Approaching a Horse

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How to Approach a Horse

Horses are perceptive to the sights, sounds, smells and movements in their environment and use their natural instincts and senses to recognize and respond to unfamiliar sights or smells, sudden sounds or unexpected movements. This innate response (fight or flight) to perceived threats can have both advantages and disadvantages for handling. It is important to pay attention to your horse’s behaviour and handle horses using humane techniques.


Standing directly in front of a horse can be unsafe for three reasons: 

  1. A horse has blind spots directly below the head and in front of and behind the horse, so activity in these areas may startle a horse. 
  2. A horse will often flee from a perceived threat. If you are positioned in the path of escape, you can be injured. 
  3. Horses can strike their front feet forward or paw the ground if they are anxious or excitable.

It is not safe to stand behind a horse because of the horse’s restricted vision. Horses may kick behind the body or along the side of the hindquarter. The best position to stand is along the side, in line with the horse’s head, throatlatch and upper neck and out in front of the point of shoulder. 

LINK: Learn more about how horses perceive their environment by watching the video on website.

An understanding of equine behaviour is essential for safe handling. Your responsibility is to guide the horse’s movement and provide a safe environment for the horse, yourself and anyone around you.

There are three concepts that are important for safety and the low-stress handling of horses. These handling concepts are: flight zone, point of balance and field of vision.

Flight Zone

This is the space surrounding a horse that, when penetrated, causes the horse to move to reestablish a comfortable distance. Low-stress handling is based on applying and releasing pressure on the edge of the flight zone, ideally never penetrating the zone so aggressively that the horse becomes frightened and “takes flight”. You have entered a horse’s flight zone the moment your approach causes the horse to move away. As a horse becomes more fearful, its flight zone will increase.

LINK: Learn more about a horse’s flight zone from this article by The Horse Portal through Equine Guelph.

Point of Balance

The point of balance is located in the shoulder area of the horse. The handler should stand behind the point of balance at the shoulder to make the horse go forward and in front of the point of balance at the shoulder to make an animal back up.

Field of Vision

When looking to the side, horses have monocular vision (each eye can operate independently). When looking forward, they have binocular vision (eyes operate in tandem). Horses take longer than humans to adjust to changes in light intensity and they have poor depth perception, so they may baulk at shadows or puddles.

Approaching a Horse

When approaching a horse, move slowly and stand to the left side of the horse by their shoulder or between the head and shoulder. Never stand directly in front of or behind the horse, as this is where the horse has blind spots. When standing next to a horse, standing closer (rather than farther away) is safest, and point your feet towards the horse’s neck or shoulder. Never face away from a horse because you can’t monitor their behaviour and move out of the way, if needed. 

Always wear a helmet and close-toed shoes when approaching, leading or interacting with a horse.

LINK: For information on how to safely approach, halter and lead a horse, read this article on Safe Horse Handling by PennState Extension.
Information adapted with permission from "Techniques for Safely Handling Horses", Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Oklahoma State University.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about handling a horse?

“With proper handling, animals experience less stress and fear, and the risk of injury to the handler and the animals is greatly reduced. Handling should accommodate the animal’s behaviour and should be done in a calm manner. 

Horses evolved as prey species and have a strong fight-or-flight response. When frightened, horses will generally flee. If horses feel they cannot flee, they may become aggressive. Compared to horses, donkeys and mules are less likely to flee when frightened. Instead, they are more likely to study the situation before reacting. This is often incorrectly interpreted as stubbornness.

Horse welfare and handler safety is improved when handlers respond promptly to signs of fear and agitation in horses. Some examples include: 

  • Tail swishing/wringing in the absence of flies
  • The whites of the eyes are more visible
  • Sweating with minimal physical exertion
  • Flared nostrils or wrinkling at the mouth or nose
  • Both ears laid flat back
  • Pawing or striking
  • Running away from or charging at the handler
  • Vocalizations (e.g., snorting, squealing, calling)
  • Head held very high
  • Kicking or turning the hindquarters towards the handler.”

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:

Handlers must be familiar with equine behaviour and competent in humane handling techniques either through training, experience or mentorship. 

Horses must be handled in a manner that does not subject them to avoidable pain or avoidable injury.

These recommended practices are also identified in the Code of Practice:

  1. Understand and apply the concepts of field of vision, flight zone and point of balance. 
  2. Avoid sudden actions or noises that may startle or frighten horses. Horses have sensitive hearing.
  3. Provide adequate lighting so that horses do not baulk at shadows or poorly lit areas.
  4. Approach an unfamiliar horse carefully and at the shoulder (not the rear). Generally, horses are accustomed to riders/handlers approaching, mounting and leading on the left side of the horse.

Watch this video by Equitation Science International on how to recognize signs of stress in horses:

Excerpts from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (©2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

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