Horse Behaviour and Safety

Trust and respect are two-way streets. We want the horse to accept us as leaders of the herd, to guide them safely and to provide protection and comfort. In return, they will give us their respect, and willing submission to our ideas about what to do next, and when and where. But this respect can only be based on well deserved trust.


Safety requires both common sense and an understanding of horses. Horse riding is a high-risk activity, but handling horses from the ground can be just as dangerous for the unwary. A horse’s behaviour should never be taken for granted as even the oldest and quietest horse can behave unpredictably at times.

In the below we will look at the evolution of the horse and what this tells us about horse behaviour today. Our Coaches have then put together 3 Golden Rules to keep in mind when engaging with the RDA Ryde Centre horses to keep yourself, the horse and others safe at all times.

Evolution and domestication of the horse

Domestication of the horse occurred around 6000 years ago, however we are still domesticating wild horses today. When talking about horse safety and trying to understand horse behaviour, this is important to keep in mind so you can sympathise with how and why horses have evolved, and the instincts driving wild horse behaviour.

The ‘Dawn Horse’

The ‘dawn horse’ was smaller than the horse we know today. It was about the size of a fox, with 4 toes on the front foot and 3 on the back. It was a forager, living in dense forests, so toes were required important for helping them outrun predators as toes mean you can shift weight, spreads momentum and makes dodging around trees easier.

CBC | Equus: Story of the Horse — Ep 1 Origins

However as the species spread out and land changed the horse species began to evolve. Very simply, we can see a few major points from comparing these two evolutions of the horse that help to explain horse behaviours we see today.

Now out in the open, there was less shelter & protection so dodging became less important whereas speed is vital. Although still herbivores, the horse no longer foraged for food, but grazed in the open. They not need to evolve to be aggressive hunters or had to plan how to hunt and catch food, but simply put their heads down to eat, which is an extremely vulnerable situation to be in.

So we see a developed need to graze in a herd and if danger does present itself, the first instinct is to run. The horse has evolved, but not to be calm docile creatures, but rather enhanced that fight or flight instinct. Further, in situations where the horse feels threatened, and flight is not possible, the horse resorts to biting, kicking, striking or rearing to protect itself.

Golden Rule #1

Always be alert

Horse brains work very differently to human’s brains as horses don’t have reasoning abilities, or the ability to analyse and see similarities to previous events or circumstances. Things that we might not even think twice about can really startle a horse. A few examples are people running, loud noises, foreign objects like plastic bags, unexpected physical contact, the wind… Or it could the same rock they’ve seen every single day of their life.

CHA Horse – Danger Zones Around the Horse:

Pro Tips:

  • Always be attentive when around the horse – monitor their behaviour & be aware of scalating behaviour e.g. lipping
  • Be aware of your proximity to the horse
  • Use a lead rope attached to the horse’s halter, rather than grasping the halter itself. This provides no options if the horse were to startle. If the horse pulls away, your fingers could be caught, injuring them or catching your hand
  • Never tie a horse directly onto an immovable object

Remember: This behaviour is instinct, and not bad behaviour. It’s our job to know the difference and ensure that we are never punishing a horse for acting within it’s nature

Think about this: What are some other signs a horse might give you that it’s nervous, uncomfortable or feeling stressed?

Golden Rule #2

Be aware of blind spots

Horses have impeccable vision and hearing, developing from years of being a prey animal, however they do have 2 blind spots which also contribute to sensitivity in those areas. So not only does this mean that approaching from the front may mean a horse may not see you, but also if they do get a spook, it may go straight through you in its panic to flee.

Pro Tips:

  • Approach from the side – near the shoulder or neck.
  • Speak softly. Your voice will put the horse at ease & alert the horse to your presence & intention.
  • As you approach the horse pat on the neck or shoulder.

Remember: It’s always good when grooming to have a hand on the horse at all times so you are aware of each others presence. However there are sensitive areas of a horse that you should avoid like groin or flanks, but the ears and head are also a big no. Apart from grooming and bridling we should be avoiding those areas on all our horses. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t feed our horses from our hands, and also why we should be discouraging kisses or licking to avoid escalating behaviours.

Think about this: How might you approach a horse differently if you are in a grooming yard or larger area like the paddock or arena? What signs should you be looking for that the horse is aware of you and happy to be approached? What should you do if you’re not certain or feel uncomfortable?

Golden Rule #3

The RDA Way – consistency is key

Our horses are handled by different teams of people every day. Their riders are also very unique and provide different challenges to the horse. For these reasons, routine and consistency are vital to ensure our horses are comforted, but also kept safe each and every day.

Please never be offended if a Coach corrects you, and if someone does correct you, ask why. For every rule that’s in place, there’s a reason and a risk behind it that is being mitigated. And consistency – everyone doing this the same way – is a really good mitigator of risk to ensure the comfort of our horses.

Read through the RDA(NSW) Volunteer Information Guides and other training modules below for further explanation of horse care & the RDA(NSW) approach to working with horses.

Return to the Volunteer Training page to continue learning!