The Cows, Oh the Cows..

Cows, the three letter, C-Word that almost every Thoroughbred fears. 

When Ink first encountered a cow, it was part, “oh my gosh, it’s a fire breathing, horse eating, monster!”  Combined with, complete confusion and fascination.  He didn’t want to get close, but he stood there like a dog, head cocked to the side, wondering. 

I didn’t know that this cow fear, was pretty common with Thoroughbreds.  But after Ink’s first encounter, I told the barn owner at the time and she told me that, “It’s a TB thing.”  I hate to sound stereotypical, but it’s looking that way to me too.  However, I know of other breeds who have an innate fear of cows as well.

Knowing this and knowing that the barn I call home now, has cows in close eye proximity to the indoor arena, it would be only a matter of time before Reason had his first, true, encounter.  We’ve been lucky to have been able to avoid the cows up until now.  Whenever we’d be in the indoor or walking down the path that parallels the cow pasture, we’ve always seemed to miss them. 

Yesterday was the first day.  Hello cows. 

Reason was being a good boy yesterday, calm and inquisitive.  I decided that, if all went as planned, I’d mount up again.  My plans were de-railed, as I was hand-walking Reason down in the indoor, feeling him out before moving forward with mounting etc.  The cows began herding together, over the hill and down to the corner of their pasture which is diagonal from the corner of the indoor arena.  Reason saw these crazy, weird, creatures coming and started to fear the worst.  His head went up, his eyes got big, his wheels began turning and his chest began moving as his heart started pounding.  I call this, the cow reaction.

I let Reason look.  Every part of him was on those cows. Ready for fight or flight.  But a part of him remained curious, interested and confused.  Just like Ink was.  A couple times he swung around me, tail and head up.  But for the most part, he stood still.  There seemed to be a direct tunnel leading from him straight to the cows and he could see or pay no attention to anything outside of the tunnel.  A couple of times I asked him to back up so his attention would come back to me.  He respected my presence and willingly did what I asked, but he still remained focused of those things across the way.

A little while later, Reason seemed to calm down, but for safety measures and still confusion, his mind remained on the cows.  It was a good time to open another window of trust.  Each new situation or object, can be an excellent way to do more training and more trusting.

I remember a horsemen saying this about when introducing a horse to something new and “scary.”

He said (and I wish I could remember who exactly it was.  The fact is, I remember things they say and not always their faces..) that you should not make a horse face the thing that is making them shy away.  You should move with the horse, as the leader, but also as the horse would in a herd.  So instead of walking a horse directly up to the scary thing and forcing it to look or stay close (doesn’t sound like a good idea anyway..)  you should leg yield them away, as you walk by.  Following the horses instinct to normally move, sideways from whatever they are shying from.  Therefore you do a couple things;

1) As leader, you ask the horse before it reacts.  Being able to remain light and focused. 
2) By asking the horse to leg yield away, you are simulating what would happen as the alpha mare would shift her herd, guiding them safely away from a potential predator.
3) In a training environment we are building the horses trust in our guidance and confidence in our ability as a leader. 

I slowly began to ask Reason to back away from the sight of the cows.  I still wanted him to be able to look at them, because not being able to see them poses more of a threat, but I wanted to get him at a more safer, comfortable distance.  This seemed to help.

Once we stood for a little bit longer, I tried do something different.  I had him walk around that end of the arena (opposite of the cows) around and around.  Moving away and coming back.  Each time you could tell Reason was getting less concerned about what the cows were doing, or not doing.  Eventually, he started acting more curious and silly, than worried.  Tossing his head, jumping about but never trying to stray from me.  At the point where I thought that Reason was good with the cows, I decided that this was a good place to stop.  But Reason, curious as he is, wanted to go see them.  Egging me towards that direction.  I admire his enthusiasm, but perhaps this time, mama knows best.  This was a good place to stop, next time we’ll get closer.




2 thoughts on “The Cows, Oh the Cows..

  1. That is exactly (exactly) what Ike had Bar and me do with the mechanical cow.

    Go up just until he started got get uncomfortable, leg yield away. We did it as a figure-8 as well, so we'd move away, then circle back, then away again.

    The other thing I've started doing is trying to project the “it's not that big a deal” vibe. Not “don't notice that” or “ignore it because I said so” because, duh, they're prey animals and that won't work, but “Oh, yeah. I see that, thanks for the warning, now let's move on to this side pass,” or whatever.

    I have not shown Bar real cows, yet. Maybe we'll have to come visit to test this TB-Cow theory. 🙂

  2. It's not a TB thing, it's a horse thing.

    The advice to leg yield away is repeated often, and it's true – what's lovely here is the explanation.

    “2) By asking the horse to leg yield away, you are simulating what would happen as the alpha mare would shift her herd, guiding them safely away from a potential predator.”

    Everything we do makes more sense when there is a reason for what we do. Well said!

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