4 horse leg movements and what they mean

A horse’s leg movements carry messages to the recipients be they another horse or a person.

Pawing on the ground

This action originates in a horse scratching the surface of the ground to test its resistance or to understand what is beneath their feet. But it can also reflect an emotional state. A horse may have an urge to move forwards but something prevents them from doing so creating frustration. The pawing at the ground is a demonstration of a horse’s frustration

Beautiful foal
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Beautiful foal. Image by Pixabay.

Front-leg lift

This is a threat. It is a subdued version of a horse’s strike with the front leg when attacking another horse frontally. When 2 stallions fight each other they may go up onto their hind legs and strike with their front legs. This symbolic version of that is a way of one horse telling another that if they carry on as they are they may get kicked. It is the human equivalent of shaking a fist at someone.

Back-leg lift

This is a defensive threat signalling that a full kick is on the way if things deteriorate. It is a heightening of the signal sent by the body signal described as “the rump presentation“. Mothers might use the signal towards their foals if they have become annoying or over-attentive. It may happen when foals persist in wishing to search for their mother’s udder when the mare does not want to feed them.

Knocking and stamping

These are two leg movements which signal that a horse is in a mildly threatening mood. They are both related to kicking but highly modified. The raising and lowering of a hind leg resulting in a tapping sound on the ground and is called ‘knocking’. A similar movement performed with the front leg is called ‘stamping’. They demonstrate a mild protest by the horse. If a foal is irritating their mother she may knock. When a horse is about to be ridden by somebody and they don’t want to do it, they may stamp as a protest. Therefore these signals are directed at other horses and people.

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