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First Catch Your Horse

Ever had a horse that just refuses to be caught, or, worse, one that is downright dangerous to catch?  It can be frustrating, not to mention exhausting, tramping around a paddock as the minutes – or hours – tick by and you miss yet another ride.

Before we can teach the horse to be caught, it would be useful to identify why there is a problem in the first place.  It always helps to approach the issue with understanding, rather than stubbornness or anger!  Also, consider what else is going on between you and this horse… is this really just a catching issue, or are there other problems?  Could they be related?? 

The commonest reasons why a horse might be hard to catch would be that it has never actually been taught correctly how to be caught, has been inadvertently rewarded for this behaviour (e.g. by the catcher using food to entice him, or always giving up before getting the horse caught), or even that it perceives that every time it is caught something bad happens (always going to shows, lots of vet visits, owner always rushing etc.)  If you can figure out which category your horse falls into, you can help to correct the bigger picture. 

If your horse has a really bad catching problem, bear in mind that the bigger the paddock the harder it will be to stay with him and keep his attention whilst trying to retrain him.  If he runs away from you and it takes you 5 minutes walking to get near him again, he has just had a huge reward for running away – and you’ll get tired out repeating that!  It would be preferable to practice catching in a smaller space initially, and then work on the problem in larger places.

My goal when teaching a horse to be caught is to get his attention, break the problem down into little pieces, and for him to understand and accept every step as we put the pieces back together.  I’d like him to stay calm and thoughtful, rather than worried, stressed, or inattentive.  I rarely use food to catch a horse, nor would I generally hide the halter or lead rope, though you could start the teaching process without it and introduce it down the line.  In most circumstances I would much rather go about my business, in this case catching, in the way I ultimately want to do it, than try to trick the horse in some way; I want him to understand exactly what is going on and be okay with it.  Also, remember that you get what you settle for… If you really want to change his behaviour you need to spend the time necessary; no short cuts, no ‘But I could grab him now and go for that ride’ etc!

I start by observing what the horse does when I walk into the paddock.  Does he raise his head and look at you, or keep on grazing?  Maybe he turns his back on you, or starts walking away; maybe the problem doesn’t arise until the halter or rope comes into play.  It’s desirable for him to flick an ear in your direction, look at you, maybe even to turn and face you or start walking towards you.  If he does any of these things I will pause where I am, and possibly take a step or two backwards.  If he’s been really hard to catch in the past I might even turn and walk away, not expecting him to follow but rather saying ‘Thanks, well done, that was all I wanted.’  Wait a minute, then turn back to him and start again.

When I’ve made my initial assessment, I’ll ignore the horse but start walking straight towards him, looking at the ground in front of me and not directly at him.  He will probably move quickly out of that space, which is fine; I am partly claiming that space for myself, as a more dominant horse might, and partly just piquing his curiosity.  I’m absolutely not chasing him around, though if he didn’t move as I approached I would probably make myself a little bigger, or swing my rope, effectively saying ‘You’re in my space, you might want to move now’.  I’d do this a few times, until the horse started paying more attention and wondering what was going to happen next.

For me, once we are in catching mode, we are working, so from then on as much as possible I will convey that to the horse.  That means that if he carries on eating I will probably do something to tell him that is no longer acceptable, e.g. make a noise (clap, stamp) or movement to get his attention back to me.  (If the process goes on for some time, I may turn my back on the horse and walk away, in effect saying ‘Take a break’, in which case him eating is okay.) 

Our first step, then, is simply to get his attention.  Once you can reliably get that, we start to ask for more.  Now just an ear flicking our way isn’t enough; now he needs to look or turn our way.  What do you need to do to get that?  You might need to move to one side to draw his attention and feet, or to draw his attention away from where he’d rather put it.  If you can keep his head pointing towards you his feet will ultimately follow.  Often, moving towards the hindquarters (making yourself bigger or noisier if necessary) will move them away from you; backing away from the front end, especially at an angle, will draw it towards you.  Only ask for / expect a step or two to start with.  Each time he makes a big effort, or gives you what you asked for a few times in a row, reward him by turning away, effectively giving him a break by taking the pressure off and letting him relax and think about what is going on. 

So far you’ve been doing all this at a distance, with your horse dictating what that distance is; usually no closer than about 15-20 feet but further if necessary.  If your horse repeatedly runs away from you, back off a little and do all the same things but at a little more distance.  The point that we’re trying to get over to him is that we are not about to ‘catch’ him; rather we are teaching him how to be caught.  Each time he runs away, walk steadily to where he is going; not to block him, but rather to show him that running off is a waste of time, you’re going to be where he is going anyway. 

When you get to where you can reliably get and keep his attention and he is standing still, you can start approaching.  Notice with your particular horse where the point is that you lose him.  Is it when you get within a certain distance?  Or if you approach head on versus to the shoulder?  Only when you touch him, or raise the halter?  If you can pinpoint when he gets worried or takes off, you can try stopping your approach before that point, standing still, then leaving.  Gradually you should be able to get closer.  Perhaps you could just stroke him, then leave; at this point it would be ok to give him a carrot or something, i.e. as a reward, not a bribe.  If haltering is the problem, get to where you can put it on and off, but not actually catch and lead him.  A lot of times with catching problems, you need to change your horse’s expectations of the routine, so doing the whole thing but then not actually taking him out of the paddock can really get them thinking.

Finally, make sure you have considered what is happening once you have caught your horse.  It might be worth making sure that the first few times you bring him out of the paddock, it’s an especially nice experience; he gets a nice groom, or a feed, or something else that he likes, then goes back to his buddies.  Your horse isn’t a machine, and I’m a firm believer that if, when the chips are down, I need him to do exactly what I ask, then some of the rest of the time I need to show I’m willing to do the same.

One last point; if your horse is one that rushes back to the paddock, and hoons off as soon as you release him at the gate, then don’t!  Don’t let him loose at the gate, that is.  Take the extra time to lead him all the way back to his buddies, or where it is he seems in a hurry to go, then release him – then he has no need to take of bucking and farting.  It sounds obvious, but if it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen, which can only be good.



Trisha Wren can teach you how to really connect with your horse, on the ground and in the saddle, taking your horsemanship and performance to new levels. For information on clinics and lessons click here

©Trisha Wren ~ June 2007


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