Cattle Train­ing for Any Horse

You needn’t be headed for cattle events to want your horse com­fort­able around cows. Here’s how to get the de­sen­si­tiz­ing done safely and ef­fi­ciently.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY CHRISTY WOOD, WITH J. FORSBERG MEYER

In­tro­duce your horse to cows—a train­ing ba­sic—in five fun, easy steps.

Aproper in­tro­duc­tion to cows is an im­por­tant part of any Western horse’s ed­u­ca­tion. Why cattle train­ing? Be­cause you may one day want your horse to per­form in an event like ranch sort­ing or team pen­ning. Or you may sim­ply want him to be com­fort­able at venues where cow are present—typ­i­cally in loud, noisy, smelly herds.

Or you may want your trail horse to be at ease around any hooved crit­ters you come across on the trail. If a horse has never been calmly in­tro­duced to cows, it can be scary and un­safe if you un­ex­pect­edly cross paths with one.

For all these rea­sons, cattle train­ing is well worth the ef­fort.

I’m go­ing to share a method I re­cently used to in­tro­duce Buck­ley, my 4-year-old Ap­paloosa geld­ing, to cattle. He’d never seen a cow be­fore, yet I plan to com­pete with him in ranch horse classes plus team pen­ning or sort­ing. He’ll also carry me on the his­toric Chief Joseph Trail Ride, where it’s not un­com­mon to come across cattle. He may even even­tu­ally carry me in the Tour­na­ment of Roses Pa­rade, an event where the more your horse has been de­sen­si­tized to stim­uli that might up­set him, the bet­ter.

Be­fore I be­gan this train­ing, my geld­ing per­ceived cows as aliens from Mars that eat horses for lunch. Af­ter the train­ing, he was will­ing to share his own lunch with his new cow ac­quain­tances.

You can achieve the same equa­nim­ity for your horse by fol­low­ing my five steps, which can de­sen­si­tize him to cattle in the course of about a week. →

STEP 1: Stand, Look, Longe

Tie your horse to his usual hitch­ing post, which ide­ally is within sight of where the cattle are penned. Se­cure him with a safe, quick-re­lease knot, then step back and let his own senses find the cows through their moo­ing, milling about, and “aroma.” When he’s set­tled down from cran­ing his neck and shuf­fling his feet, groom and sad­dle him as usual, leav­ing him in his hal­ter.

Then at­tach a long lead (or longe line) with a stud chain run through the hal­ter and un­der his chin as you see in the pho­tos. Walk him over to the arena’s rail (the cattle will be penned at the far side or at one end of this arena). Don’t ask him to en­ter the arena yet; al­low him sim­ply to stand out­side it, but keep him fac­ing the cows. This will help him fig­ure out and be­come more fa­mil­iar with these odd crea­tures. He may snort a few times and bob his head to alert any herd-mates of this new “danger.”

The next day, af­ter groom­ing and sad­dling him, snap on a longe line with the stud chain af­fixed as be­fore and lead him into the arena. Then longe him qui­etly, start­ing at a spot as far away from the penned cattle as pos­si­ble. As he set­tles to the work at a walk, jog, and lope, grad­u­ally re­po­si­tion him so that he gets closer and closer to the cows.

Con­tinue like this un­til your horse can longe with a re­laxed at­ti­tude at a walk, jog, and lope close to the cows.

STEP 2: Feed Near Cows

Your horse should now be ready to be turned loose in the arena and fed some­what near the cows. Don’t at­tempt this, how­ever, if you sense he’s still think­ing “time to flee!” (If so, wait an­other day.) When you do turn him loose to feed, don’t leave him unat­tended; be on hand to ob­serve the choices he makes re­gard­ing the cows.

Does he trot as far away from them as he can, or does he show some in­ter­est in try­ing to un­der­stand what they’re all about? His re­sponses will dic­tate how long you stay at this step. The ul­ti­mate

goal is to see him walk closer to the cows’ pen, per­haps hang his head over the fence, or fol­low the cows as they move around the pen.

Let him ac­cli­mate as grad­u­ally as he needs to, each day mov­ing his hay closer to the cows to help him up his game. Even­tu­ally, you’ll place the hay right at the pen’s gate, and split the flake with the cows. The goal here is to have the an­i­mals eat­ing nose to nose. This re­as­sures your horse that cows can’t be mon­sters, be­cause look! They eat the same food!

At this point, a lightbulb will have gone on in your horse’s head.

STEP 3: Cows Move, Make Noise

Once your horse and the cows are com­fort­able eat­ing nose to nose, the next step is for you to walk into the cows’ pen on foot (leav­ing your horse loose in the arena) and haze the cows so they’re trot­ting around and rat­tling the fence. Re­main at this step un­til the sound and move­ment no longer bother your horse and he com­pletely re­laxes.

This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant if you later want to team sort with your horse; he needs to have no fear at all of this sort of com­mo­tion. And the rea­son why your horse is loose (as op­posed to tied to the arena’s rail or the pen con­tain­ing the cows) is be­cause he needs to feel he has an es­cape and can choose on his own how close he wants to be to the rat­tling fence. If you tie him, it could cre­ate a pull­back re­sponse, which causes panic—the op­po­site of what you’re af­ter.

STEP 4: Ride Near Cows

When your horse is able to re­main re­laxed as the cows are rat­tling about in their pen, it’s time to sad­dle him up and ride him near the cows. Fol­low your usual rou­tine, warm­ing him up and rid­ing at a walk, jog, ex­tended jog, and lope both ways of the arena. Keep his at­ten­tion on you by ask­ing for leg yields, cir­cles, and other ma­neu­vers as you travel around the arena—and es­pe­cially when­ever you’re pass­ing the cows’ pen.

Once you start work­ing him, it’s best not to let him stop to look or even to turn his head to­ward the cows; keep him fo­cused on the cir­cles or ma­neu­vers at hand. You might even have trail ob­sta­cles in the arena to use for jog-overs or side pass­ing. The goal is for your horse to accept the pres­ence of the cows dur­ing a nor­mal ride.

STEP 5: Face, Step To­ward Cows

Take as much time as your horse needs at Step 4 be­fore mov­ing on to the last step. When you think he’s ready, ride him over to the cow pen’s gate, open it, ride through, and close the gate. Then walk your horse to the cen­ter of the pen and stop him, fac­ing the cows. If you feel any part of him tense up, back off and take an­other day of prepa­ra­tion at Step 4 be­fore con­tin­u­ing.

But if he stands qui­etly with his ears for­ward, ask him to take a few steps to­ward the cows. As they move away from him, he’ll learn he has dom­i­nance over them (just as horses teach one an­other about peck­ing or­der in a herd).

Hey—cool, he’ll be think­ing. I’m the boss of them!

Fin­ish the ses­sion by mov­ing the cows qui­etly around the pen for a while, then exit the pen and praise your horse. He’s just grad­u­ated—to fledg­ling cow horse!

Af­ter he’s com­fort­able sim­ply stand­ing out­side the arena and look­ing at the cows, take him in and longe him next to the cow pen, grad­u­ally mov­ing him nearer and nearer to it.

Be­gin by ty­ing your horse safely where he can see, hear, and smell the penned cattle. Let him set­tle down, then groom and sad­dle him as usual, ex­cept leave his hal­ter on him.

When it’s time to ride him in the arena, give him one look at the cows. Then work him as you nor­mally would, keep­ing him fo­cused on you and look­ing in the di­rec­tion of his travel.

When he’s fine with the longe­ing, turn him loose to eat in the arena, grad­u­ally plac­ing his hay closer to the cows. Watch his re­sponse—does he want to go check them out?

This is your goal with the feed­ing part of the les­son—to have your horse eat­ing nose to nose with the cows, re­laxed as can be. Hey, he’s think­ing. They’re not mon­sters, af­ter all!

Then walk him slowly to the cen­ter of the pen and stop him, fac­ing the cows. If he re­mains re­laxed yet alert as my geld­ing is here, you’re ready to pro­ceed to the fi­nal step.

When he’s calm while work­ing in the arena and is ready to brave the cow pen, walk him over to the pen’s gate, open it, ride through, and close it in a mat­ter-of-fact way.

Fin­ish by step­ping closer to the cows, then mov­ing them qui­etly around the pen. Your horse will learn he has noth­ing to fear from these crit­ters—and can even boss them around!

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