed horses may paw in the trailer or at feeding time, and the behavior stops when the source of the anxiety is past.
Stomping. Unlike pawing, stomping is raising and lowering a foot forcefully in place. Horses stomp to indicate irritation. Usually, it’s something minor, such as a fly they’re trying to dislodge. However, stomping may also indicate your horse is frustrated with something you are doing, and if you don’t address it, he may resort to stronger signals.
Striking. A strike is a forceful, forward kick with a front leg that can be either aggressive or defensive. This is a dangerous action. If you’re very lucky you’ll walk away with only a bruise, but a strike can break a bone. If the horse rears and strikes your head, he can kill you easily. Fortunately, horses rarely strike without warning, such as stomping or pawing, wide eyes, an elevated head or pinned ears. That’s why it is important to listen to those signals so that you can change your horse’s focus or prepare for worsening behavior.
The hind legs of a nervous or frustrated horse are a danger zone to be heeded:
Cocked. When a horse cocks his leg, he rests the leading edge of the hoof on the ground and drops his hip. When combined with a lowered head or ears hanging to the side, this is the sign of a horse who is relaxed and resting. You may see him occasionally shift his weight, uncocking that back leg and cocking the other one. A horse may also cock a hind hoof when he is irritated or defensive and considering kicking. In that case, he may also elevate his head and turn his ears back, and he may be looking back over his shoulder to keep an eye on the perceived threat. The best thing you can do then is steer clear of his back end and move him forward and away from whatever is bothering him.
Raised. Your horse may lift a hind leg off the ground to signal irritation. The cause may be something as minor as a horsefly, or it could be that he’s annoyed with a horse or person behind him and is threatening to kick.
What His Eyes Say
The movements of your horse’s eyes tell you not just what he’s thinking but also where his attention is focused:
Tension. As with tension around the muzzle, tightening of the muscles around the eyes is a subtle, early?sign of stress, fear or discomfort. You may see this as a wrinkled upper?eyelid or tightness at the corner of?the eye. If you learn to notice this cue and respond promptly, you can avoid bigger problems.
Rapid darting. When your horse’s eyes are flicking from side to side, he’s probably scared and looking for a way to escape. This sign may precede a spook or bolt, but if your horse feels trapped he may react by biting or kicking in an attempt to get away. Remove him from the situation or calm him down to keep yourself safe.
Whites of the eyes showing. To interpret this sign correctly, you need to know your horse and what’s normal for him. In some horses, the sclera (the opaque white portion of the eyeball surrounding the cornea) is always visible, especially in Appaloosas and pintos with lots of white on their faces. In some horses, the sclera is exposed when they are only startled or mildly alarmed.
What His Tail Says
More than just a fly swatter, the tail is one of the more mobile methods of equine communication:
Raised or “flagged.” A tail carried above the level of the back is a sign of excitement. This behavior is often associated with Arabians, but any horse will do it if he’s energized enough—some will just get keyed up more readily. A horse who is so excited that he’s flagging his tail isn’t paying much attention to you, and he’s probably prone to spooking, bucking or bolting. You may need to put him to work to regain his focus.
Clamped down. A nervous or stressed horse will press his tail down, and he may tuck in his hindquarters. This is a good time to reassure him and try to build his confidence. If your horse clamps his tail when you are riding, he may be in discomfort or pain; you need to make sure he’s sound and his tack fits well.
Rapid swishing. Slow slapping of a tail is all about fly control. But when a horse’s tail is jerking quickly from side to side or up and down, he is irritated or angry. This is often a pretty clear warning sign that he’s about to kick or buck, and you need to heed it immediately.
Kicks can generally be classified in two ways, the rear kick and the “cow kick.” The rear kick is self evident, and can be forceful enough to kill people. The cow kick is more of a forward swipe with the hind leg. If you are behind the horse you could receive a rear kick. If you are standing alongside him at the rib cage, you could receive a cow kick.
There are six primary reasons a horse will kick. Understanding what they are will help you assess risk and hazards and your situation and take appropriate precautions.
The playful kick is also called the “kick that kills.” Horses will often play “Tag, you’re it” with a nip or the flash of a hoof while running past a playmate. Since horses have good side vision, they usually dodge the kick and chase the mock aggressor or wheel their butts around in response. Humans who do not enjoy lateral monocular vision, as well as inattentive horses, tend to get kicked. Both unwitting horses and humans have been killed this way.
Part of the problem stems from the flick of the foot being expressed as a form of attention getting gesture, “Wake up! Let’s play!” Thus if you are daydreaming while your horse is playing, you could actually invite such an approach. If you are in an area with playful horses you must stay alert and wave them off if they approach to “buzz” you!
The exuberant kicker may fire in excitement when first released into a play area (e.g., being turned out for exercise) and accidentally catch the handler who just released him. A horse which has never displayed this behavior might do so when turned out with other horses or when something is present which that gets his attention and excites him. We always back potentially exuberant horses down the lead rope a couple of times, get their attention, have them face us when we unhalter them, then hold them in place with the lead rope around their neck until we take a couple of steps back.
A fearful kicker is akin to a fear-biting dog. He feels threatened and trapped and is doing nothing more than what he feels he has to do to protect himself.
Freshly captured feral horses and previously abused horses can offer the handler a fear kick if they are not handled correctly. These horses will appear tense, their tails clamped against their buttocks, heads high, eyes wide open and sometimes nostrils flared. In such circumstances the handler should be careful not to pressure the horse into a flight or fight decision, especially if the horse is cornered or secured and cannot flee.
If I see a frightened horse “loading up,” I will yield him some space. I’m not relinquishing my authority and position by doing this if I time the move correctly. The conversation which is taking place is the horse telling me, “Human, I can’t take much more of this!”
In such an instance my appropriate response would be to step back one or two steps to say, “OK, horse, I’ll give you a little space with which to get a grip on your emotions.” What I don’t want to do is to push the horse to the point he has to cock a hind leg and threaten to fire at me. If I wait that long to yield, he could develop an association between his aggressive behavior and my getting out of his way. Once he discovers this “tool,” he’ll be really difficult to work with and this will no longer be a problem suitable for a novice to deal with.
An effective alternative to triggering a showdown is to let the horse leave and in a controlled environment, put him to work in a safe endeavor such as longeing in a circle. He needs to work off his stress and get his emotions under control before you can do much with him and longeing gives you an alternative where you can get yourself out of a tough spot but still remain the leader. You don’t necessarily need to work the horse hard. Oftentimes just letting him walk and clear his head can reset the encounter.
An aggressive kicker can be particularly dangerous, although more predictable than a playful kicker. The aggressive kicker is likely to confront you “rump-on / head on.” By this I mean he’s not likely to engage in a sneak attack. He’s likely to wheel his butt around and come straight at you. If you suspect a horse is aggressive you need protective equipment and you have to know what you are doing.
When I confront an aggressive kicker I make sure I’m wearing a helmet and have a proper 12 ft. or 15 ft. horse handling rope and the layout includes somewhere for me to send the horse. As soon as he starts to load up to kick me, I’ll go after him aggressively twirling the rope at his hindquarters. I have to make him question the effectiveness of his aggression and decide to leave. I will not, however, pursue him.
Committed aggressors will often come after me a couple of times more to see if the unexpected response was temporary and if they can intimidate me. I have to not only hold my ground, but take away some of their territory each time they try me out. I will not try to prolong the tension and I will always give the horse a clear escape route.
If I am fortunate enough to encounter the horse in a round corral or small arena, I will send him off on longe as best I can. As soon as the horse has had a chance to blow off his anxiety, I will cause him to yield several times. The instant he shows me that he is willing to be submissive, I will back off and let him rest. Unlike the disrespectful horse whom I will encourage to come in right away and be buddies when he shows me good behavior, I’m going to keep the aggressive horse at a respectful distance for a few outings until he can demonstrate to me that he can keep his aggressive tendencies in check. Only at that pointwill I extend some trust and attempt to make friends.
Incidental accidents occur with nuisance kickers. These horses cow kick when they are irritated, typically by flies, but they can also cow kick when they are irritated by the handler’s touch. Cow kicks don’t sound dangerous, but they can take the form of sharp blows. Although many are little more than very uncomfortable “brush-offs,” some have resulted in unplanned trips to the Emergency Room.
Horses that are poorly groomed, fly infested or have dirty teats or sheaths may be uncomfortable and kick at their underbellies. When we see a horse displaying this type of behavior, we try to resolve the nuisance which is prompting the cow kicks, bearing in mind that the horse is likely to bring a leg forward as we work on him.
Horses similarly can kick backwards at nuisances which could be nothing more than irritating sweat running down their legs. Again, observing the horse for a short while before handling him may reveal the presence of these irritating nuisances.
To be safe, before we handle a nuisance kicker we will attempt to keep the horse standing square. If he is overly fidgety, someone can hold his near side front leg up so that the horse can’t cow kick on that same side. (Please note that some horses can cow kick on the opposite diagonal, so you need to be standing on the same side as the lifted foreleg.) If the horse insists on putting his front leg down, you should stay clear of the “kicking arc” when working near his belly or rib cage.
Don’t surprise the horse. Let him know where you are at all times. Stay alert to unusual movements or weight shifts. Don’t let yourself get placed between the hind end of any unproven horse and a solid object such as a wall or fence.
Little kids can easily disappear into a horse’s blind spot, then pop into view when they make some sudden movement, startling the horse. Children have been seriously hurt by horses who have never kicked before when they have been playing in or have run up into the horse’s blind spot.
When grooming around the horse’s hind end, stay close to the horse on either side. It’s safer to be shoved than smacked. If you sense the horse is going to kick, you can push away from the horse and at the same time move him away from you. Don’t linger directly behind the horse “in the gun barrel.” When picking up feet, notice the “arc path” of the foot and make sure you don’t put your leg or feet in line for a kick or stomp if the horse takes his foot back.
With unproven horses, pay attention not only to the horse but to things going on around you.