How Horses Protect Themselves: What You Should Know

Horse Protecting Itself

How Horses Protect Themselves

If you’ve ever spent much time around horses, then you’ll know that for the most part, they are kind and gentle creatures. However, if they’re ever in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, horses are more than capable of protecting themselves.

So, how do horses protect themselves? Horses are flight or fight animals. If confronted with a threatening situation, they prefer protecting themselves by running away from the danger. If running away from a threat isn’t an option, horses can protect themselves by biting, striking, rearing up, bucking, or kicking. A horse’s kick is powerful enough to kill the majority of the threats they face. 

If you’re working with an untrained or combative horse, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with their protection methods so that you can avoid being on the wrong end of them.

Primary Methods Horses Use To Protect Themselves

Horses Protect Themselves By Running Away 

Frightened Horse Running

A horse’s preferred method of defending itself from predators or threatening situations is to simply run away. Some people believe that horses evolved from small mammals who depended on running away from their predators in order to survive.

Even though horses are now plenty large enough to defend themselves by other means, their flight instinct is still their protective option of choice.

While a horse’s flight instincts are great for keeping them safe, they can pose several challenges for horse owners when used in the wrong context. For example, you may be riding a horse who is suddenly startled, and bolts off away from the danger in the opposite direction. This can very easily make you fall off if you’re not expecting it.

If your horse is prone to bolting while riding, you can help them overcome this with the tips in my Horse Desensitization Guide.

Another problem a horse’s protective flight instinct might cause is them running away from you when you go to retrieve them. If your horse runs away from you, they might view you or the work you do with them as a threat that should be avoided. If you need some tips on fixing this issue, here’s my guide for Getting a Horse to Come to You.

Horses Protect Themselves By Biting 

If escaping a threat by running away isn’t an option, horses may resort to other means of defending themselves, such as biting.

It’s important to remember that horses don’t always bite out of a desire to protect themselves. In some instances, a horse may bite out of playfulness, due to a medical issue, or to establish their dominance. So it’s important to be able to tell the difference.

If you’re concerned about being bit by a horse, they are a few instances when it’s most likely to occur.

Grooming/Saddling. If a horse is familiar with an uncomfortable situation that they frequently find themselves in, such as being groomed or saddled, they may try to bite as a means of preventing or stopping the undesirable activity.

Feeding Time. Horses understand that food is a vital resource, and therefore, they may be willing to revert to biting humans if they view them as a threat to their food. I cover how you can handle a horse that is being pushy about eating in my Ground Manners YouTube Video.

Establishing Dominance. A horse may bite you if they are trying to establish their dominance over you. If a horse is kept in a small area and you’re the only person they interact with, you might be viewed as the only person for them to exert dominance over.

If your horse is prone to biting, that’s a behavior that should be corrected. You can learn how to my article on Why Horses Bite & What To Do About It.

Horses Protect Themselves By Striking 

Striking is when a horse uses one of its front legs to punch whatever is in front of it. Because of their size and strength, a strike from a horse can be very dangerous and painful. Therefore, it’s a good idea to understand when and why a horse might resort to striking as a means of self-defense.

The most common reason that a horse will strike or use any type of self-defense tactic is fear. This could be fear of a human handler who is forcing them to do something they find uncomfortable like being groomed, tacked up, or led into a tight space. It could also be fear and uncertainty of another horse in their field.

To decrease your chances of being on the wrong end of a horse, it’s important that you know where to stand when working with them, and how to compose yourself. You can learn these tips along with other essential horse safety tips in my horse safety guide here.

Horses Protect Themselves By Rearing Up 

horse protecting itself by rearing

Another way that a horse may protect itself is by rearing up. Rearing is when a horse lifts both of its front legs from the ground. Some horses may rear and strike at the same time. This is particularly dangerous for their handlers because it often places their striking paws at eye-level where they can do greater damage.

Here are some of the main reasons a horse will rear:

Rearing Due To Incorrect Riding Techniques 

Before placing the blame on a horse for bad behaviors, it’s important to first examine the habits of their rider or handler.

One of the most common reasons that a horse will rear is because their rider is using their reins incorrectly by applying too much pressure in their mouths when stopping, turning, or just riding in general. A horse in this situation may rear in an attempt to relieve the painful pressure in their mouth.

Rearing To Intimidate and Establish Dominance

Another reason a horse might rear is to establish its dominance over its rider. When a horse realizes that they’re working with an inexperienced trainer or rider, they may begin to rear as a means of intimidating them and getting out of activities they aren’t fond of.

The mistake most beginners make in this situation is backing down from the task they’ve asked their horse to do when they rear. The problem with this is that it’s giving the horse exactly what they want, thus reinforcing the negative behavior. 

If a horse rears as the direct result of unwanted activity, it is better to continue with the activity until the desired result is achieved so that the horse doesn’t view rearing as an easy escape tactic.

Rearing Due To Physical Injuries 

The last reason a horse may rear is because of physical injuries. If their tack is pinching them uncomfortably, they may rear as a sign of their discomfort. In addition, if they have any oral injuries, they may be prone to rearing when a bit is in their mouth.

If you’re uncertain why your horse rears, I always recommend consulting with an experienced horse trainer to help you determine the source of the issue.

Horses Protect Themselves By Bucking 

Horse bucking to protect itself

The next way a horse might protect themselves is by bucking. However, horses may also buck due to excitement and high energy levels. Whatever the source of the behavior, bucking should be discouraged because it can result in serious injuries for both horse and rider.

If your horse is prone to bucking, it may be due to physical injuries that make horseback riding uncomfortable for them. It could also be due to an incorrect application of pressure and release training techniques, where a trainer is not releasing pressure for the horse at the correct times, making them resort to bucking for relief.

Determining the cause of the bucking is key if you want to correct the behavior, so again, I recommend talking to someone more experienced with this issue if you’re uncertain what the cause is.

Horses Protect Themselves By Kicking 

The last and most popular way that horses protect themselves is by kicking. Horses kick with an incredible amount of pressure, making it one of their most dangerous self-defense methods.

As with the previous methods, horses are most prone to kicking when they’re frightened, uncomfortable, or trying to establish their dominance. 

There are a few easy ways that you can greatly reduce the likelihood that you’ll ever be kicked that I’ve covered in-depth in my guide for How to Avoid Being Kicked By a Horse.

How to Stay Safe Around Defensive Horses

The bottom line when it comes to staying safe around horses is that you must always stay extremely aware of your environment and the behaviors from your horse that might indicate that trouble is coming.

The more you work with horses, the easier it will be for you to tell when something might be about to go wrong. If you want to ensure your safety and the safety of those you love when you’re around horses, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the tips and techniques I cover in my Horse Safety 101 Guide.


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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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