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Harmony in Hooves and Paws: Navigating the Delicate Dance Between Dogs and Horses

In this blog, we would like to invite you to explore the relationship between canines and equines. By nature, dogs are predators, and horses are prey animals. Horses and dogs are similar in that they tend to have intense fight, flight or freeze responses to stressful situations. Every animal is an individual and will therefore respond to stressors in different ways.


The ancestors of our domestic dogs were natural predators, meaning they hunted other animals for food. As time went on, dogs were bred to be able to perform certain tasks better than others, such as chasing or hunting. Some dogs may show playful behaviour towards a horse, but it is important to remember that the horse is unlikely to understand the dog's playful gesture.


Horses were prey for many large carnivores like wolves, so to survive, they had to run away from any threat of attack. This is often referred to as ‘flight’ instinct. This natural survival instinct is strong and a bolting horse presents a real danger to themselves and others, and can also entice a dog into a chase situation.  



We will offer some tips and information on how to keep both dogs and horses safe while out for a walk or a ride.  



Impact on horses and riders chased by a dog. 

The impact of a dog being off lead and not under control around horses can be significant and dangerous. Horses that are chased or attacked by dogs can become nervous and anxious around them, and their behaviour and performance can be impacted long term. This can make future rides stressful and unpleasant for both, horse and rider. Riders can suffer from the psychological impact of a dog attack or chasing incident.  

 

Solutions to the Problem 

Responsible dog ownership is of the essence. It is important to understand that not all horses are comfortable around dogs and vice versa. When you see a horse approaching recall your dog immediately and put your lead on and move to the side of the path. Be visible and keep as much distance as possible and wait until horse and rider have passed with a safe distance before continuing your walk.


It is important to stand in a visible place, as the horse can become more unsettled and frightened if they cannot see you. Training foundation skills with your dog is essential before venturing out into exciting places. A reliable recall, ‘sit’ with duration and for your dog to be comfortable with the lead being put on during a walk are very important. This will help to keep your dog under control in the presence of horses.  


Good dog ownership includes keeping your dog on a lead when walking near horses (and livestock). This will prevent your dog running towards horses or chasing them. Keeping dogs on the lead in areas where horses are present can help to prevent accidents and ensure that everyone can enjoy their time outdoors – there is space for everybody. And remember to thank horse & rider for slowing down while they pass you and your dog.  

 

Dangers of Dogs off lead around horses 

For many horse riders, the sight of dogs off the lead running towards them can be a frightening and unsettling experience. Horses can easily be spooked by dogs, especially when approached by a dog that is barking, growling or chasing after them. Even a well-behaved dog can pose a risk to a well-trained horse, particularly when running freely. Horses are flight animals and when they become spooked they can bolt, and this could result in an accident. Also, dogs can get injured getting to close to a horse’s hooves or can get kicked by a bolting horse.  

 

Introducing your dog to a horse 

Socialising your dog with horses can take a long time; it can help your dog to feel more comfortable in a horse’s presence. It is possible for most dogs and horses to live in harmony, and pay little attention when out on walk and hacks. If your dog is not used to seeing horses, they may feel scared or nervous when seeing a horse. They can react to this by investigating, chasing and/or barking.  


Start at a distance 

When first introducing dogs to any livestock, including horses, stand with your dog on lead at a distance. Far enough away that your dog stays calm and is paying attention to you; you can ask for a sit if you want. Praise and reward your dog for calmness. Providing your dog is listening to you and remains calm, move a step closer towards the horse. Praise and reward for calmness.


Gradually reduce the distance between you and the horse and at each step praise and reward for calmness. You may need to offer your dog a sniff break in between. If at any time your dog shows any signs of stress, increase the distance again to where your dog feels comfortable. The process of moving towards a horse can be broken down into small increments and allow for your training to require multiple sessions. 


Horses can be intimidating. 

Horses are, in comparison to other livestock, for example, sheep, large animals! The size of a horse can be intimidating for a dog. When your dog sees a horse, they may feal fear. Observe your dogs’ body language – a fearful and anxious dog can react in a few different ways. It is a stress response, so a dog may choose to fight, flight, freeze or flirt. They may react with lungeing, barking, or growling.


Hackles on their neck and back may come up. Or, your dog may cower, or try to run away, or stand and stare. Expect the unexpected and hold on to your dog with the lead.  

In any of theses scenarios you need to move away to a safe distance for your dog to be able to calm down. Your dog needs to associate seeing a horse with good things happening – praise and reward – and stay calm and relaxed.  


Reducing distance 

The aim is to get your dog close to the fence around the horses’ field without reacting to the horse. We are aiming for a dog that remains calm and quiet, minding its own business. At this stage, providing your dog has a reliable recall, you may let your dog off the lead to explore the surrounding area without entering the field. 


Once you are confident your dog shows little to no interest in the horse and stays calm with a fence between, you can take the next step and move forward into the field. 

This process could take days, weeks or even months.

  

NOTE: Always have permission from the horse owner and landowner. Allowing your dog to interact with a loose horse in a field is dangerous and trespassing.  





Preparing for closer contact 

With your dog on a lead step slowly towards the horse, which is being held securely by the owner. Stop after each step praise and reward your dog. Observe your dog for any changes in the body language; being calm and listening to you is important. Be mindful of the horse and follow the horse owners advice. Some horses are not interested in dogs and others want to sniff the dog.


Continue to praise and reward your dog for remaining calm. You want your dog to be totally neutral around the horse. Only take the lead off your dog if the horse is happy to tolerate your dog in its space and you are confident that your dog will remain calm around the horse. If at any time your dog or the horse is showing any signs of stress move calmly away from the horse to a safe distance and assess the situation. And try again another day.  




Summary 

  • Introduce from a distance and train for calmness 

  • Be patient 

  • Praise and reward are paramount 

  • Reward your dog with high value / favourite treat 

  • Gradual exposure 

  • Always supervise your dog and horse interactions 

  • Never force the issue if your dog shows any signs of fear 

  • Not all dogs can peacefully be around horses 

 

Final thoughts 

It can happen that the initial introduction between your dog and a horse doesn’t go very well – do not give up! Keep the interactions simple and watch for signs of stress. Sometimes, less is more. Always finish a training session on a win and celebrate the small wins. Enjoy the training journey with your 4-legged companion and you will reach your goal.  



We at Lead & Listen are delighted that we are able to offer you a workshop ‘introducing your dog to horse with rider’ on Saturday 27th April 2024 at Oakhurst Farm in Loxwood. Booking details are available on our website.  

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