If you’ve ever been around horses, you know they have a tendency to kick when you stand behind them. Getting kicked by a horse can be extremely dangerous, so it’s important to understand why horses exhibit this behavior.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Horses kick when you’re behind them because they have a wide range of vision with blind spots directly behind them. Their natural instinct is to kick first and look later when something startles them from behind.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the reasons for this equine behavior in detail, including horses’ natural instincts, vision, communication methods, and situational factors that can trigger a kick. We’ll also provide tips to stay safe around horses and avoid getting kicked.

A Horse’s Natural Instincts and Senses

Flight Animals Hardwired to React

Horses are prey animals that evolved as flight animals to escape predators. Their natural instinct when startled or feeling threatened is to flee first and think later. This instinct to “run away now, ask questions later” is hardwired into their brains and can override their usual calm and trusting nature around humans.

Even the most bombproof horse may unexpectedly kick if you accidentally sneak up and startle them in their blind spot.

Wide Field of Vision With Blind Spots

Horses have an amazing 350° field of vision, allowing them to easily see behind themselves without turning their heads. However, they do have two notable blind spots – directly in front and directly behind.

If a horse doesn’t know you are near, coming up from behind into their blind spot can cause them to jump in surprise and instinctively kick out. Approach a horse at an angle from their shoulder, talking calmly to announce your presence.

Teach them cues to indicate you are coming near, like a gentle hand on their flank before walking behind them.

Hearing Focused to the Sides

While horses have good peripheral vision, they rely heavily on their hearing to interpret the environment around them. Their ears can swivel almost 180° to allow them to focus their hearing on sounds and activity by their sides and behind them.

Unfortunately, horses have poor hearing directly in front, which contributes to their blind spot in that area. Always talk to a horse as you approach so they can pick up auditory cues. Surprising them by coming up silently behind them can make them feel threatened when they can’t see or hear you.

How Horses Communicate Distress

Horses are incredibly expressive animals that use various forms of body language to communicate their emotions and intents. When a horse is feeling distressed, anxious, or threatened, they have several go-to behaviors to signal their discomfort and warn others to back off.

Pinning the Ears Back

One of the most obvious distress signals from a horse is pinning their ears back against their head. Flattened ears indicate the horse is feeling irritated, angry, anxious or aggressive. Ears pinned all the way back often means the horse is ready to bite or kick if pushed.

This is an important warning sign to heed when approaching or interacting with a horse.

Some research indicates horses may associate pinning their ears back with producing certain facial expressions that humans perceive as angry. So ear position seems tied closely to a horse’s emotional state.

Stomping Hooves

When horses feel threatened, they may start stomping their front or hind hooves forcefully on the ground. This stomping behavior serves a few purposes:

  • It is a warning sound to potential threats that the horse is ready to fight or flee.
  • The impact releases tension and stress hormones that build up inside the horse.
  • It is a way for the horse to look bigger and more intimidating to scare others away.

So a horse that is anxiously stomping or pawing at the ground is feeling stressed and unsettled about something in its environment. The stomping signals it is on high alert and defensive. Backing away calmly can help reduce the horse’s anxiety.

Swishing the Tail

Horses and other equines swish their tails naturally to shoo away flies and other irritants. But vigorous, exaggerated tail swishing often means a horse is feeling annoyed, overstimulated, or disturbed by something behind them.

Researchers believe tail swishing likely first evolved as a way for horses to express irritation and create space from herdmates nipping at their hindquarters. But now it serves as a general distress sign. Some key tail swishing details:

  • Small, quick swishes indicate mild irritation or impatience.
  • Large, sweeping swishes suggest increasing anxiety, agitation, or anger.
  • Swishing with each exhale often means the horse is very upset and close to kicking out.

So the horse is essentially saying “Go away!” with its tail. Heeding this warning by giving the horse extra space helps prevent reactive kicks or bites.

Why Being Behind a Horse Can Trigger a Kick

Horses have a powerful fight-or-flight instinct that can cause them to kick when they feel threatened or startled. Here are some reasons why being behind a horse can unintentionally provoke this reaction:

Startling a Horse Can Provoke an Instinctual Response

Horses have nearly 360-degree panoramic vision, allowing them to see almost all the way around their body. However, they have two blind spots directly in front and behind them. If you suddenly approach a horse from behind, the horse may be startled because it cannot see you.

This surprise can cause the horse to kick out of instinct before realizing the threat is harmless.

It’s important to make your presence known when walking behind a horse by talking to them or touching them gently beforehand. Sudden movements or noises can also trigger their fight-or-flight response. Be calm and deliberate in your actions so as not to spook them.

Difficult for Horses to See Directly Behind

Horses have monocular vision, meaning they cannot see directly behind themselves the way humans can. Each eye functions independently, creating two separate fields of vision that overlap slightly directly behind them. However, this leaves a blind spot where the horse cannot see you approaching.

Horses use their ears to compensate for the blind spot and will flicker them back to detect activity behind them. However, if focused forward, they may not notice your approach. It’s safest to avoid the blind spot entirely by standing at the horse’s shoulder when working around them.

Feeling Trapped Can Make a Horse Lash Out

Horses are prey animals wired to flee potential threats. If a horse feels cornered or crowded by someone behind them, their natural reaction is to kick out and escape. Even gentle, well-trained horses can be triggered by feeling trapped and lash out as a fearful reflex.

Make sure to leave horses an open path to move forward if they feel uncomfortable. Never wedge yourself too close behind them in a stall or narrow area. Approaching carefully from the side and allowing them to move away prevents them from feeling pinned in.

Understanding horses’ instincts and vision limitations allows you to interact safely from their perspective. Being aware of your own position and any signals of distress enables you to prevent and avoid kicks or other defensive behaviors.

How to Stay Safe Around Horses

Approach Horses Properly

When approaching a horse, always do so at an angle near the shoulder rather than from behind. Speak softly to the horse and keep your movements slow and deliberate so as not to startle them. Gently place your hand on their shoulder and wait for them to acknowledge you before proceeding to stroke or pet them.

Avoid quick, sudden movements around horses.

Stay Within Their Line of Sight

Horses have wide-angle vision but they still have blind spots directly behind them. When working around a horse, stay within their line of sight. It can be dangerous startle a horse from their blind spot, risking getting kicked.

Stand near their shoulder and talk calmly to them so they know where you are.

Watch Their Body Language

Horses communicate through body language. An anxious or upset horse may pin back ears, swish tail, stomp feet, or tense muscles. These are signs a horse may kick if feeling further threatened or startled, especially on their hindquarters. Staying observant can help prevent accidents.

Keep Your Distance

Always keep a safe distance from a horse that doesn’t know you. Even if they seem calm, a horse that hasn’t been desensitized properly may instinctively kick when feeling invaded in their space. Give them adequate personal space and allow them to approach and get familiar with you first before standing too close.

Most experts recommend standing at least 6-10 feet away initially.

Never Surprise a Horse From Behind

Approaching directly from a horse’s hindquarters is extremely dangerous as their instinct is to kick to protect themselves. According to the ASPCA over 100 people are seriously injured each year by horse kicks.

Always make your presence known, use caution around their back legs, and never startle them.

Final Tips for Avoiding Getting Kicked

Move Slowly and Announce Your Presence

When approaching a horse from behind or from the side, move slowly and deliberately to avoid startling them. Talk to the horse in a calm, soothing voice to let them know you’re there. Sudden, quick movements can trigger a horse’s instinct to kick.

Give them a chance to see and hear you before you’re within kicking range. This gives the horse time to assess that you’re not a threat.

Be Cautious Around Mares With Foals

Mother horses can be very protective of their young. When a mare has a foal at her side, be extra cautious when approaching from behind or getting near the foal. Avoid coming between the mare and foal. Talk soothingly, move slowly, and keep your distance from the foal until the mare is comfortable with your presence.

An anxious or startled mare is more likely to deliver a swift kick to protect her baby.

Pay Attention to Ear Position

Horses often communicate through ear movements. Pinned back ears can signal irritation or aggression. If a horse pins its ears back flat when you approach, take it as a warning sign to retreat and give them more space. Pricked forward ears indicate attentiveness and interest.

Observing ear signals helps you read the horse’s mood and intentions, allowing you to back off before they get upset enough to kick.

Stay Out of the Horse’s Kick Zone

A horse’s powerful hind legs can kick backwards, sideways, and even forward. Their kick zone covers a 180 degree arc around their hindquarters. When working around or behind a horse, stay at least 3 feet away from their hind legs to avoid getting struck if they kick.

Don’t walk directly behind a horse. Approach the hindquarters at an angle, talking to the horse and keeping your hands on them to keep contact as you move. Avoid making sudden noises or movements that may make them flinch and instinctively kick out.

Use Caution With Unfamiliar Horses

Horses that are unfamiliar with you or your handling style may be more prone to kicking. When first working with a new horse, slowly build trust by talking calmly, handling gently, and being alert to their responses. Moving too quickly or aggressively can make a new horse feel threatened.

Approach cautiously until you have developed an understanding of each other. Every horse is unique, so take time to learn each one’s communication style before letting your guard down.


In summary, horses kick when you stand behind them because of their natural prey animal instincts, wide range of vision but blind spots to the rear, and limited communication abilities to express discomfort with someone in their vulnerable back areas.

By understanding why horses exhibit this potentially dangerous behavior and taking proper precautions like approaching properly, reading their body language, and staying out of their kick zone, you can safely enjoy your equine interactions and minimize the risk of being kicked.

Similar Posts