Why Horses Kick & Horse Kick Dangers

It’s wise to have a healthy degree of unease when considering the threat a horse kick poses. This doesn’t just apply to new riders, either – seasoned equestrians are typically always aware of the distance between the rear end of a horse and their own body. A horse’s hindquarters are astonishingly strong, and to be on the other end of a horse kick is very dangerous. 

Why do horses kick, and how dangerous are horse kicks? With around 2,000 pounds of force behind it, a horse kick can be catastrophic, and even lethal, to a human. Horses may kick for several reasons, including as a reaction to being startled, a display of dominance, and an expression of both frustration and excitement. 

As someone who’s seen my fair share of people be kicked by horses, my hope is that the information here will help you learn how to protect yourself when around horses. 

Why Do Horses Kick?

Protecting yourself from a horse kick is easier when you understand why they kick in the first place. Even a “bombproof” horse can kick, so arming yourself with knowledge is important for every rider. The following are some of the most common reasons a horse may kick.

Horses may kick when startled or threatened

Horses are surprisingly skittish given their size and power (sometimes comically so). Horses are prey animals, however, and they will react as such toward any perceived threat – whether that be a loose dog, a suspicious-looking boulder, or a balloon.

When threatened, a horse will generally try to flee. If unable to flee (because of being tied up, for example), a horse may immediately react to something that startles her by kicking out. Protecting herself is instinctual for her, and aside from socialization and desensitization to potential offenders, cannot be “trained out” of most horses. 

Horses may kick when excited

Not all horse kicks are indicative of behavioral problems – kicking in reaction to a threat is one example of this. Another example is when a horse kicks out of excitement. You’ll see this most often when a horse is turned out after work or after being stalled.

The horse will often run around and kick joyfully as a way of expressing any pent-up energy or stress. A horse who kicks with joy after being turned out is not doing anything wrong, and both turning a horse toward you and training him to stand still while being un-haltered can help mitigate the risk of catching a “happy hoof”.

Horses may kick to display dominance

A horse that doesn’t respect you as her leader will test you in just about every way she can. She will give you grief when you ask her to pick up her hoof, when you tack her up, and when you try to mount.

A horse who believes she is the boss is a safety threat. If she decides she’s done working for the day, she may stomp her feet or even kick at her handler. This behavior is natural and part of horse communication, but when it involves humans it requires training.

Horses may kick when in pain

Being prey animals, horses are adept at hiding any pain they are experiencing. If you are working on a hoof that has a hidden abscess or you’re tightening a cinch around an injured girth, your horse isn’t able to say to you “Hey, that hurts, can you go easy back there?”.

Instead, your horse will use other means of communication. These communication techniques – such as kicking and biting – are usually dangerous for humans once they’ve moved past the pinned-ears-and-twitching-tail stage. This is why it’s so important to be in tune with your horse, her behaviors, and her body language

How Dangerous Is A Kick from a Horse?

Most riders will be kicked by a horse at some point in their equestrian journey, though most often from close range. There is a range behind a horse in which a hoof can make contact.

Generally, the further you are from a horse’s rump (within that kick range), the harder the force of the kick. If you are very close to a horse, his hindquarters will not have had the range required to put full force behind a kick.

The most dangerous place to be when behind a horse is at the end of that kick range. The following are just a few of the statistics we have available from research on the subject.

  • A study in the 1990s looked into horseback riding as it was deemed to be the leading cause of sports-related head injuries. Of the 132 incidents in question, 109 were riding-related, while 23 occurred on the ground. Among the 23 on the ground, 21 (or 91%) resulted from a direct kick to the head. One person died immediately, while two others required CPR. 
  • A similar study was done at the University of Kentucky Medical Center during a similar timeframe. The hospital reviewed the files for 30 equestrians who had neurologic injuries. 60% of these injuries were caused by a fall from a horse, while the other 40% were caused by a kick. Out of these 30 patients, five died, and two suffered permanent paralysis. Notably, 24 of the patients (or 80%) were not wearing helmets at the time of injury – including all fatalities and patients that required brain surgery. The study ended by stating “Experience is not protective; helmets are”, as 37% of these patients were identified as professional riders. 
  • It isn’t just the United States studying the dangers of horse kicks – these injuries are deemed hazardous around the globe. In a 2010 study, researchers in Hamburg, Germany, looked at the records of 24 equestrians who were hospitalized after being kicked by a horse. Two-thirds of these riders suffered orbital,  mandible, and/or other facial fractures. Only two of these patients were wearing helmets. 

If you’re like me, you can’t help but wince when looking at statistics like these. What is especially notable to me is that, as is the case with most horse-related injuries, experience does not necessarily correlate with safety. 

How to Avoid Being Kicked By a Horse

Given the power in a horse’s hindquarters, it’s very important that every equestrian do what they can to avoid being kicked. The following are some of the ways I’ve found the most helpful for staying safe and avoiding being kicked by the horses I work with.

Don’t startle your horse to avoid being kicked

Horses have almost a 360-degree field of vision, with the exception of two blind spots – directly in front of them and directly behind them. When you approach any horse, you want to make sure they know you’re coming.

Speak gently, and don’t tiptoe toward him. Once you are within close distance, approach him from the side rather than from directly in front of or behind him. The last thing you want to do is startle a horse, as that is when they’re most unpredictable.

Keeping these blind spots in mind is also important while grooming your horse. One of the first things every equestrian learns is to stay close to the horse when grooming around him and to keep your hand on him as you move behind him. This lets him know you’re there, and any (highly suspicious, no doubt) noises he hears behind him are just you. 

This article was originally published by equinehelper.com.

Avoid being kicked by making sure your horse respects you

Most of the behavioral reasons behind a horse’s kicking can be resolved by going back to the basics and requiring that your horse respect you as his leader. This should be done in the saddle, but it should also certainly be done on the ground.

Much of what a horse learns about respect he will learn during groundwork. Along this same line, make sure to establish an invisible “boundary” around you that you expect your horse to maintain. Do not allow him to nudge you or rub against you – yes it can be cute, but you must claim your space. If you need help gaining your horse’s respect, you can check out my online course here.

Know your horse to avoid being kicked

If your horse is prone to any kind of aggression, including food aggression, you will need to be especially vigilant. Knowing the horse you’re dealing with is so important when it comes to safely handling her.

Some horses have vices, past trauma, a nervous nature, or any other number of things that can lead to a potentially dangerous reactive response. If the horse you are working with is not your own, get as much information as you can from his or her regular handler.

Always wear a helmet

There may be a time when you aren’t able to avoid a kick. As you saw in the statistics at the beginning of this post, wearing a helmet is the #1 safety precaution you can take that really matters. You are many times more likely to suffer severe head trauma after being kicked if you are not wearing a helmet.

Enjoying Horses Safely

While horse kicks happen too frequently, I would venture to say that the majority of people who end up being kicked by a horse were participating in unsafe behavior. If you are diligent in practicing safe horsemanship, wear a helmet, and watch your horse’s cues, you will greatly decrease your risk of being kicked.

Having Trouble With Your Training?

Learn how to gain and maintain your horse’s respect in my latest course!

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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