TRUE TRAINING 80 – True Sorts Cows

Jul 15, 2023 by Janet Jones

True has a history with cows. In Post 27, he had his first verrry scary experience with the Mutant Ninja Beasts. Gradually, I’ve been training him to observe, approach, and accept cows as described in posts 68 and 71. This sequence (Post 27-68-71-80) offers a concrete example of training a young horse to accept something he is deathly afraid of.

To review, True has excellent jumping bloodlines and no business fiddling with cows. But I like to train horses for versatility, reliability, and trust. I also like to reduce fear in the horse’s daily environment. Cross-training is good for their bodies, but also for their minds. A horse who performs difficult competitive maneuvers at high speed, then saunters over to open and close the arena gate or clops quietly over a wooden bridge, is displaying mental health in addition to physical ability. 

Calf sorting is used in real life for veterinary purposes, to separate one cow from the herd for examination or treatment. In contests, ten cows are moved from one pen to another, one cow at a time. We select each cow by number, much like a pool player identifies the ball and pocket that is her goal. This task is harder than it sounds because cows avoid being separated from their herd, preferring to stick together in a tight group.

Neither True nor I had ever sorted cows before, and well … it bears mentioning again that a couple years ago he ran terrified from the mere sight of three cows standing 500 yards away. Most people would have argued (and some did) that cows should never be allowed within sight of this horse again.

Last week, True—Dutch Warmblood Jumper-Genes Fraidy-Cat Extraordinaire—sorted nine out of ten cows perfectly. Wearing his Western saddle and an eggbutt snaffle, with me in field boots and breeches, he walked calmly into a small round pen where the cows were gathered. Each was numbered, and I called out the number of the closest cow. Then I helped True separate and move that one cow out the gate into an adjoining pen. And so on for the other nine. In one case, we goofed up and two cows went through the gate simultaneously. But the best part? True was calm, interested, attentive! 

Getting through the round pen gate was an exercise in equine danger that I’ve never understood. I grew up in Arizona in the old days, where cowboys used solid-wall round pens for horses and cattle all the time. (We also used them for bareback/bridleless exercises, free jumping, hidden teenage kisses, and starting young horses, but that’s a different story.) No competent cowboy ever had a narrow gate with a low metal bar across the top of it. 

That would be stupid—how are you going to get a horse and rider through that gate safely, or even just a horse? A tiny rodeo pony, maybe—though it’s still pretty dangerous. But a 17-hand, 1500-pound warmblood horse topped by a rider nearly 6 feet tall with a helmet adding a few inches to her height? The gate is too narrow and too low for such pairs to negotiate without risk. One slip, one spook, and horse or rider—or both—are going to get hung up on a bunch of steel poles.

Getting back to the point, I am so proud of Trouper. He has gone from sheer terror to full acceptance … and only tried to butt-nip one cow. I gently checked that behavior but smiled at the same time. The other riders at the event—all died-in-the-wool Western riders on ponies with calf sorting experience—welcomed us and cheered True on. 

Instead of avoiding whatever scares your four-legged friend, teach him to accept it. Read the Ninja Cow sequence of True’s bovine training and apply it to your horse’s fears. Break the task down into tiny baby steps, never force the horse, allow him time to approach at his own speed, and motivate his behavior from his own curiosity. You might be surprised at what he will do—and you will definitely be surprised at how much trust he builds in you along the way.