Horses may kick for a variety of reasons. This means that it is necessary to determine the cause of this behavior if you want to be able to know how to stop a horse from kicking. The kick for a horse is its most powerful form of communicating with you and other horses. Even just the threat of a kick is a testament to the state of mind of that horse in that moment.
Kicking is often thought of as a problematic behavior on its own, but should really be in the same classification as bared teeth or ears that are pinned back. A kick is a message sent. It’s up to the owner of the horse to determine what that message happens to be.
There are some situations that will cause virtually every horse to kick out. If a horse feels threatened or is trying to relieve pain, then kicking is a natural response. The follow messages involve the responses which are more of a bad habit that you won’t want to have the horse continue having.
Issue #1: Feeling Threatened
The kick for a horse is its most effective weapon. The lashing out of hooves is an instinctive way to protect itself. Even horses that have laid-back temperaments will often lash out with a kick if they feel threatened in some way.
If this is the issue with a horse that has a habit of kicking, then you must observe what has happened before the kick to determine what is causing fear from the horse. Horses that are truly fearful of something do not usually kick out immediately. Their first response is to move away from the threat. Then the horse will attempt to intimidate whatever is causing them fear – you might see the ears pinned back or a leg raised to kick.
Only when both options are ineffective is when the horse will actually strike out with a kick.
When a horse is fearful, the only way to stop the horse from kicking is to remove the anxiety which is triggering the kick. It’s not something you can work on – horses don’t learn when they are feeling fear.
And sometimes fear happens when a horse is surprised. This is why the first lesson learned when owning a horse is to always let the horse know where you are so a startled kick doesn’t happen.
Issue #2: Having Fun
Sometimes horses like to kick just because they are playing. You’ll often find horses playing in a field with one another, kicking and bucking as they run about. This is a normal way for them to get some exercise.
For this type of kicking, there really is no need to correct the behavior. You probably couldn’t stop the kicking even if you wanted to do so. What you do need to do is focus on your own personal safety and the safety of your herd. Young horses who are playful shouldn’t usually be in the same area of an older horse who likes to lounge around all day.
You’ll also want to turn the horse to face you when you turn him or her out for the day so you’re not facing a potential kick when you release.
Sometimes playful kicking turns into aggressive kicking that can become dangerous. Don’t try to correct playful kicking, but certainly keep an eye on it when you see it.
Issue #3: Pain or Discomfort
When you first start learning about horses, one of the lessons taught is that a horse will kick at its belly when it is experiencing digestive discomfort or gut pain on some level. You’ll see this in other ways as well: a horse with a painful back could kick sideways as an attempt to relieve the discomfort.
Pain and discomfort doesn’t have to be severe to cause a horse to kick. Some owners find that their horses will kick when being groomed. This isn’t a behavior problem. This is simply the horse telling you that the grooming is not wanted or is potentially painful at that moment in time.
When you suspect that pain or discomfort is the cause for kicking, then observe what leads up to the behavior. Does the kicking stop when the negative stimulus has been removed? Once the pain or discomfort is gone, the kicking generally stops if this is the issue. Try softer brushes, different towels, or even performing your chores at a different time of day.
Some horses will also kick because they are anticipating discomfort or pain. There he comes with that stupid brush again. When a horse is anticipating discomfort, then it will take time for the behavior to reduce even when the stimulus has been removed. This is because the horse has developed the habit of kicking. A new habit will need to be developed.
You can recognize a kick from pain or discomfort because there are usually no warning signs before the kick takes place.
Issue #4: Frustration
There’s always a horse that kicks its stable when it feels like it isn’t being fed on time. Horses will kick trailers when they’re tired of being cooped up – it’s like their way of saying, “Are we there yet?”
Frustration kicks are usually pretty easy to resolve. If the kicks happen when food is expected, then try moving up the feeding time by a few minutes. Install kicking boards if needed. Remove the stimulus that is frustrating the horse if you can.
Some owners may use hobbles or chains, especially when trailering a horse, to prevent kicking. The issue with these is that the kicking only stops when they are on. Take them off and the kicking begins again.
Most frustration kicks can be ignored as long as you take proper personal safety precautions. As with kicking that happens during play, however, you may wish to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t escalate.
Issue #5: Boundaries
Many horses don’t like it when another horse gets into their personal space. Some horses have very defined boundaries where they don’t want any other horse intruding. That may be a 20-foot-wide invisible barrier – especially for dominant mares. Sometimes a horse is comfortable until another comes within a foot or two of the tail.
For this issue, you’ll find that the horse won’t try to kick a human or other animal in the boundary space, but will kick out at other horses.
If you’re riding and this issue takes place, you will want to correct it with the disciplinary actions you take. The discipline must be immediate for it to be effective.
You may also wish to indicate to other riders that your horse has a reputation for kicking. A red ribbon around the tail is a common way to inform other riders of this issue. Then you can also position yourself at the back of a riding group, stay out of crowded areas, and work to keep your horse focused on you instead of its surroundings.
Issue #6: Superiority
And then there are the horses which kick out at you with one specific message in mind: they are the ones in charge. A horse kicks to enforce hierarchy. They do this to establish breeding privileges and maintain order. When the horse aims their back at you and threatens a kick before letting it fly at you, then you know it thinks you’re not in charge.
Some owners find discipline can work to correct this kicking issue, but it isn’t without risk. If the horse is agitated and thinks you as the owner need to be taken down a peg, instituting discipline may initiate another series of kicks. For this reason, professional training may be required to help ease the horse into its new role.
There are some horses that are aggressive kickers because this is how they’ve instituted their hierarchy for years. In this instance, it may be impossible to eliminate the kicking behavior. It is not uncommon for aggressive kickers to take discipline, laugh it off, and respond with a kick that’s even more forceful and targeted.
To Be Clear: Not All Kicking Needs Correction
Some kicking is done during play and instituting discipline or routine changes will simply cause the horse to feel like it is being punished without reason. Kicks from frustration are simply a way for the horse to express itself. As long as you take appropriate safety precautions for yourself and other horses, this issue is typically considered to be normal horse behavior.
The one form of kicking that must be addressed immediately is superiority kicking. If a horse thinks it is in charge, then you need to establish your leadership. A tug of the lead shank might just be enough to do that.
If a horse is in pain, then remove the discomfort as quickly as you can.
If you listen to what the horse is trying to say, then you’ll understand why the kicking is taking place. Then you can respond appropriately to reduce or remove the stimuli that has caused the kick to take place. That’s the most effective way to stop a horse from kicking.