As a young child, I have a vivid memory of my aunt riding her pony with her faithful Golden Retriever trailing politely behind. That image stamped itself on my mind as the pinnacle of sharing life with horses and dogs.
Many of us want to do just this, but have you considered what you want your dog to get out of the experience?
To share a trail ride with a horse requires some very specific skills from your dog. Dogs at the barn must stay close to you, but not get underneath the horse. They must be able to follow directions from riders who are on the ground, mounting, or mounted. They must be friendly to those who are sharing the space at the barn, including trades people, farm workers, children, cats, horses and other dogs. They must never bark at horses or charge them, risking a spook and potential injury.
Not every dog will actually enjoy such barn-related activities, and some will understandably be nervous around horses at first. You may want to introduce your dog to horses from a distance, rewarding with a treat or toy for calm behaviour. After several sessions you can move closer and repeat the process. Watch for signs of anxiety and move a bit further away until your dog is unfussed about seeing and/or being near the horse(s).
Many barns start out intending to allow boarders to bring their dogs on site and quickly change their rules when something dangerous happens. We asked for experiences from barn owners via Facebook and Charlene Bradley shared, “We have a strict ‘no dogs’ rule. Years ago we had someone bring their dog that went after a rabbit and a rider was dismounting at the exact moment. The rider’s horse kicked at the dog and nailed the rider in the chest. She spent two weeks in ICU with broken ribs and punctured lungs. It’s too much of a liability to have dogs running around.”
Lynn Coscina of Georgetown, ON, remarked, “I have no issues with dogs at the barn, but owners need to be responsible. How is it fair to bring your dog and then lock it in a stall while you ride? Or let it roam while people are teaching and it doesn’t listen? I think rules need to be clear that owners must make sure their dogs are well trained and listen or there is no point for them to be there.”
If you have permission to bring your dog to the farm, and he has the skills, find out what the barn rules are and follow them. Keep in mind that there are some common courtesies you can follow to ensure that you are creating a solid canine citizen who will be welcome at any horse-based event.
To start with, use your leash! Just like horse lead ropes are thick and heavy for a reason, dog leashes are generally light and easy to handle for a different reason. A nylon or leather leash 1- 1.5 cm is usually more than strong enough to handle even the largest dog and allows light communication between you and your dog. It is tempting to use a lunge line to give your dog a better chance of getting exercise, but this sacrifices control and communication; a two-metre leash allows you to help your dog to make better choices around horses, and there is much less risk of clotheslining the people and horses around you. On the other hand, retractable leashes give you little control beyond how far the dog can go and can cause serious injuries if they get tangled around the leg of a horse.
Teaching your dog to do a long ‘down stay’ on a bale of hay or straw while you groom is a great skill to help include him in your daily horse chores. It is very simple to start out at home, rewarding with food while your dog is on a mat or platform. Tether him so he cannot leave, and just don’t feed (reward) if he is not lying down.
Work until he can perform this simple task for a 20-minute stretch before you bring him to the barn. It is best to practice while someone else is grooming before you start asking him to do this while you groom.
Keep in mind that you are always responsible for the behaviour of your dog even if you are not in sight of him. If you lock him in a stall and he disturbs everyone by howling while you are in the arena taking a lesson, he is not going to be welcome back. Before you tie your dog up, or confine him to a stall or the tack room, make sure that you have practiced this and he has figured out that you will come back.
Don’t simply abandon your dog; use your down stay as the foundation for teaching him to stay alone. If your dog is barking at you when you leave him, he is not ready to stay alone. It is best to practice at home before you take this to the barn, and then practice on a day when you are not riding.
Finally, teaching a dog to hack out is best done with the help of a friend. I like to hike with my young dogs on leash while I have a friend ride a horse who is confident about dogs. Halfway along, I like to switch positions. This teaches my dogs that sometimes I am mounted and sometimes I am not, but I am always in control.
When I first start asking my dogs to do things while I am mounted, I have a friend reward my dog when he is right. When he is consistently successful, he can go off leash and finally, when he has been successful for a month or so, we will start heading out with multiple horses.
Not all dogs are suited to sharing our time at the barn, but if you have the right dog, and do the right work, you can build the kind of beautiful memories I have of my aunt, her pony and her dog.
Sue Alexander is a professional dog trainer in Guelph, Ontario – visit her website at Dogs in the Park