Horses are enormous creatures – legally, the largest pet most people can own- so staying safe and enjoying horse ownership requires being able to recognize and retrain dangerous behaviors before they cause an accident or injury. In this list of surprisingly dangerous behaviors that many horse owners reinforce, I explain how some things horses do that look “cute” or sign that you’re bonded with your horse are actually a set-up for a serious injury.
4 Dangerous Behaviors Your Horse is Getting Away With
In this article, we’ll talk about four dangerous behaviors that many horse owners may not recognize as behaviors that put themselves and everyone who handles their horse at risk.
1. Your horse rub their face on you
If you observe horses in a field for long, you’ll notice that horses may engage in mutual grooming (gently licking and biting each other) but you won’t see one horse simply using another as a scratching post – instead, horses rub their faces on feeders, tree trunks, and fences (sometimes causing bald patches in the process).
Despite this, many horse owners permit the dangerous behavior of face rubbing because it looks cuter is misinterpreted as a sign of attachment. On the contrary, when a horse rubs their face on you it’s a sign that they don’t respect you- and one unexpected face-rub when you’re off balance and not expecting it could lead to a dangerous fall to the ground near their homes. Read more about breaking a horse of the habit of rubbing its face on you.
2. Your horse hangs their head over a stall door when you enter
This looks harmless, right? The portrait of a horse with its head over a dutch door is iconic to horse stables. Horses like poking their head out of the aisle, and some barns are constructed with extra-wide aisles to accommodate this behavior, however, horses with large body parts extending into the aisle can be dangerous. Horses, instead should be limited in their access to the aisle or be trained to move their heads out of the way when you approach. Veterinarians, farriers, and grooms shouldn’t have to avoid horse heads while they are walking or leading another horse.
And this problem isn’t limited to stalls, it’s also an issue in fields with fences and gates. Horses shouldn’t extend their bodies into human space and less they are invited. They shouldn’t poke their nose and or press into a human’s personal space. After all, according to horse behavior experts, if a young horse intrudes on a lead mare in a herd, the mare is likely to kick or bite to remind a horse to respect. Humans who handle horses should make sure that their horse also doesn’t intrude in their space.
3. Your horse lets you approach rump first
We all know not to walk behind the horse, but seasoned equestrians know behind the end of the horse can be navigated safely but that horses should be trained to turn towards you when you approach them while they are loose in the pasture or stall.
The cannot be overestimated how the size of horses impacts the behaviors that we need from them in order to stay safe. Rather than ignoring you, a horse should orient their body towards you and point their ears towards you as you approach- a horse would never orient themselves hind in the first towards the lead mayor in a herd!
4. Your horse doesn’t back up on command
Backing up, both under saddle and from commands given on the ground, is an absolute essential horse skill that many people don’t bother to train a horse to do. And many top trainers argue, you can only stop a horse as well as you are able to back the horse up on command.
Backing up is an essential safety skill. When a horse backs up correctly it means that they flex at the poll, move their weight to the hind end, and step backward. A horse that knows how to back up doesn’t press into the queued to back up, that yields to the pressure you’re putting on him. Horses in my stable are always taught to move away from pressure – whether that’s a rider’s leg cue, a hand pressed on their chest, or fingertips pressing on their nose.
While you may enjoy writing your horse exclusively forward, maybe even thinking it makes them faster games or rodeo events, everyone who has to handle your horse – like farriers, veterinarians, and other horse professionals – suffer when a horse doesn’t know how to back up. One farrier told me a story about working on horses at a newly constructed, modern barn with many grooms where no horse would yield to pressure and how a job that could have been done in three hours took an entire day (with the barn owner footing the unnecessary bill)
Eliminating Problem Behaviors
Both on the ground and in the saddle horses can get away with a lot of these dangerous behaviors. These behaviors in themselves may not seem like a problem, but they can be the root of many other behavioral problems that could be explored at length.
Horses that are well behaved are a pleasure to be around (just like kids and adults who behave themselves and respect other people). Even though these dangerous behaviors might seem cute for horses, when you think about it you’ll realize that these behaviors are not attachment, bonding, or even horse friendliness but often are rooted in a lack of the basic ground manners horses must have to be safe.