Fear of Cows

My horse is terrified of cows. Is there anything I can do to help him?
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Fear of Cows
Dr. Sue McDonnell says she's had good results with arranging for the horse to live with the species he fears. | Photo: iStock
Q. My horse is a 16.3-hand seven-year-old Thoroughbred off the track. His history is largely unknown. My problem is that in the five months I’ve had him at a boarding stable, he hasn’t gotten over his fear of cows and their field, which is about 10 feet away from the indoor arena and the outdoor ring. He’ll simply refuse to go past, spin, back up, anything. Even when I can get him by the door or side of the outdoor ring, it’s with a lot of tension,  and he holds his head up stiffly. I’ve gotten off, led him by the cows, led him around outside near the cows, and tried turning his attention away from the scary side of the ring.

The kicker is that he’s a lamb on the ground, and manner-wise he’s a dream. He walks into the arena fine, but as soon as I stop to mount or to run down my irons, he has a look at the end of the arena where the door is. He’s much better when the door is closed and he’s concentrating on his job. Even when the door is open and there are no cows to be seen, he’s petrified. In my opinion, five months of regular riding should have at least taken away some of the fear, but he’s the same (right back where we started) every time he walks into the arena or the outdoor ring.

I’ve had him off-property twice, once for a dressage show, and once for a hunter school—both times he was fine.  There was no evidence that he had any specific fears where he was before I bought him. Short of moving him to a different farm, or putting blinkers on him, is there anything more I can do? When he’s “on” he’s a wonderfully willing and athletic horse, and I’d really like to resolve this rather than sell him

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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.

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