Are Horses Dangerous? An Introduction to Equine Behavior
Are horses dangerous?”
I get this question a lot. I can’t say that the answer is black and white. We are talking about an animal that on average can weigh up to 1200 pounds and can accelerate up to speeds of 55 mph. It does seem that people tend to talk more about a negative experience they have had with a horse than a positive, so it’s easy to sometimes blame horses for being dangerous creatures.
As I see it, yes – they are capable of causing damage. However, they are for the most part naturally docile animals that have natural instincts just like you and I. Understanding a few key things about the horse will help you and the horse to stay safer, and to hopefully avoid any of the dreaded “horror stories” that can happen.
Awareness: Understanding a Horse’s Instincts
Firstly, awareness! Did you know that a horse is a “fight or flight” animal? Knowing this upfront can help a person stay safer when around their equine counterparts; whether it be in simple contact situations, training, riding, or all of the above. So what does it mean?
The “fight-or-flight” response can be defined as the following:
In situations where the horse feels threatened, the horse may resort to running away. If this is not possible, the horse resorts to biting, kicking, striking or rearing to protect itself.
Many of the horse’s natural behavior patterns, such as herd-formation and social facilitation of activities, are directly related to their being a prey species.
How do we get around this?
Firstly, have knowledge pertaining to the amount of training the horse you are preparing to handle has had. Is it a young horse that is barely halter broke? Is it an older horse that has mostly been in the pasture or is it a seasoned horse who has seen the sights?
Depending on what this horses has or has not been exposed to may help you to gauge what moves you make to maintain as much safety as possible.
Approaching a Horse
Walking up to any horse, especially one that has not had much contact with humans, requires you to be aware of your own body language.
Horses are truly sensitive in the fact that they can read you before you ever know what you are telling them. If you walk up briskly to a horse and expect to throw a halter over their muzzle, you may be greeted with nothing but a tail following a burst of speed moving far, far away from you (there’s that flight response). In comparison, if you are walking up to a horse softly with a relaxed demeanor, hand held out in order to allow them to sniff you, you have a better chance of being able to slip a lead rope over their neck and then slowly haltering them.
Moreover, there are those horses that are distrustful and require that you take all of the pressure away and approach them without making eye contact. The more times you make a less-than-stressful approach, the more they will trust you.
If you’re a horse person, then you also know that no matter what you do some horses will be cantankerous and run away for the sake of knowing simply that they don’t want to have to work that day. Most horses will at least offer an opportunity to be caught if you apply some of the knowledge below when approaching them.
Understanding the Horse’s Eyesight
Horses have impeccable vision and hearing, developing from years of being a prey animal. They are able to see better at night than humans thanks to a part of their eye known as the tapetum lucidum, a membrane at the back of the eye that reflects light and also aids their night vision. However, they have poor depth perception and multiple blind spots due to the distance between their eyes.
Referring to the figure below, it helps one to understand why a horse many spook if approached from directly in front of or behind. Therefore, when approaching a horse- it is best to walk up to their left shoulder.
Be aware of how aware the horse can be!
Try to avoid running, shouting, or making loud noises around horses. Additionally, be aware that some items that you see as harmless may seem scary to a horse if he hasn’t encountered them before (i.e. dogs, chickens, children’s toys, inanimate objects or items blowing in the wind). Being observant and seeing these potential ‘horse fears’ will help you to be prepared for a possible reaction.
“Real Horsepower”: The Kicking Instinct
It is estimated that a horse’s kick can exert anywhere from zero to more than 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.
To avoid experiencing this unwanted force to your body, knowing that a horse can kick with both feet directly backward with one or both legs, or even up and sideways with one leg (often called “cow-kicking”), always exercise caution when around the back side of a horse.
If you are doing something around your horse that requires you to be behind them (i.e. grooming, picking out his feet, applying a tail bandage, etc.), try to keep one hand on them at all times.
If the horse moves quickly you will not only see this movement but also feel it and be able to act accordingly. More-so, when going directly behind a horse either maintain as much distance as possible (a longer distance than the length of their leg) or get as close as possible in order to allow the horse to know where you are.
The worst thing you can do is to be in what I call the “kick-zone” which puts you about 2-4 feet from the horse. In this location, you can easily sneak into a horse’s blind spot while being in a position where you would receive the full impact of the kick. If you are closer to the horse, the legs will hopefully not gain full momentum when making contact IF the horse was to decide to kick out.
Furthermore, do not sit or kneel on the ground near a horse as that would make it too difficult to get out of harm’s way should the need arise.
Handler Position when Grooming and Saddling
Grooming and saddling needs to be done in a safe manner. The first step towards safety is tying your horse correctly. A quick release knot is helpful in ensuring safety.
Additionally, do not walk beneath the neck of your horse.
It may seem ideal to avoid the back end altogether as mentioned above but if a horse feels too much pressure when tied and pulls back, you will be in a dangerous position and could be struck by the front feet.
Always make sure you stand at a safe distance from your horse’s feet to ensure you are not stepped on if they decide to move unexpectedly. You should ALWAYS wear strong, sturdy footwear when you are planning to be around horses to prevent any unforeseen issues.
The Rider’s Body Language
Equally important, we want to be safe in the saddle!
Your first step as a beginner is book lessons with a professional.
Our job as riding instructors is to cover all of the aforementioned material and to make sure you are mounted on a beginner-safe horse that will allow you to make the mistakes that are necessary to learn how to ride correctly.
Much of what is covered in the saddle relates back to body language since a horse will continue to read your body language from the moment you catch them to the time you are on their back.
Remain Relaxed in the Saddle
If you are nervous and rigid sitting in the saddle, your horse may transcribe that as a threat. Why? We must remember that horses have a natural fight-or-flight instinct, and a nervous rider can amplify the issue when they squeeze with their legs and hunker over the saddle, a common response for riders when they think things aren’t going well. Unfortunately, this common response may actually cue your horse to move faster, causing the situation to progress negatively.
Vice versa, a rider who is relaxed with heels down and shoulders tall will imply confidence to their horse which will be well received and usually returned in full. Don’t forget to breathe! Breathing helps you remain calm, relaxed, and confident.
Confident Rider = Confident Horse
Proper Foot Placement
Foot placement in the stirrups is also essential to your safety. Only the ball of your foot should be in the stirrup. Placing your foot further into the stirrup will alter your balance as it prevents your heel from being able to go down and it poses a threat if you ever were to fall off, as it can lock your foot into the stirrup.
Steering and Control
Hand placement is crucial as your contact with the reins is the equivalent to your hold on the steering wheel. Bent elbows and a loose rein with little contact with bit unless you pull towards your pocket to slow down is ideal. However, if you have a “loose rein” and your horse picks up speed, you must be prepared to adjust your reins to reduce the slack in them. Otherwise, you will be pulling much farther and harder while making little to no contact with your horse’s mouth.
The Horse’s Body Language
Seeing the signs can keep you safe in other potentially dangerous situations. Just like your horse reads your body language, you can read theirs.
If a horse is irritable, they may pin their ears back tightly against their head, swish their tail violently, etc. If your horse is scared, you may see the whites around their eyes and will notice that they appear nervous and unsure, even frantic. If your horse is content, their ears will likely be twitching in various directions as they try to listen to their surroundings and what you are asking of them. They may also lick their lips and even cock their foot if they are at a standstill. If you see a sign indicating that they are irritable, whether it is at you or another horse, discipline them if it can be done safely and remove yourself in situations that may result in your harm otherwise.
When things do not go as planned…
There will be those times where you do everything ‘right’ and you still find yourself in an unintended situation. This could come in the form of a runaway horse, a bucking fit, a scary situation on the ground, etc. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you feel that control is lost, remind yourself of the basics to the best of your ability. Your worst enemy is your mind. In times of chaos, your mind will trick you into thinking that the situation is much worse than what it is and, in turn, usually causes things to result in a less-than-desirable way. If you can slow down and focus on the facts rather than assuming bailing is the best option,you will likely get better results without having to taste test the dirt. Panicking is never the answer.
If you have any questions, never hesitate to ask an experienced horse person. We all start somewhere and it’s a lot more fun learning when you can do it in a safe manner!
Written by and shared from Haley Wright, of Wright Direction Horsemanship
For more information about Wright Direction Horsemanship, visit www.wrightdirectionhorsemanship.com.