Avoiding Injury: Tips for Interpreting Signs of Aggression in Horses
The Basics | What to Do | Prevention
- Occasionally horses will become fractious during handling; however, steps can be taken to minimize this potential problem.
- Minimizing horses' exposure to sudden changes in the environment and acclimating them slowly to change is important.
- Proper restraint of your horse is crucial to avoid injury when handling horses.
- Wear protective clothing such as sturdy shoes or boots.
- Always have an exit strategy when working with horses; occasionally, horses will not tolerate handling and should be placed in a secure environment such as a stall until they adjust to a new situation and calm down.
While horses have been domesticated by people for a long time, it is important to remember that they are still animals with a very strong instinct for “fight or flight” when danger is present. When presented with a threat, many horses will try to run away; however, some horses will choose to fight against the danger and may kick, rear, or bite in response to the threat. It is important to follow certain safety guidelines when working with horses to avoid injury for you and your horse. Remember, an adult horse often weighs 1,000 pounds or more and can easily injure a person with minimal effort.
Common steps to avoid injury include using proper restraint. This can vary depending on the horse, but at minimum, a strong halter in good condition and lead rope with a chain should be used.
Separating certain horses such as stallions or mares with foals from other horses on the property and using separate barns or pastures/enclosures is important. This will avoid exposing stallions to mares in heat and potential problems associated with their interaction. Mares with foals are often very protective and may injure a person trying to interact with their foals. In addition, only experienced people should handle stallions or mares with foals. It also is important to approach horses when they are facing you and not approach them from the rear. They are not able to see the area near their tails and will often kick when they feel threatened by someone approaching their hind end. It also is imperative to wear protective clothing around horses, such as sturdy shoes or boots, and avoid loose fitting clothing that may become caught on their halters or lead ropes.
What to Do
Introduce horses slowly to a new situation or new herd members in pasture to avoid agitating them. However, it is not always possible to avoid new situations, so it is important to recognize an agitated horse. Signs of a fractious or agitated horse include frequent neighing and pacing back and forth in the stall or at the fence when the horse is in a pasture. The horse's ears may be erect or flattened against his/her head. They may paw with a front leg or rear on their hindlegs, striking out with their front feet. They may kick with one or both hind legs. The horse may try to bite other horses nearby and if you approach, the horse may try to bite you.
If you notice this behavior, first determine what stimulus is causing the horse to appear fractious or agitated. Once you are able to identify the stimulus (e.g. a new horse in the area), remove the stimulus or wait a few minutes to see if the horse calms down. Most horses will calm down once they adjust to the change in the environment, if given a few minutes to adjust. If the stimulus can't be removed, it may help to distract the horse with food or a treat such as a carrot. Sometimes the horse needs to be walked away to another location and may require a chain over his/her nose to be led away safely. Do not stand in front of the horse, stand to the left side if possible, out of the way of the horse's front feet. If the horse is confined in a stall, it may help to leave him/her alone for a few minutes; many horses will calm down after they adjust. If you are in the stall with the horse when the horse becomes fractious, exit the stall quickly and lock the stall door. Make sure that the horse is safe and there are no objects such as a lead rope that may harm the horse.
Preventing dangerous situations is much easier than handling a dangerous situation, especially if you are a novice horse owner or handler. Working with an experienced horse owner or handler to learn precautions that are necessary for handling horses is invaluable. Also, ask your veterinarian for tips that he/she is accustomed to when working with horses in difficult situations, such as when a horse is in pain. Many horses will adapt to a new situation if given time; however, if your horse is highly fractious or dangerous to handle, it is important to contact your veterinarian for aid. Sometimes horses can have diseases such as colic, a granulosa cell tumor, or mosquito-borne disease (e.g. West Nile, Equine Encephalomyelitis, and Rabies) that may cause the dangerous behavior.
Tips To Remember When Working with Horses
- Introduce horses slowly to a new situation or new herd members in pasture to avoid agitating them.
- Recognize signs of an agitated horse (e.g. frequent neighing, pacing back and forth, erect or flattened ears, pawing with a front leg or rearing), identify the stimulus, and either remove it if possible or wait a few minutes to see if the horse acclimates to the stimulus.
- Work with an experienced horse owner or handler to learn precautions that are necessary for handling horses; keep certain groups of horses such as stallions or mares with foals separated.
It is important to contact your veterinarian if your horse is highly fractious or dangerous to handle. There may be an underlying disease that is causing this behavior.