TRUE TRAINING 68 - Ninja Cows Redux
Way back in Post 27, I told the story of True’s first experience with Ninja Cows. Three had escaped from a neighbor’s pasture and came within a hundred yards of the arena while True and I were working. He was terrified.
Because those cows were the neighbor’s escapees, I had no control over them. I couldn’t invite one of them back for calm training sessions with True. And I didn’t think he would appreciate a big poster of bovine faces in his stall. So we just avoided cows for a while.
But we now have about 25 steers living on the ranch, and True has entered Cow 101. I’d like to describe in detail how to introduce a horse to something that scares the bejesus out of him. It doesn’t have to be cows—anything will do (just ask a horse)!
Please re-read Post 27 to remind yourself of the extent of True’s fear of bovine species. Don’t worry—it’s a fun read when you’re not the one sitting on the nuclear beast.
The new steers live about 100 yards from True’s stall and run, but he cannot see them well from around a corner. He smells and hears them, though. About a dozen other horses live in the barn, some closer to the cows than True, and they all know the cows are there. They couldn’t care less. But True is still terrified.
On Day One, I led True to his usual position in the barn aisle near the tack room. If you look hard, you can see a cow or two out past the end of the aisle, about 75 yards away. True caught sight of one steer’s haunch immediately and stopped dead on his halter. He raised his head, every muscle went taut, and his eyes grew wider. I could almost hear him wail, “Nooooo….”
I gently touched the lead to go forward, and True refused. This is the point at which many trainers and handlers make the wrong decision. The horse is SCARED. It doesn’t help to force or persuade him forward. The amygdalae inside his brain are not wired like ours are, and he cannot prevent the reaction that will result from his fear. Instead, we have to train the fear itself, not the reaction.
So I just stood next to True when he refused to move forward. I talked calmly to him, with a slack lead. After about a minute, he reached his nose forward almost imperceptibly—maybe a quarter-inch. I gently touched the lead again and released it. This time, he took three forward steps and won high praise in return for his courage.
For the next 30 yards, we moved forward in fits and starts through the barn aisle, according to True’s comfort level. I did not persuade, encourage, or pull. I just walked when he walked, and stopped when he stopped. Each time he stopped, I kept the lead slack and reassured him briefly with my voice. Each time he stepped forward, I praised him verbally and stroked his neck and shoulder.
The other horses in the barn, and a couple out near the cows, were munching hay quietly. This was a huge advantage. I timed our session knowing they would be nearby, and I checked beforehand to be sure they were accustomed to cows. Horses observe their buddies’ behavior carefully, and it has a strong effect on them. True could see, hear, and smell that his horse friends weren’t worried about the steers at all. They were busy eating!
Eventually we got to the end of the barn aisle and out into the sun, now perhaps 30 yards from the steers. All 25 of them were visible to True at this point, milling around in their large corral. Trouper was absolutely transfixed, eyes huge, nostrils flaring for better scent, ears razored forward. If one of those critters mooed, I knew he would spin, kick, and bolt for the hills. Fortunately, they didn’t.
We stood at that location for maybe 3 minutes—it felt like a long time. And then True noticed a small bite of hay that had spilled on the driveway. He dropped his head to chew.
That’s all I was waiting for. Lesson One complete! High Fives all around! True ate the hay, we turned around, and walked back up the barn aisle to his stall. He had already worked, so he got to rest and eat now. Altogether, this first lesson lasted about ten minutes. On Day Two, we did the same thing, but True approached farther and faster this time. On Day Three, we stood at the same 30-yard distance, where I waited for him to take the initiative to move forward.
Horses are naturally curious. True could sense that his equine buddies weren’t afraid of the Ninja Cows, I wasn’t afraid, they hadn’t done anything scary, and he had not been hurt. And sure enough, after a few minutes standing still next to me, True took it upon himself to walk forward quite deliberately. In fact, he marched right up to the fence. I had to hurry to keep up. One steer was standing there, and True sniffed him through the fence. Yay!
Cow 101 will continue for about ten minutes a day over the next several weeks. It’s important not to scare True while he is working out his fears, so I will make sure he only sees them in their corral. The time will come when he will be with steers in the arena and elsewhere… but that’s Cow 102.
This method of approaching scary items or experiences works for all sorts of different things, not just Ninja Cows. A few tips to make the process easier:
- The horse gets to decide what’s scary. Whether we humans think it’s scary is irrelevant.
- The horse chooses her own comfort zone. If it’s 500 yards away but we think she should be closer, too bad for us.
- The handler reassures but does not try to wheedle, coerce, or pull the horse forward. Keep the lead slack and just move (or stop) with the horse.
- The handler must be someone the horse trusts. Build trust with positive experiences before heading toward a scary object.
- Use other horses (and people, if needed), but be sure they are calm and unconcerned about the scary experience.
- Plan fright lessons so that the horse is worked, untacked, groomed, and tired when she begins. That way, we don’t have to contend with hijinks and you end the lesson with a full rest.
- Don’t expect too much too soon. Ten minutes a day is enough, with many days of practice.