Horse/Dog FAQs

Here are some frequently-asked questions about the interaction of dogs and horses, developed in collaboration with the equestrians at Mar Vista Stables. We’ve posted these so that dogs and horses can enjoy Fort Funston together in safety. (Scroll to the end & open the attachment if you'd like to have a copy of these FAQ's)


Why is a large animal like a horse afraid of a much smaller dog?

Biologically, horses are prey animals. They perceive any meat-eating animal as a potential threat.


What happens when a horse is afraid?

The horse’s first instinct is to run away. But when the rider prevents that, the horse is forced to try to defend itself or fight to escape. A dog that barks, chases or circles a horse may cause the horse to:
  • strike (kick out) with its front hooves
  •  kick with one or both back hooves (a kick to the head is potentially fatal to any dog)
  •  trample the dog
  • rear (stand on its hind legs and potentially fall on the rider)
  • buck off the rider so that the horse can run away

 Will a horse perceive a friendly, curious dog to be a threat?

  • Young horses or those that are not familiar with an urban environment are more likely to perceive a dog as threatening.
  • If a horse has had bad experiences with dogs or just has not been around enough dogs, it may be fearful of any dog regardless of how friendly and calm the dog.
  •  If an unfamiliar dog approaches in an overly exuberant manner, any horse may also see this as a potential threat.

 What should you do when encountering horses?

  • Have the dog admire the horse from afar (especially far from the horse’s rear end).
  •  Avoid throwing toys and sticks toward or close to a horse. Fast moving objects (and dogs chasing them) in a horse’s peripheral vision can startle the horse.
 What if a dog is kicked or a horse is bitten or a rider falls off or is hurt?
  •  Like any other accident resulting in an injury, the participants need to exchange their contact information right there on the spot.
  • If an injury is significant, the ranger should be called immediately. The number is (415) 561-5656 and every dog walker and rider should have it programmed into his or her cell phone.
Can a friendly dog and a friendly horse get extra friendly if the owners agree?
  • Assuming the dog is at the front end of the horse, being in close proximity (if the respective owners are okay with it) is fine, but we would advise against any nose to nose contact. Sometimes once they are nose to nose they realize that they are scared and then they suddenly react defensively.
  • It is helpful for dogs to get used to a horse’s scent, so if the horse rider offers, you can pet the horse’s neck and let the dog smell your hand. Most dogs find the scent quite interesting, and it may create a positive association.

What if my dog has never seen horses before?

  • Keep your dog on leash until you can be confident your dog’s reaction is temperate. If he starts to show interest in the horse—pulling, barking, etc... try to get him focused on you using a treat or a toy or something else he likes. If needed, move away from the horse.
  • In general, if you elect to have your dog off leash when a horse is passing by you should move off the path well before the horse reaches your location and have your dog sit or lie down next to you. That way the horse and rider can be assured that your dog is well-behaved and safe to pass by.
  • Keep an eye up the beach or trail so you have time to react.
  • Let the horse get a good distance before releasing your dog to play.

If my dog unexpectedly gets aggressive with a horse, what should I do?

  • Keep your voice firm but calm so that your dog and the horse are not overly agitated (or use a happy encouraging voice as this may help your dog).
  • Try to let the rider know that you are collecting the dog and will do so as quickly as possible. Try to keep a friendly tone – the animals sense it.
  • Rather than chase your dog around the horse and risk getting kicked yourself, try to stand a few feet back and when the dog circles around and least expects it, grab him or her by the collar and put the leash on.
  • If necessary, ask another beachgoer to help you round up your dog.

As a horse rider, how can I help a dog that is unfamiliar with horses or overly-excited by them?

  • Riders can keep the horse calm by remaining relaxed themselves and helping to direct the horse to remain focused on the rider’s cues rather than on the dog.
  • Keep the horse standing stationary or at a walk since running or pacing will excite the dog more.

What can I do to enhance everyone’s safety if I am riding in an area where there are many dogs around my horse?

  • It is important to “know your horse”, what their capabilities are and not push too aggressively past a horses limitations.
  • Equestrians should also assess situations and use common sense when using multi use areas.
  • It is also important to know your own skill level as a rider to deal with a situation, should it arise.
  • Proactively, and politely, ask owners of exuberant dogs to leash the dogs, or have the dogs sit or stand by the owner’s side so the horse can pass.
  • Stay calm, as nervousness on the rider’s part will be transferred to the horse.
Linda McKay,
Feb 5, 2010, 6:53 PM