Confronting the Cows

Help your horse adjust to his new neighbor—or another source of spooks—with these simple steps.

Horses are creatures of habit. So, when something about their environment changes, it can disrupt their security and sense of safety. I hear all the time about a neighbor getting cattle that are penned near or next to the arena, and it makes the horse nervous. He spooks or gets upset every time his rider tries to make him go near that end of the arena. This can be at home or it could be cattle in a pen next to a show arena. Maybe you’re at a show and run down to a stop, and your horse veers to the left because the cows spook him. Or in a rail class, perhaps he sees the cattle and bolts toward the middle of the arena to escape.

The steps to remedying this behavior are quite simple, and they might be familiar to you from handling other things that upset your horse or cause him to spook—from tarps to trailering. Before covering the steps, I’ll explain some philosophy behind this method, then you can get to work acclimating your horse to cattle.

If your horse needs a break to catch his air while you’re working him near cattle, take him over to rest near them. In his brain, he’ll start to associate the cattle with a break instead of a stressful situation. Photo by Devin Conley

The Dark Closet Effect

Let’s say your child is afraid of the dark. She’s 2 years old and can’t sleep with the light off. It’s so bad, she wants to get in bed with you every night. Here are two approaches when faced with this problem.

The first is the “dark closet effect,” which we do not recommend. You decide to remove her fear of the dark her by putting her in the closet and locking the door. You figure, if she’s in there and has to learn to deal with it, her fear will go away. However, she becomes even more terrified of the dark.

Alternatively, you could choose to put in the time and effort to fix your daughter’s fear by easing her out of it. A dimmer switch is a perfect solution. You can comfort her and tell her everything will be OK, and then you can dim the light slightly. Each night, you’ll dim the light a little more until she’s comfortable and doesn’t even realize when it’s completely dark in her room.

When you approach your horse’s fear of cattle—or anything else—with the dark closet effect, you force him to look at the cows and charge him forward toward the herd. I’ve seen many people try this, and it only heightens the horse’s fear. If you ease into it, you’ll find much more success and build a better relationship with your horse.

The Process

The steps are really simple, but they take time, patience, and commitment to reach the goal. Go into this with the mindset that it’s unlikely you’ll alleviate his fear in one session. (If you do, then that’s a big win for both of you!)

Begin by riding past the cattle, getting as close as you can without upsetting your horse. Make it easy—not stressful. When you’re ready to get to work, do your long trotting, lateral work, and other strenuous activities away from the cattle. When your horse needs a break to catch his air or when he’s met your expectations, take him over to rest near the cattle. In his brain, he’ll associate the cattle with a break instead of being stressors in his life. 

This will take repetition, getting closer and closer to the cattle with every opportunity. Your horse might have setbacks, so you’ll need to be prepared to take a step back and repeat your work. 

You can use this same process for almost any situation that scares your horse. If it’s the trailer, longe him and make him work away from the trailer. When it’s time for a break, let it be near the trailer, then with a foot inside, then half his body, and then all the way inside. Treat scary tarps and arena banners the same way.

Turning a horse out with the cattle to eat and relax with them can also be a great way to help your horse get over his fear of cattle. Photo by Devin Conley

Become a Cow

I’m a fan of turning out a fearful horse with cattle to eat and relax together. 

I recently took on a horse to train for cutting. He was an incredible athlete, but he was so scared of cows. We worked on desensitization, as described earlier. When we worked, he’d cut a cow, but if another cow moved in the herd behind him, he wanted to leave the scene.

I started putting him through his work, and when we were done, I’d turn him out in the cattle pen. “Becoming a cow” helped him get past the fear, and it’s a simple thing to do if it’s an option.

Final Key Tips

First of all, you can’t force your horse to get over a fear. Pushing him too quickly or with an aggressive attitude can lead to, at minimum, him losing trust in you, but at worst, a dangerous situation for both of you. When your horse is fearful and pressured, he can bolt or rear, which are two very dangerous behaviors that are difficult to train out of him.

Keep a calm, reassuring demeanor, and work at a slow pace. But don’t be so overly cautious that you don’t get anywhere in your effort.

Finally, if you’re not comfortable training your horse past his fear, hire a competent professional who can put in the work. Watch how they handle it, and learn from it.

[How to get into the saddle with a growth mindset]

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