Beware of the Red Ribbon

Several weeks ago a client of mine (who also is a good friend) decided to take her young horse on a “Solo” ride.  It was a beautiful winter day in Arizona, sunny and in the low 70’s.   Just shortly after she started down the trail she observed another rider coming at her at a frantic pace.  As he reached her he exclaimed “I need help”.  He explained just a short way down the trail there was a severely injured horse that was bleeding profusely.  My friend (Katherine) is the type of person who is always prepared for any emergency.  She was equipped with a first aid kit and is not someone who is shy about taking charge in an emergency.  So she responded immediately.  Encouraging her young horse into a lope for the first time on a trail, she galloped of to the rescue while the other rider continued down to the ranger station.

When she arrived at the location where the injured horse was she saw what looked like a war zone with blood every where.  Two ladies were trying to stop the flow of blood. The injured horse had a severe injury to her front leg with a cut artery.  Blood soaked shirts lay on the ground and both ladies were covered in blood while a pool of blood was soaking in the ground.   Katherine assessed that this horse was in danger and need medical assistance beyond first aid quickly if the mare was to make it. 

Katherine had the supplies (vet wrap and gauze pads) to create a pressure bandage slowing the flow of blood.    The other rider she first met contacted a vet who was able to quickly respond to the scene. The vet told Katherine that her quick thinking and pressure bandage had saved this horse’s life.  The horse would have bled to death otherwise.

Later Katherine found out this incident never needed to happen.  It seemed the man she first contacted as she made her way down the trail was riding his gelding on the trail for the first time.  When he bought the horse just a few days earlier he was told this horse will kick another horse if it comes up behind him.  What he didn’t realize was that his new horse had somewhat perfected kicking when it was approached by another horse.  In this case, the rider of the injured horse was riding next to him.  Suddenly the gelding decided to kick the victim horse.  With the precision of a marksman the gelding fired a devastating, nearly fatal shot with a cow kick to the mare that got too close.  The blow of the sledgehammer force kick was a direct hit which sliced the mare’s artery in her left front leg. 

Riding horses in a group whether it is just two or larger can bring the danger of a horse kicking to protect their space.  All horses can and will kick to protect themselves from the threat of being attacked by another horse.  We know that when we ride close our horses are not looking to attack but some horses do not know this.  Those horses feel threatened by the approach or closeness of another horse.  Typically, in a trail setting many riders will put a red ribbon in their horse’s tail.  The red ribbon is a universal sign that this horse kicks if you come too close.  Unfortunately, for that mare that almost bled to death the gelding was not wearing a red ribbon.  It is easy to forget a verbal warning to stay away from a certain horse when you get caught up in the moment of enjoying the trail.  The visual of seeing the red reminds us to stay away.  If you have a kicker you most likely know it and can prevent injuries from happening with the red ribbon.  There are times when horses that never offered to kick suddenly start the habit on the trail.  There is not a red ribbon to be found so the rider needs to be responsible for the safety of anyone coming to close. 


Horses give some kind of warning they are going to kick before they actually do.  It may be the ears being pinned back or the swishing of the tail angrily or the tension in their back.  Somehow they give a warning to all around that they are not pleased with the situation.  They are saying through their body language to “Back Off”.  It is only when the other signs are not heeded that horses will lash out with their back feet.

Riders need to become aware of the signs that horses give that they are not pleased. Many riders feel one or more of these signs but they don’t know what to do about correcting the behavior.  Riding a grumpy horse is not many people’s idea of enjoyable experience.  The last thing most of us want to do is pick a fight with our horses because they don’t like the horses they are riding with.

When those signs happen or escalate to the point of the horse kicking, the first response I see many riders make is to pull on the horse’s mouth.  They think they need to stop the horse or redirect its attention.  Many times you will even see people spur or hit their horse because to those riders kicking at another horse is a horrible crime.  Horses that kick are not rogue, criminal or mean horses.  They lack confidence in a group. Developing this confidence is actually easier than you think. 

The best way to develop confidence in a horse is to give them a job to do.  It does not have to be complicated in fact the simpler the better.  That way no matter what is going on YOU will not be distracted from the task at hand.  The simplest job that you can give a horse is to go forward.  That is it, just keep moving forward.  Moving forward means going somewhere with a purpose.  If you are walking the horse must be actively picking its feet up and out.  You have some place to go and you want to get there today is the attitude I encourage my riders to have. 

When you are riding that grumpy horse that suddenly decides he doesn’t like his friends put him to work.  Every time you see his ears pin back or feel his back tense, don’t touch the reins for a second just use your legs and encourage a bigger pace.  They don’t need to go from walk to gallop just increase the step of what you are already doing.  So if you are walking increase the walk just a little.  Redirect by making them think ahead of themselves not what is behind.  If they catch you unaware and get a kick out before you can make them move forward still move forward anyways.  It is too late to punish what has already happened.  Now is the time to develop confidence so they don’t feel the need to lash out.  Confidence cannot be built through punishment.

Using the bit and reins for any communication other than directional control is a punishment.  Remember any problem we have with our horse is a lack of confidence on their part.  We need to look for opportunities to continually create confidence in themselves and us to make the perfect partnership.


~Trish Beres

As published in the March addition – Arizona Horse Connection                


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