Practical Solutions for Dealing with the Hard-To-Catch-Horse

Catching a horse that does not want to be caught is an all-too-familiar problem.
Fortunately, if you put some thought and time into retraining the “difficult” equine, you will find that this behavior problem is not too hard to solve.

Q: Every time that I go out to the pasture to get my horse, he just turns and walks away from me. Treats only work sometimes, so what can I do?

A: First off, it’s important to understand that horses are creatures of flight. They use their senses to detect danger and then run away from it. Horses also have a fast reaction time, and if they decide to fight (kick, strike or bite) because they are unable to flee, they can fight back more quickly than a predator (or person) can escape.

When your horse walks away from you in the pasture or turns his butt towards you in the stall, it may be that he has learned from past experience that something unpleasant is coming. So he attempts to get away from the situation.

When I was working as a veterinary technician in a large animal hospital, we occasionally saw this behavior develop in long-term patients. The poor horse had learned that every time the stall door opened, a person would come in, catch him, and do something painful—palpate sore spots, stick a needle in him or change a sticky bandage. These patients had come to the hospital quite friendly towards people but soon became hard to catch. The solution was for people to go into their stalls frequently to do nice things like grooming and massage.

There are some horses where “turning away” from you is not related to previous unpleasant experiences. Many of these horses just like being outside doing their own thing, whether it’s grazing or sunbathing. For other horses, it has become a bad habit game, i.e. “catch me if you can.”

No matter what the cause, you will have to teach your horse to realize that catching and haltering don’t necessarily mean that something unpleasant comes next or that his turnout time is over for the day. Before you start “re-training,” make sure that your horse is comfortable and pain-free so that he will be able to enjoy his rides. Check the fit and adjustment of your tack as horses do gain/lose weight and muscle mass over time. Review your own riding skills— are you firm, consistent, patient and compassionate when you ride?

Q: How do I “teach” my horse to be caught?

A: First off, check your own attitude. You want to approach your horse with a cheerful, positive attitude, whether you are trying to catch him or do anything else with him. He reads your moods! If you march up to him with a surly, grim, negative attitude, he’s sure to turn away from you just like other people would.

Check your posture as you walk toward your horse. Don’t look like a predator, stalking him down as you stare into his eyes. Be more passive and reassuring in your posture: hands low, looking slightly downward or to the side, moving towards his shoulder at an angle (i.e. approach from the side rather than moving directly towards his head).

Move slowly and talk calmly to your horse. When you get close, you may just have to stop and be patient, waiting for him to come to you. When he does, you can offer him a treat and give him a few pats. Don’t make a scary, mad grab at him to put the halter on! Just socialize for a moment with kind words and pats, then leave the paddock.

If your horse seems unwilling to approach you when you are standing up, you can try an even more “passive” method of getting him to come to you. Take a muck tub and a magazine out to the paddock. Sit down on the tub, away from the gate, and pretend to read. Tilt your head down but still keep your eyes on your horse. Many horses will be curious enough about you sitting there that they will approach you cautiously. Talk to him calmly when he gets near. Then offer a treat and some pats.

Remember, though, that you don’t want to have your horse become dependent on treats for catching him or to have him become pushy or mouthy looking for treats. Treats should only serve to make a pleasant situation more pleasant. They should not be used as bribes to try to tempt your horse to move closer and closer to you so that you can grab him. As your horse learns to come to you more consistently, gradually wean him off treats by using them only some of the time.

If you get “stuck” in your catch training, here are a few helpful hints to make things a little easier. If actually getting the halter and/or lead shank on is the hard part, leave a leather halter on your horse during turnout (it will break in an emergency).

You could also try leaving your horse out longer than normal so that he’s looking to come in when you go out to catch him. If it’s summer, he’ll be glad to escape the bugs and if it’s winter, he’ll be hungry because the hay has all been eaten.

Work on your “catch training” two or three times each day in the beginning. Sometimes just visit with your horse in the pasture, scratching his itchy spots. Other times, take him to a spot of lush grass for handgrazing or into the barn for a grooming session. Then return him to his turnout area. You want your horse to learn that being caught means enjoyable time spent with you, sometimes on the ground and sometimes on his back. Each catch session should be calm and positive so that you can gain your horse’s willing cooperation. Each experience will build his trust in you and make the next “catch” easier.

Obviously, when you catch your horse for a ride, he will have to go to work. Make sure that he is physically comfortable (no lameness, tack that fits). Make sure that your horse likes his job, at least most of the time. Some horses just don’t enjoy the rigors of dressage or are truly afraid to jump. When you are riding, remember to be compassionate about softening your aids when your horse responds correctly and giving him walk/stretch breaks in between more strenuous work. A horse that truly enjoys his work (as well as socializing with you) will be much easier to catch than one who hates his job.

After you ride, put your horse back out into his “free space” in the paddock/pasture as a reward for giving you his attention during the ride. This will also help your horse learn that when you catch him to go for a ride, he will see his paddock again afterwards—he won’t just be stuffed back into his stall for the rest of the day.

Q: What is the best way to catch a loose horse?

A: A loose horse is a scared horse—either the rider fell off or something spooked the horse so that he pulled away from his handler/tie rope, and now he is running around in a panic. The worst thing that you can do is scare him further by standing in his path and waving your arms in an attempt to stop him. That just looks threatening to him, so he spins around and runs away even faster in the opposite direction. If the horse is tacked up, flapping equipment fuels his panic even more.

Loose horses will eventually settle down and stop on their own, either to eat grass or visit with another horse. At this point, you should approach him slowly at an oblique angle to his shoulder. Talk quietly and keep your eyes looking a bit downward. You can shake some grain in a bucket to get the horse to relax as he focuses on your approach.

Slowly move your hand to his neck and then his head, feeding him a bit of grain as you take hold of the reins or put a halter/lead shank on him. Then give him some reassuring pats.

There are a couple of safety tips with regard to catching loose horses. First and foremost, always close and latch gates behind you (riding arena, turnout paddock, pasture). This prevents loose horses from getting too far or into too much danger (i.e. out onto the road). It also prevents hard-to-catch horses from getting loose when you are working on catch training.

Secondly, if two people are working together to catch a horse, they usually try to approach the horse from opposite sides. This idea sounds good—the horse will be “cornered” and can’t get away. But in reality, this approach can be dangerous because if the people are the least bit quick or aggressive when they get close to the horse, the horse could panic when he senses that he is “trapped.” At this point, he quickly kicks out or spins and bolts, risking injury to himself and people near him.

So remember—the hard-to-catch horse can be “fixed” if you help him build positive associations with being caught. You want your horse to feel appreciated and relaxed, not threatened and tense. Catching should lead to positive rides and pleasant experiences with you. If so, catching will eventually end up being you standing at the gate, calling to your horse, and he trots across the field to greet you, as if to say “What are we going to do today?”

Sue Perry is a Certified Veterinary Technician and equine massage therapist. She lives in Upton, Mass., with two event horses and runs “Muscle Magic,” an equine massage service.

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