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First Posted June 4, 2008
Jul 25, 2010

Hard to Catch Horse

by Debora Johnson

Anyone who has had a "hard to catch horse" knows that it can be frustrating, infuriating, discouraging and tiring! I had one. With patience and kindness I won his trust. He turned out to be one of the best horses that I have ever had. We were together more than 20 years. Gambler's Tribute. This is a difficult habit to change, but you can. There is an old saying that "every time you ride a horse or work with a horse, you are either training or untraining him." Horse Quotes Horses learn associatively, that is they associate cause and effect. For example, you are riding by an old barrel; your horse is looking at the barrel and a loud noise scares your horse. He shys. Every time you pass that same barrel or spot, whether the barrel is there or has been removed, your horse will most likely shy or show concern. He associates that spot and that barrel with the noise that scared him. This behavior is hard to change, but you can. In psychology, variable interval training--sometimes caught, sometimes not caught is the hardest behavior to break. Another example of variable interval training would be: you give your horse a treat some of the time, but not every time, when he does a trick that you have taught him. He will continue to do the trick each time your ask in the hopes that he will get his treat. A horse who has been successful about not being caught, some of the time, falls into this category. It takes time, patience and consistency. One constant is--the horse must be caught EVERY time. This is not an option. You are the boss, not the horse. You are the decision maker, not the horse. The following are a few listed suggestions of strategy. The following is a detailed explanation of what I did.

There were times, in the beginning, with Gambler that my husband and I would have to spend 1/2 day in the field dogging Gambler to catch him. Eventually Gambler would say alright already! These were the times that temper control and perseverance had to be practiced by us!

Some Suggestions

  • Build trust
  • Get yourself in a positive mental state/patience, temper control and consistency
  • Patience-take your time
  • Use your horse's natural curiosity
  • Hold your temper! It's difficult!
  • Be consistent
  • Understand horse body language-dominance and submissiveness
  • Keep halter and lead rope neatly on your shoulder/do not carry it in your hand!
  • Approach your horse slowly at a diagonal walking toward the shoulder
  • Looking the horse in the eye or not making eye contact is scientifically unknown. I always use a "soft" eye or look at the horse's shoulder. I try not to make direct eye contact. In some prey species direct eye contact is perceived as an aggressive gesture. With horses, there is no definitive answer.
  • Stop when he starts to move away
  • Use pre-emptive strikes
  • Use treats and praise
  • Use your words
  • Always use a gentle tone
  • Use friendly horses to model positive behavior. Even though your horse is playing games with you, he does not want you to pay attention to other horses!
  • Make use of an enclosed area. Keep your horse is a stall or a smaller space while you are retraining his behavior.
  • Make your time with your horse enjoyable
  • Always catch your horse no matter what!
  • Do not ride every time you catch him.
  • Some people leave a halter on to make it easier to catch the horse. Some halters have a small piece of rope attached to them just for the hard to catch horse. It you do this make sure to use a break away halter!
  • Some people use a method where the horse is on a long lead line. When the horse goes to move away he does not realize that he is actually caught. Two people working together can try this method. One holds the long rope and the other approaches the horse. This, however, I would not recommend because if the horse takes off at a gallop, canter, or forward moving trot the individual holding the rope could get hurt badly.
  • I saw a trainer use a barbaric method. It was really quite awful. He attached a two by four to a long rope that draped around the horse's neck. When the owner approached the horse and the horse tried to move away, the two by four banged the horses's knees. I was appalled and would NOT recommend this. Invest the time--there are NO quick fixes.
Some Work and Some Play

Plan to spend other time with your horse. Show him that being caught is not always a time to work or have intense training. Be sure that the interaction is pleasant: catch him, give him treats, let him go. Give him several visits where you catch him and speak sweetly to him, give him gentle pets, 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 Catching Your Horse

  • Use the "join up" method by Monty Roberts - use a round pen.
  • Carry your lead rope and halter draped over your shoulder, NOT in your hand where he can easily see it.
  • Gently and slowly slide the lead rope under his neck where his neck attaches to his body, NOT OVER, and loop it back over his neck slowly, grasping both ends of the rope with your other hand. That way he thinks that he is caught. Give him a treat, sweet words in gentle tones, and pets. Then put on his halter. Lead him a little bit. I always face my horses toward a fence before removing the halter. I also try to move away before the horse moves away. That makes me in command!
  • 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 is in charge. He has to think that you are in charge!
  • Keep you horse in a stall or a confined area until he is easier to catch.
  • Use body language to catch you horse. When a dominant horse approaches a less dominant horse, he uses one of two different body language styles. The dominant horse walks directly toward the other; he looks straight at the other, and moves with purpose. Ears are typically half-back to flat back. Sometimes the dominant horse will gesture with his neck in an up-and-down motion, show his teeth or present his hind end. 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. 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.
  • If he gets tense, braces to run, or looks like he is going to move away, stop. Freeze in place, turn away from him. Pretend to not care. Pick at the grass. Wait until he has relaxed before you move any closer.
  • Be nonchalant or aloof.
  • Once he is comfortable being caught try to make your time with him enjoyable.
  • Vary your riding regimen. Most horses really do not like working all the time in the ring. It is boring for them. They tune out! Make your horse a participant not a drone.

Having mutual trust and working as a willing team is what I strive to do with my horses. It is my intent to have them want to spend time with me. I try, always, to make their experience a pleasant one. I do admit that sometimes my temper wants to get the best of me--but, to allow that happen destroys already built confidence. It is really hard to undo negative experiences with horses. They remember for a very long time! My horse, Gambler's Luck, so mistrusted the previous owner, that I was able to overcome this mistrust, but no one else was able to catch him. When I retired him to my friend's home in Kentucky, I told them about this. Her husband, Ronny, spent lots of time with Gambler and was able to gain Gambler's trust. He, too, was able to catch Gambler. Ronny really overcame Gambler's past baggage because the owner who used harsh methods with Gambler was a man and Gambler particularly did not trust men!


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