Problems in Passing Other Horses in the Arena

What can I do to help my horse get over his fear of other horses coming toward him or passing him in the arena?
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Safely longeing two horses near each other could help desensitize one that's nervous about passing others in arenas. Safety note: Do not let the longe line drag on the ground, as horses could accidentally step on or over it. | Photo: iStock
Q.The horse I lease has a serious aversion to horses coming toward him when riding in the arena. He’s an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) and, his current owner doesn’t know what sort of incident he might have had in his past that made him this way. It doesn’t matter if we’re walking or working, he tends to stop and spin away from the approaching horse—sometimes violently. Last year he improved to the point where he would only tense up when a horse approached while schooling at home. We went to a horse show, however, and that all went out the window. What can I do to help him get over his fear? Otherwise he’s a well-behaved horse and successful in the show ring.

—Sydney, Ballston Spa, New York

A.While in my experience it doesn’t seem to be an especially common complaint, this is not the first time I have heard of or seen this problem in a racehorse or other horses. It might develop just from a lack of experience with ridden horses approaching as they do in shows. Some intensively managed racehorses that have been on the track since they were young might have never had horses approach them from the opposite direction.

With this problem, I first like to know how the horse reacts to something besides another horse approaching, such as a dog, a person, or a vehicle. If he shows a hint of worry about that, I would suggest having your veterinarian evaluate him for any potential sensory problems—particularly visual—that might make an approaching horse difficult to perceive or scary. If he seems to check out fine, specifically with no detectable perceptual deficits, I would recommend proceeding with a systematic desensitization plan to help him get over his worries. The concept is to expose him to gradations of the threatening situation in a controlled environment

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Written by:

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.

One Response

  1. I’ve been working on a similar problem with my OTTB for 4 years. She is dangerously afraid of/excited by new horses, even if they are two pastures away. While she’s settled a lot since I’ve had her and she’s wonderful most of the time, it can take an incredibly long time to really help them, and triggers may always remain. I searched a long time for confirmation that fear of conspecifics was a recognized problem, and finally found it with Andrew McLean and Paul McGreevey. Good luck.

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