Question: I show at a facility with cattle pens at one end of the arena, and my horse blows up whenever he lopes past them. Since I don't have cattle at home, how can I get my horse over this?
Answer: The only way to get your horse over his fear of cattle is through exposure to them, and since you don't have any cattle at home, you'll have to create some opportunities to work on this problem.
Find a time when you can ride quietly in this arena (or another near cattle pens), without the pressure and hectic atmosphere you encounter in competition. This will help keep you calm, which in turn will be reflected in your horse's attitude. (If you've consistently battled with your horse as he approaches the pens, he may have come to fear the negative consequences of being in the vacinity as well as the cattle themselves.) Consider going to the next show there a day or 2 early, or even hauling your horse to some team pennings or ropings for cattle exposure.
As you ride, go slowly. When your horse indicates he's getting fearful, perhaps slowing his step or feeling as though he's puffing up beneath you, just stop and sit there without forcing him any closer. Let him stand, smell, and look all he wants; be prepared for a possible spooking action, but don't punish him if it occurs. The more you try to use force in this situation, the worse the problem will get.
When you feel him begin to relax beneath you and see his ears tune into something besides the cattle, quietly ask him to move farther forward until he reaches the end of his comfort zone. Then repeat the stop-relax-go-forward sequence. You won't solve this problem in a single ride, so be patient. If there's an empty pen next to the cattle pens, you might also see if you can tie your horse in it until he calms down. He may paw and carry on at first, but he'll eventually tire of it if you don't rush to his rescue right away.
I use a method with my colts that's not too different from this--I tie them in the corners of my arena when I work cattle. They get used to the cattle and help me out by acting as herd holders. I've even resorted to penning up a horse with my cattle for a day or two, letting him eat, drink, and sleep in the same place as they do until he ignores them.
Unfortunately, there may not be a cure for your horse's fear. I had a horse that spooked at cattle and never did get over it, no matter what I did. But you'll stand the best chance of success if you slowly tackle the problem, and don't let yourself get upset with your horse when he blows up. I've found if you take this approach, all horses will get better in time, even those that don't completely conquer their fear.
Bob Avila is a regular visitor to the winner's circle in a variety of events, from halter and Western riding to reining and working cow horse. He's won over 30 championships and reserves at the AQHA World Show, along with the top titles from other prestigious venues.
This article first appeared in the October 1997 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.