What is Kicking All About?

Do you know why your horse is kicking?
by Linda Parelli

This article was originally published in the August 2008 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.

Kicking is the most natural thing for a horse, and it’s good to know that the hind legs tend to be the weapon of choice for introverted Horsenalities™. So why do horses kick? What provokes them? Is it Right-Brain or Left-Brain?

Horses kick when they play (Left-Brain), and they kick when they are scared (Right-Brain). They also kick when they are defiant (Left-Brain). And they don’t miss targets, but they often bluff or do it from a distance, much like a naughty child who makes sure he is out of reach. Watch horses together and you’ll see it, and you’ll see how and when they do it. It doesn’t happen without warning, so what you need to look for are all the signs that signal the kick. Interestingly, people are most often kicked by introverted horses, because they can get close to them. That’s why learning to read the horse is so important to staying safe. You’ll know to stay out of the horse’s kick zone or to keep him well away until he’s calm and relaxed.

The Situation

Right-Brain horses mostly kick when cornered and surprised or scared. Left-Brain horses kick out of defiance, so it is more likely to happen when you are trying to get them to do something, such as to move when they are not ready to or don’t want to, or when you are touching them in a spot they have not given you permission to touch.

The Emotion

Evaluating your horse’s emotional state is important because you’ll know what he’s apt to do. Where is he at—Right-Brain or Left-Brain? If he’s Right-Brain, he’ll be tense, with tail tucked, head up, ears pointed back in fear of the thing happening behind him, body and legs braced. If he’s Left-Brain he’ll be relaxed and almost lazy-looking, and turning away from you. It’s kind of slow, as if he’s thinking about it; but the tip-off is that he’s disconnected from you. He might even have a cranky expression and be trying to tell you to leave him alone.

The Warning

The Right-Brain horse will often suddenly tuck his tail a notch tighter, may even crouch his hindquarters a bit. He is probably having trouble standing still and tends to kick because he feels trapped, such as in a corner, or is tied, cross-tied or held fast by someone else. In these situations he is prevented from escape or from releasing tension by being able to move his feet.

The Left-Brain horse will either make a fast move before the kick, such as angrily swish his tail or toss his head, or lift his leg as a threat, at the same time pinning his ears or swishing his tail. The Left-Brain horse actually gives you some time, and the kick is delivered with a lot more visible warning.

The Kick

Right-Brain—lightning fast. Wham! It almost always connects, sometimes several times in rapid succession if he is in a panic.
Left-Brain—kind of slow and more like a sucker punch. He draws you in and then lets you have it. Otherwise he’ll be kicking out from a distance, the way a child sticks his tongue out behind your back or as he runs out the door.

What Should You Do When You Get Kicked?

Say “Ow!”, presuming you’re conscious, of course. All kidding aside, once you are kicked, it’s too late, and punishing the horse is not the right thing to do, nor is it effective. The horse kicked you out of fear or disrespect or dislike for you, so smacking him is not going to improve your image. Actually, your horse is even more likely to do it again if you punish him! You need to focus on becoming your horse’s most esteemed and trusted leader. Horses put a lot of effort into not kicking their alpha.

What to Know?

You need to know that the potential to get kicked, bitten, run over or struck at is high any time you are with a horse that does not trust or respect you, is on adrenaline or stirred up, feels cornered, threatened or pressured in any way. The whole point of Savvy is to stay out of the kick zone, be able to defend your personal space, create undying trust and respect and never put your horse in a position where he feels the need to defend himself against you or attack you or to go to Phase 4 to get his message across.

Horsemen are a lot like you and me; they just read horses better, and they know what is apt to happen, and they don’t go there. And if they get kicked, the first thing they acknowledge is what they did to cause it.

What to Do?

Invest in the relationship with your horse. Get to know his Horsenality™ and make sure you are doing the savvy things that get you closer to him and cause him to like you, trust you, respect you. All too often people get very goal-oriented and forget how important the relationship is. Using the Horsenality™ model, get to know what is important to your horse and do it.

Learn how to read horses very well; study that intensely. Every time you watch Pat play with a horse, or me, or one of our professionals or faculty members, or even someone who is doing it all wrong, you will learn what to do and what not to do. Practice reading horse expressions and behaviors, and you’ll be amazed at how clear they are. If you plan to be safe and confident with horses, you need to know horses, not just your horse. Make no assumptions. The horse you were with yesterday may not be the same today. You don’t really know what happened since you left, and you don’t really know how your last session went for him until you see him the next time! If your horse is looking at you with ears pricked and a positive expression, if he’s not tense or bothered or distracted and you are not introducing something new, you’re probably okay. But savvy people don’t bank on that. They earn every positive, trusting and respectful moment with their horses every day, in every way.

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