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Catching a Horse

By: Galadriel Billington

9:57PM Apr 17, 2004

Many of us have had difficulty from time to time with catching a horse. The horse may be wary of humans, may associate catching with work, or may just be hyperactive and not feel like being caught. There are several different directions in which to go.

First, however, be sure that you're not in a rush. You must take time to work on catching him. Any time that you are feeling stressed, he will pick that up; he'll be less likely to get close to you. Any time that you try to catch him but do not manage to, you will set yourself back. Be sure that you have plenty of time and are willing to be very patient. Now, on to the tips for catching a horse:

  1. Make being caught enjoyable for the horse.
    I put this first because I feel that it is most important. Many horses are only caught to be worked; such horses are likely to avoid being caught, because being caught leads to unpleasantness.

    Plan to spend other time with your horse. Show him that being caught is not always a prelude to work. However you catch him, be sure that the interaction is pleasant: catch him, give him a treat, let him go. Give him several visits where you catch him and speak sweetly to him, give him treats, groom him, and turn him out again. You must make an effort to show him that you do not ALWAYS just get him out to go riding. Set aside other plans for a while, and spend your time with him only catching him and turning him back out again. Continue until he has become easier to catch; once you are catching him with ease, you can start thinking about working him again. Methods for actually catching him are below.

    Also think about your riding regimen. Is there anything that you do that he likes? Can you find a way to give him obvious rewards when he does well? If you can make riding more pleasant for him, he will likely be more willing to participate. If he learns to enjoy being with you, he will be much easier to catch. You may find that he even walks up to you in the pasture, rather than running (or walking) away.

  2. Make staying in the pasture just as much work as being caught
    When a horse does not want to be caught, he ends up controlling a lot of your movements. When you have to chase him all over in order to eventually catch him, he is making YOU move. You lose all control of the situation; he's in charge.

    You can change that. Watch him; when it looks like he's about to move, get in there first: TELL him to move. Shake your halter & lead rope at him, wave your arms, tell him "TER-ROT!" or "canTER!" Make it your idea for him to be moving. By doing so, you take control of the situation back into your hands. Granted, you don't have the "control" that you want. You would like him to be caught. But if you can't catch him, make sure that you are "in charge" anyway. If he doesn't want to be caught because he doesn't want to work, well...he can work without being caught. You can think of it as free-lunging in a *very* large arena ;)

    This is yet another adaptation of the "join-up" method. By controlling the horse's movements, you gradually take charge. Eventually, the horse would prefer that he be caught rather than chased away. Often, the horse will even walk up to you, when he is ready to stop. Sometimes just running him around once will make him perfectly catchable for many more times. With some horses, though, you have to repeat it several times before he becomes easier to catch overall.

    Remember, once he is easy to catch, be sure to make the experience a pleasant one. Don't always catch him to ride him; spend quality, bonding time with him on days when you don't ride. Your relationship will improve and he will enjoy being with you much more.

  3. Use quiet body language
    When a dominant horse approaches a less dominant horse, he uses one of two different body language styles.
    1. The dominant horse walks directly toward the other; she looks straight at the other, and moves with purpose. Ears are typically half-back to flat back.
      The purpose of this body language is to express dominance and to make the other horse move away. The dominant horse is essentially saying, "Get out of my way; stay out of my space." This is a very bossy and demanding body language.
    2. The dominant horse moves in quietly, ears floppy (not forward nor back), neck down, not looking directly at the other horse.
      This body language is expressing an invitation to the other horse to stay in place. The dominant horse is moving into the space of the less dominant horse, but is not demanding that the less dominant horse back off. This is more of a companionable move, rather than a bossy one.

    You'd like to be the dominant horse in the relationship. You have to be either dominant or submissive; the horse needs you to either lead him or follow him; for more discussion of this topic, see Partnership with your Horse. However, a dominant horse approaching head-on and purposefully causes the other horses to move back (or run away). Many horses have come to accept such body language from people, but many also have not. Much of what we consider open, honest body language is interpreted very differently by a prey animal.

    zig-zag patternOnce the horse is in a position where you think you can approach him to catch him, you must change your mannerisms. To approach the horse without chasing him off, use quiet body language. Look away from him; point your face at the ground in front of you, or even in the opposite direction from him. (You can flick your eyes toward him to see what he is doing, but don't turn your head.) Move in a zigzag, but never directly toward him.

    If he gets tense, braces to run, or looks like he is going to move away, stop. Freeze in place, turn well away from him. Kneel down and "graze" (pick at the grass). Wait until he has relaxed before you move any closer.

    When you do come closer, move toward his shoulder, not his head. As you come closer, he will likely turn his head away; wait for him to turn back and acknowledge you before you turn to him or touch him. Horses often play the "aloof" game; the horse who is most distant and uninterested is the most dominant. If you are more "aloof" than the horse--you wait for him to look at you--then you are in a better position to catch him. He has acknowledged that he will follow you--at least tentatively.

    When you are beside his shoulder, and he has acknowledged you, continue to move calmly and slowly, keeping "control" of the situation. If you think he will not let you catch him, give him a treat and walk away. Be very obvious; make it clear that it was your idea to leave. Try not to let him move off first. This can be repeated several times in a day.

    If the horse seems reasonably calm, then slowly reach over and loop your lead rope around his neck. With the lead rope in place, he is held enough for you to put the halter on. Here again, the first few times you should probably halter him, give him a treat, and then take the halter off and move away. The more you are confident and in control of the situation, the more cooperative he will be (and happy about it, too).

    After you have caught him and released him a few times, then you can bring him in to groom him, give him a bath, something that he will enjoy. Then release him into the field again; try to make sure that you move away first, although you may have a tough time with it. If you show him a treat before you remove his halter, he may pause long enough after being loosed to take the treat. Then you can move away first.

    When you are able to catch him reliably, you should be able to start riding again. Be sure to intersperse riding with days when you catch him but do not ride.

Galadriel and the two horses When I first got my two mares, we couldn't catch either without an hour and a half long chase--or by tricking them by grabbing them while they were eating. Neither of those methods put us in charge of the situation, nor did those methods encourage the horses to trust us. Because we worked to inspire trust and build a good relationship, we now have horses who walk directly up to us when we show up in the field. Usually they'll stick their noses into their halters willingly. It's very pleasant to know that your horse enjoys spending time with you.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.