Horse Terrified of Strange Donkeys
A few weeks ago I brought my horse on a walk to a field, and when she saw the donkeys that live next door, she panicked and ran off. My cousin and I have ridden her close by the donkeys, and she is terrified of them. What can I do to get her to get used to having them around?
Lisa, it sounds like you will need to desensitize or habituate your horse to the donkeys. All animals, when exposed to a novel stimulus, tend to have some level of arousal response. Depending on the environment, other stimuli in the area, etc., animals will either increase or decrease their arousal. Horses, being prey animals, are sensitive to novel stimuli and are more likely to respond with a fear response, as a novel animal could very well be a predator (yep, most horses’ motto is “better safe than sorry!”).
The pairing of the stimulus and the emotional response is what we want to modify here. Essentially, you are going to help your horse learn that the donkeys are safe.
Start by leading your horse to a spot where she can see the donkeys, but they are far away enough that she is not aroused by them. Watch for her to relax her head and neck, reward with a bit of a treat, then move one step closer and repeat the process. The process should occur in baby steps, so that she has the opportunity to slowly get closer and closer. If she reacts by spooking, just take one step back.
Another option would be to teach her to target (see Teaching Your Horse to Target) and target her toward the donkeys—again, progress slowly and with patience.