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.

One method I have recommended that works for many horses and their handlers is to place the horse in a round pen or on a longe in a circle. Have another horse working on a longe next to him but in the opposite direction, such that with each pass they will come toward each other for a few seconds. In this controlled situation working the horse from the ground, most people can more calmly keep the horse going and convey confidence through his moment of worry.

At first, start with the two horses far from each other (as far as needed, up to 100 feet in some cases), and then allow them to come closer as tolerated. After each successful cycle, be sure to let your horse know he did well in any way that works for him—a nice scratch at the withers, a food treat, a “good boy” if he understands what that means. Sometimes blinkers can help, but other times they can make a horse even more worried about oncoming traffic. It might take some trial and error to find out what works best for your horse.

There are probably many of other ways to approach this, but the principles are the same:

  • Gradually present the scary stimulus in as relaxing yet controlled a situation as possible, where you can most likely work your horse through the situation calmly;  
  • Allow and ignore any undesirable resistance behaviors;  
  • Positively reinforce any and all increments of improvement;  
  • Expect minor setbacks, and try not to get discouraged or convey disappointment with them; and  
  • Most importantly, stay relaxed and confident.  

This might sound like a long, tedious process, but you might be surprised how well it can progress. Once your horse exhibits good confidence on the ground, then go back to riding him in a controlled situation. Depending on how severe his aversion has become, you might then want to add more horses, going in all directions, to model the real-world show ring situations you expect to encounter. You might also want to talk to your veterinarian about some of the newer nutritional supplements and other products that might help calm horses in anxiety-producing or stressful situations.