The barn where I board my horse does not allow dogs, so my horse is not used to them. The other day I was riding him on the trail by myself and a pack of dogs ran up to us and starting barking at my horse's legs. My horse freaked out and bolted. I didn't fall off, but it was very frightening. How should I handle a situation like this?
Many barns, stables and trail ride areas have strict rules against loose dogs. The reasons for this are valid-often dogs can either be aggressive to horses or accidentally spook them with rambunctious behavior. Either way, dogs and horses often don't mix well. The reaction you experienced with your horse is not uncommon. In fact, I know of many horse related accidents that were caused by loose dogs getting after horses. I'm glad you were not hurt!
When confronted by dogs, many horses will become frightened and their natural flight response will be triggered. There are a few things you can do to help the situation. First, and most importantly, try to remain calm and relaxed- your apprehension can easily feed the horse's instinct to flee. Even if you are frightened, you need to ãfakeä courage so your horse will have more confidence. Take deep breaths, keep your back and legs relaxed and try not to choke up on the reins. Sit deep in the saddle. Act like it is no big deal and your horse is less likely to panic.
Turn your horse to face the dogs as they approach. Use simple calming techniques such as stroking his neck, a crest massage or singing. Since what he probably wants to do is whirl and run, you need to give him something else to do. Some simple lateral work or disengagement of the hindquarters is good replacement behavior. (There are some good ideas on Julie Goodnight's website- www.juliegoodnight.com .)
Often dogs will lose interest if the horse doesn't run, so you need to try to prevent that. If the dogs do not lose interest you will need to get your horse to just quietly walk away. Once you are out of their territory they will probably leave you alone. Try to let the horse just take 2-3 steps at a time and then halt, so that you remain in control at all times. If your horse does bolt you might need to use a pulley rein to get him back under control. (CHA Level 3 Horsemanship Manual, pg.23)
Something to think about is that horses are herd animals so they generally feel safer in a group. This is one reason it might not be a good idea to ride on the trail by your self. Always use good trail riding precautions, such as carrying a cell phone for use in emergencies. Some trail riders carry pepper spray- if you ride in an area where dogs are a real problem, you might consider that. Many areas have leash laws for dogs, so if you continue to have problems on certain trails you might look into what the local authorities can do to help you.
Remember, it can be very dangerous to run into aggressive or energetic dogs out on the trail. Be sure to spend the time enhancing the training of your horse and developing the relationship of trust that is so important in difficult situations.
CHA Assistant Program Director