How To Safely Be Around A Horse

Humans look fondly at a horse standing at a fenceline.
Niblet is good at expressing his boundaries!

June 15, 2020

Horses can be incredibly affectionate, mindful, and playful beings, but there are times when they would prefer to be left alone. Even the most docile horse in your sanctuary might decide they need some alone time, and it’s critical to recognize the signs they’re trying to give you before caution turns to agitation, or worse. Even on a peaceful sanctuary pasture, frightened or upset horses can easily cause catastrophic injuries and fatalities.

Ask An Expert

If you are not used to being around horses and are bringing one into your sanctuary, you should have an expert give you hands-on training in horse behavior if at all possible. There are many nuances in their actions that can not be conveyed through words alone!

Signs A Horse Wants To Be Left Alone

A horse will use many different tactics (typically in combination depending on their discomfort) to let you know that they don’t want you around at the moment. Signs that a horse is uncomfortable include:

  • Pinning their ears back close to their neck
  • Holding their head high (could indicate that they might be spooked or ready to bolt)
  • Splaying their front legs and leaning back (indicates fear)
  • Lightly to moderately pawing at the ground or stomping (can indicate anxiety or irritation)
  • Raising one of their legs
  • Flaring their nostrils or snorts a lot
  • Pursing their muzzle (indicates stress or fear)
  • Squinting or darting their eyes
  • Rapidly swishing their tail
  • Full body trembling or shaking

If a horse does not feel like you’ve alleviated their discomfort, they may escalate their body language to include:

  • Rapidly swiveling their ears back and forth (a sign of high anxiety or alertness)
  • Pawing angrily at the ground (can indicate they are ready to charge)
  • Cocking their hind hoof with ears pinned back (avoid their hind area in cases like these)
  • Swinging their rear end from side to side
  • Openly baring their teeth at you
  • Having widely open eyes to the extent that you see the whites of their eyes
Danger Zone

If a horse drops their head and waves their neck from side to side, this is an extremely dangerous sign that they’re ready to make you leave their space very soon.

If a horse tells you their discomfort through these signals, you must immediately demonstrate that you mean no harm by backing away slowly from them if appropriate.If necessary, find a way to put something between the two of you, be it a tree, a wagon, or even other horses. If at all possible, don’t turn your back and run away from an uncomfortable horse unless you are in immediate danger and need the extra speed. Conversely, make sure that an uncomfortable horse has a generous escape route as well! Typically they would rather leave the situation than become confrontational.

Things That Make A Horse Uncomfortable

Due to their natural instincts, there are a number of actions that you might have to take in a sanctuary environment that can make a horse less comfortable. Here are a few of their instincts and how they may react to a disruption:

Daily Habits

Horses find a lot of comfort in daily routines, and can become annoyed or afraid if their routine is disrupted, so be extra gentle and allow extra time if you’re asking a horse to do something they aren’t used to doing like going to a new pasture or barn. Horses can also be spooked by seeing something they’ve never seen before, like balloons or even flapping paper, so be wary when conducting novel activities around horses.

Flight Zone

Like most herd animals, horses have a flight zone. This is the area of personal space surrounding them where they feel safe and comfortable. Different horses will have different sized flight zones, especially depending upon whether they’ve come from traumatic backgrounds; a skittish horse might have a huge flight zone compared to the nearly non-existent flight zone of a docile resident. If you breach a horse’s flight zone, they will likely walk away from you. If you go much more into their flight zone, they might bolt or display signs of fear or agitation that you need to respect in order to prevent a dangerous scenario.

Don't Get Cornered

If you are cornered or in a tight space with a horse who is frightened and cannot leave the area on their own terms, there’s a chance that they might become confrontational, so it’s absolutely crucial that both you and the horse always have an appropriate escape route, and take your time approaching the horse to gauge how they’re going to react as you get nearer!

Hearing

Horses are very sensitive to loud noises. Being yelled at, hearing barking dogs, or encountering loud noises can spook, agitate, and trigger flight and charge responses in wary horses. Try to be very cautious with volume around horses and keep talkative dogs away from them to prevent incidents.

Herding

Horses prefer to naturally herd together to shelter from the elements and protect themselves from predators. If you need to single out or separate a horse, it’s likely that the horse might get depressed, lonely, or highly anxious. If you do need to separate a horse, move them slowly and quietly, limit their alone time, and keep their herd nearby if at all possible.

Maternal Instincts

If you’re caring for a mother horse with a foal, they may be rightfully protective of their young. Provide ample space for the mother and foal, never going between the two of them when possible. If for some reason you need to separate the mother and foal, such as for a health examination, be very gentle in separating the two of them, and anticipate quite a bit of displeasure or distress from the mother.

How Not To Be Kicked By A Horse

Horses have both binocular (two-eyed) and monocular (one-eyed) vision due to their physiology, which gives them excellent wide angle view, but have a blind spot directly behind them and have quite poor vision directly in front of their faces. They have evolved to reflexively defend their hind area with a powerful rear leg kick that can easily incapacitate a predator or well-meaning human that unintentionally snuck up on them. They can also kick outward to the side with their rear legs as well. This means that a half circle shaped area with about a six foot radius around the rear of a horse should be typically avoided if possible, unless a horse is given a generous heads up about your presence there.

If you need to get near a horse, speak to them calmly and clearly to get their attention, and approach them by their shoulder rather than from behind or directly head on to give them ample clues of where you are and that you are not a threat. Gently touch their neck and continue to touch them as you walk around their body to keep them aware of your location around their personal space.

If a horse appears to have an injury or affliction on either side towards the rear of their body, be very cautious in approaching the afflicted area, as injured horses have a tendency to be very defensive in these cases to deflect opportunistic predators.

Safely Handling A Horse

Because of the importance of regular health examinations and hoof trimming, it’s critical to ensure that you or your veterinarian can safely handle each of the horses in your care. If they aren’t averse to humans due to past trauma, you can help accustom horses to your touch by running your hands gently over their bodies and legs when they’re relaxed. Some horses may never be fully comfortable with humans and may need to be examined by an expert with assistance every time.

SOURCES:

How To Read Your Horse’s Body Language | Equus (Non-Compassionate Source)

Keeping Kids Safe Around Horses | Equiresearch (Non-Compassionate Source)

Horse Safety Guidelines | University Of New Hampshire (Non-Compassionate Source)

Understanding The Flight Zone Of Horses | Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

How To Deal With Your Horse’s Anxiety | Kauffman’s (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 6, 2020

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