The kick is one of your horse's most powerful forms of communication. Just as pinned ears or bared teeth send unmistakable messages, a kick--or even the threat of one--speaks volumes about a horse's state of mind or his physical well-being.
Of course, the sheer mechanical force of an equine kick underscores that it is an urgent message. Emergency room personnel have likened the destructive potential of an equine kick to that of the impact of a small automobile moving at 20 miles per hour. A kick can shatter bones and traumatize soft tissue. In fact, medical journals document people going into cardiac arrest after sustaining a kick to the chest. In addition, a horse can seriously injure himself by kicking; a powerful impact with a cinder block wall, for example, can fracture bones within the hoof.
So if you have a horse who kicks, habitually, periodically or even only occasionally, it's important to figure out the reasons behind the behavior. Some situations will compel practically any horse to lash out--to protect himself or to relieve pain--but in other cases kicking is a bad habit that must be addressed before someone is hurt.
Generally, a kick delivers one of six messages. To discern which one your horse is sending, you'll need to closely observe his body language, take stock of the circumstances leading up to a kick and identify factors that may be contributing to the behavior.
Message: "I feel threatened."
At its most primal level, the equine kick is a defensive weapon. Horses in the wild can and often do repel predators by lashing out with their hooves. This response is instinctive so, depending on the situation, you may see it with even the most placid and agreeable horses.
You can recognize a fear kick by what precedes it. A horse who is truly scared will not kick immediately. First, he'll try to move away from the threat. If that doesn't work, he'll likely try to intimidate the threatening presence by pinning his ears or raising his hind leg in preparation for a kick. Only when both escape and intimidation fail will the horse strike out.
In my work as an animal behaviorist, I've seen this time and again. Hooves are likely to end up flying when a horse is pursued and cornered by an aggressive herdmate. Likewise, a horse may ultimately feel threatened enough to kick if he is forced to do something he finds genuinely scary, such as walking into a dark trailer.
If your horse is kicking out of fear, the only way to address the problem is to assuage his anxiety. This may require reorganizing your herd to reduce conflict and bullying. Even if a horse learns to avoid his tormentors, he may not be able to relax enough to graze or even rest.
Also be watchful for fear kicks that occur during training. The remedy for these is usually a review of the basics, which will help the horse feel comfortable again. A horse cannot learn when he is afraid, so you can't simply work through it. A compassionate, professional trainer can be very helpful.
Finally, there's one type of fear kick that is closely linked to your behavior. If you surprise a horse--by walking up behind him while he's dozing on cross ties, for example--he may react by striking out without warning. In his mind, he's defending himself against a predator who crept up on him. That's why one of the first lessons of horsemanship is to always let a horse know where you are so you can avoid startling him.
Message: "I feel good."
Sometimes horses kick out of simple playfulness. You'll often see horses frolicking in a field, galloping, bucking and kicking as they go. It's a way to burn off steam and stretch their limbs. This type of kicking isn't intended to cause harm but may do so by accident.
Playful kicking isn't something you need to--or even can--correct. Instead, focus on doing what you can to ensure your own safety and that of the other horses. If possible, avoid putting a doddering pensioner out with a rambunctious youngster who may try to instigate a game of chase.
And, for your own safety, be extra cautious when turning out a rambunctious horse. Lead him out to the pasture, turn him to face you as you remove his halter or lead shank, and take a step backward out of the gate as you release him. Also, be watchful because playful kicking may escalate into more dangerous, aggressive turnout behavior that you'll need to address.