Tips for Training Horses and Dogs to Coexist

Tips for Training Horses and Dogs to Coexist

With the right preparation and training, horses and dogs can work and live in harmony.

horse with dog in the saddle (Credit:Emilie Carpenter)

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It's a fact that horse people are animal people. The American Quarter Horse might be our favorite, but the canine is not far behind.

However, there is an inevitable problem when we head out to feed our prey equids with our predatory canines at heel. Both species’ natural instincts can lead to frustration, fear and, worst case, fatalities. Careful planning and training on all sides can lead to harmony. 

Read on if you've ever wondered:

  • How do I get my dog to stop chasing horses?
  • What dog breeds are good with horses?
  • Are dogs afraid of horses?
  • How do I train my dog to be around horses?

Finding a Dog

Pick a breed that is conducive to the environment in which they will live.

It’s so key that the dog’s environment matches its breed. A cattle dog was bred to herd cattle, so he herds cattle, he herds horses - he also herds vacuum cleaners and anything else that moves. That’s what he’s bred to do; that’s what he’s made to do. Rescue kennels would be so much less crowded if people just researched the dog breed that is best for their environment.

The American Kennel Club provides resources to research breeds. Things to consider include:

  • Size

  • Temperament

  • Energy level

  • Level of required maintenance. (For example, some dogs require daily brushing while others are “wash and wear.”)

Read the descriptions carefully and be honest with yourself regarding what the environment is going to be like. 

Training Your Dog 

  1. Teach your dog the basics, starting at home. Begin training puppies in the house, mastering basic commands such as come when called, sit, lie down, “off” (move away from something) and “out” (get out of whatever the dog is doing).

  2. Put a “whoa” on herding dogs. They’re going to go herd instinctively. The key is putting the whoa on them. To help dogs learn when it’s appropriate to herd, teach them “get it.”

  3. Practice on a leash. Once the dog is reliable in the house, move to the yard, then on to the barn. Keep your dog on a leash until it knows commands absolutely, even if takes months. The most important part to having a well-behaved dog around horses is starting the dogs young.

  4. Socialize dogs around anything they’re going to live with, whether it’s horses, kids or cats. Start them young, get the dog out there around those horses as often as you can. The biggest thing is to teach the dog to respect the horse's feet. You’re going to have a dead dog pretty quickly if you don’t teach the dog to respect a horse’s feet.

  5. Be thoughtful in how you introduce your dogs to the horses. Begin by holding the puppy while the horse sniffs it, reinforcing the puppy for being friendly, but not making a big deal if the puppy acts afraid. When the puppy is comfortable, put it down and allow it to get used to having horses around. If the puppy gets too close to the horse - especially if the horse is showing signs of being uncomfortable - use an arm extender, such as a riding crop, to bump the puppy out of the way.

  6. Ensure that your dogs are really ready to be your horseback-riding companion. Before dogs are allowed to hang out at the barn, make sure they heed your command in every situation.

  7. Consider using a system of pressure and release to train your dog. Kent and Lori Herbel train herding dogs at their XP Ranch in Putnam, Oklahoma. They train their dogs the same way they train their horses, using a system of pressure and release.

  8. Be ready for inconsistency, especially when you bring your dog to a new location. It is extremely common for a dog that responds with 100 percent accuracy in one location to become distracted or less consistent when moved to a new environment.

Now you’re ready for the next steps: Stopping bad dog behaviors before they become a problem and training your horse to accept dogs.

Nip Bad Dog Behavior in the Bud

Common aggressive behaviors for a dog, such as barking or chasing, should be stopped early, before they become habits.

  1. Chasing is an aggressive herding posture that is obviously intended to move an animal in a specific direction, not to be confused with a dog’s playful capering or running alongside a horse.

  2. Address negative behavior the first time it happens and each time it happens. Inconsistency in training gives mixed signals to your dog, and your results will be just as inconsistent. 

  3. Shape behaviors by showing the dog what you want, and then once you are getting the behaviors consistently, name them (ex: “get back”). Once the behavior is consistent and then named, ask for it only once. Repeated commands and lack of follow-through will also give you inconsistent results.

  4. If a working stock dog is your goal, be careful with his training. Dogs that are constantly reprimanded for ‘working’ horses may interpret this to mean you don’t want him to work cattle, either. So, if it is important that your dog be a ranch hand, be aware of what you are actually teaching.

If a problem is serious enough, seek professional help. Proper timing is crucial to keep a dog from bad behaviors. If the dog continues having problems adjusting to being around horses, he might not be a candidate for being around horses and might be better off staying at home.

Training Your Horse to Accept Dogs

Most horses acclimate well to having dogs around, but they should always be introduced gradually.

  • It is a good idea to desensitize a horse to having objects under and around his legs and hooves. For example, if your dogs are mostly white, use items of that color, such as a roll of toilet paper, a ball of yarn or a plastic bag.

  • Use an experienced dog to introduce a horse to canines and teach him that dogs are OK. It is easiest to work with only one inexperienced species at a time - if you have a young dog, use an experienced horse, and vice versa.

  • As with any training, exercise caution. Keep track of the dog at all times, so you can move him out of the way if the horse becomes agitated or offers to kick.

Reaping the Rewards

Once dogs and horses are acclimated, it can be a joy having them together, whether you’re cleaning stalls, going for trail rides or hunting.

“It’s an amazing amount of fun to have horses and dogs together. It is great to see the looks on peoples’ faces when you have such a well-behaved dog off-leash that’s going along with the horse, and to see the relationship between you, the dog and the horse. 

It’s a wonderful example of how that can happen, it just takes dedication, hard work and the love or want-to.