But don’t underestimate the potential danger of combining these two animals, because dogs around horses can be a serious safety concern. But with a little bit of precaution and training, you can usually make it work.
Focus on training
It might seem obvious, but your dog’s basic training and manners need to be solid before you even consider bringing him into a horsey situation. Think about the proper ground behaviors that we work on and expect of our horses: to lead quietly without pulling, to respect our space, to stop when we ask, and (if possible), to not become overly spooked about new objects and situations. We work hard to train our horses, and most of us wouldn’t dream of allowing our horses to strain on their lead ropes and drag us over to a new horse. Yet we sometimes neglect the same training when it comes to our dogs. Many dogs are permitted to bark non-stop, pull hard on the leash, or refuse to come when called. It can be easy to be “blinded” by your affection for your canine (“He just wants to have fun! Come here, boy! Come! Come! Come…”). But to keep things safe, it’s important to evaluate your dog’s obedience.
Before your dog ever sets paw on the stable grounds, he needs to be able to walk respectfully on the leash without pulling or straining, and be able to greet strangers calmly and without excessive eagerness. He should have a reliable recall in case he gets loose. It’s also highly valuable if your dog knows a “be quiet” command to control his barking (this can be difficult to train—especially for certain dog breeds—but very helpful in the stable environment). Basically, he needs to have his basic obe-dience and socialization skills down pat.
Take it slow
Your dog’s first trips to the barn should be on-leash only—this is a new situation with new sights and new smells, and even if he is predictable in other environments, you never know what might excite him around the barn. Introduce him to things calmly and gradually—watching barn life from a distance at first, then closer up, then actually “meeting” a horse, etc… The first meeting between canine and equine should be a very controlled one. Ideally, you’ll use a veteran horse that is already acclimated to dogs so that you’re only introducing one new variable into the mix instead of two. Your dog might react timidly, or he might become defensive, so you’ll want to monitor his mood carefully. Offering treats during and after a successful encounter can also help. Only much later, after your dog has become completely acclimated to barn life, should you consider letting him go off-leash, and only then with the permission of the barn owner.
Daniel Johnson is a freelance writer and professional photographer. He’s the author of several books, including How to Raise Horses: Everything You Need to Know, (Voyageur Press, 2014). Dan’s barn is home to Summer, a Welsh/TB cross, Orion, a Welsh Cob, and Mati and Amos, two Welsh Mountain Ponies. Follow him at www.facebook.com/foxhillphoto.