Fear of Cows

Fear of Cows

Is your horse afraid of cows? Living with them might help him overcome his fears.

Photo: Photos.com

Q. My horse is a 16.3-hand seven-year-old Thoroughbred off the track. His history is largely unknown. My problem is that in the five months I've had him at a boarding stable, he hasn't gotten over his fear of cows and their field, which is about 10 feet away from the indoor arena and the outdoor ring. He'll simply refuse to go past, spin, back up, anything. Even when I can get him by the door or side of the outdoor ring, it's with a lot of tension,  and he holds his head up stiffly. I've gotten off, led him by the cows, led him around outside near the cows, and tried turning his attention away from the scary side of the ring.

The kicker is that he's a lamb on the ground, and manner-wise he's a dream. He walks into the arena fine, but as soon as I stop to mount or to run down my irons, he has a look at the end of the arena where the door is. He's much better when the door is closed and he's concentrating on his job. Even when the door is open and there are no cows to be seen, he's petrified. In my opinion, five months of regular riding should have at least taken away some of the fear, but he's the same (right back where we started) every time he walks into the arena or the outdoor ring.

I've had him off-property twice, once for a dressage show, and once for a hunter school--both times he was fine.  There was no evidence that he had any specific fears where he was before I bought him. Short of moving him to a different farm, or putting blinkers on him, is there anything more I can do? When he's "on" he's a wonderfully willing and athletic horse, and I'd really like to resolve this rather than sell him.

Katie


A. In cases like this, I have had good results with arranging for the horse to live with the species he fears. Many different set-ups can accomplish the goal, but the principle is to confine the horse safely in the same or adjacent enclosure with the feared species, at least at first, so that the horse remains within sight, sound, and smell. 

You also want to do whatever you can to associate good things, like feeding, with the cow. It sounds as if your horse has gotten into the pattern of panicking and getting away, so you might not want to put him directly into a cow pasture or put a cow directly into his pasture. It might be safer to start out by putting a safe round pen with the cow in it inside the horse pasture, or alternatively, the horse in a round pen within the cow pasture. Place the hay or feed tubs for the horse and cow close together so that they eat near one another. If your horse is super stressed at first, it might help him to have a horse or pony companion who is comfortable with cows.

You can achieve the same thing in a barn if need be. Move a cow into the barn a few stalls away at first.  When you first bring the cow in, clear your horse's stall of buckets, etc., so if he runs around he doesn't exacerbate the commotion by knocking the furniture about. Make his stall as safe as you can and try to let him settle down.  We try to just let the horse and cow ride it out for a couple of hours.

Once he settles down, move the cow nearer until he accepts it.  You can then walk the cow up and down the aisle just before feeding time, so the horse hopefully associates the cow with feeding. You can then walk the horse past the cow, etc.  We try to go a week at a time, introducing progressively more challenging exposure.

Once he gets used to the cow and they are eating and resting near one another, it's good to work the horse near the cow. We start with longeing or round pen work before working under saddle.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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