On a recent trail ride two unleashed Australian shepherds came rushing toward our horses barking and growling, one dog obviously younger and a bit bolder than the other.
My friend’s mare spooked and spun to face the oncoming dogs. My Quarter Horse, Jack, also spooked at the onslaught but simultaneously evaluated the attackers and targeted his radar onto the braver of the two dogs. He cocked his ear and lifted one hind leg into the locked-and-loaded position, the dog’s body clearly his target. The dog dove in, nipped at Jack’s heels, and retreated.
“Don’t worry, he won’t bite your horse—he’s friendly—he just needs to learn how to behave around horses!” the breathless dog owner called from her mountain bike.
Lady, I thought, I’m not sure what lesson you want your dog to learn, but I’m not really worried about my horse.
You see, Jack isn’t really fond of dogs.
Brewer stays clear of Marathon after his first interaction with the horse.
Photo: Michelle N. Anderson
His attitude toward dogs worked well for horse breaking our Corgis when we moved from a subdivision to our small horse property. Our Corgis were bold but aloof little dogs that didn’t really understand subtleties, so Jack made it clear from Day 1 that his paddock was verboten territory. While they’d circle like sharks under our other horse’s buckets at feeding time, the Corgis stayed out of Jack’s way, letting him finish his dinner without their help.
Due to his tendency of treating dogs as horsey soccer balls, Jack isn’t helping horse train my new puppy, Brewer, a 7-month-old Australian Cattle Dog rescue with fear issues. Instead I’ve enlisted Marathon to help Brewer learn how to behave around horses.
Marathon isn’t the horse you’d instinctively think of as a dog trainer. For the most part he’s what I call a Hanoverian-chicken cross. He spooks at rabbits running through his paddock, but for some reason he can meet feral dogs on the trail with little more than a twitch of his ear. Dogs just don’t bother the big guy.
I started Brewer’s introduction to my horses by tying him at the hitching rail while I fed. He needed a good 40 feet of distance from the fenceline to feel safe and, honestly, I don’t mind having a heeler that would rather stay out of paddocks. However, the reality is that he needs to learn how to stay safe and behave around livestock (aka, my three pleasure ponies, the neighbor’s goats, and the peacock that occasionally roosts in our junipers).
After Brewer got used to watching me feed and pet my horses, the next step was bringing Marathon to the side yard for a hand graze. Although our pup, a winter addition to the family, thinks the yard is his territory, the horses actually spend quite a bit of time grazing there during the spring and summer.
I stood at the end of Marathon’s long cotton lead as Brewer did a look-approach-and-retreat dance that clearly said, “Why is that thing in my yard?”
He inched closer, sniffing the air and predator pointing as he moved toward the gelding. Brewer then raised his hackles and let loose with enough tenacity to turn a bull, snapping at Marathon’s face (without making contact) and emitting a noise I can only equate to mating Tasmanian devils.
Marathon, bless his heart, showed no reaction to the dog. He didn’t lift his head, twitch his ears, or even blink. No striking, spooking, spinning, or kicking. His lack of reaction neutralized my dog, and as quickly as it started, the fruitless attack ended with Brewer walking away to play with his favorite toy.
Moving tough livestock is in my dog’s DNA, a fact he reminds me of it every time we drive past a pasture full of beef cattle. His lack of early socialization makes him anxious and fearful with a tendency to overact when stressed. (Side note: Despite his rescue-related issues, Brewer is an awesome dog, and we’re working hard with a professional trainer to find positive solutions.)
I’m confident that, if I’d introduced Brewer to Jack first instead of Marathon, I would’ve had a wreck on my hands, with a terrified dog turned aggressive by an aggressive horse. Instead, Brewer’s first up-close horse experience helped de-escalate his outburst and taught him that moving the horses is not his job.
This isn’t the end of the horse lesson for Brewer, but it feels like a good beginning.
Have you ever had bad encounters between your dogs and horses? How do you manage your horses around roaming neighborhood dogs or loose dogs on the trail?