When we first started keeping horses, there were occasions when being unable to catch them caused an enormous amount of stress.
Children were disappointed, farriers kept waiting and yes there were some minor injuries – fingers were caught in lead ropes as one of our ponies reacted to being caught by pulling away. Dislocation is very painful.
Happily, it doesn’t have to be like that.
Why it is important to get it right
Quite simply, the more you get it right the easier this becomes, and getting it wrong quickly embeds the type of behaviour where as soon as you approach your horse with a head collar, it runs away.
Establishing a great relationship between you and your horse, whilst ensuring they both trust you and know who’s boss, requires planning. It’s also one of the great joys of horse ownership.
So, it’s really important that when you go to catch your horse, that you do actually catchthe horse, and that it is a good, safe, experience for you both, no matter how long it takes
We should say that this article isn’t about horses with serious behavioral problems but about day-to-day, “normal” horse management.
If some of the methods here don’t work, more planning will be needed.
There is an advanced technique called Join Up which experts such as Monty Roberts use. This works by mimicking the social dynamics of the herd, establishing you as the “herd leader”, and so making your horse want to approach you.
Essentially, in a confined area, your body language is used to drive the horse away from you. After a while, the horse will see you as dominant and want to be “allowed back into the herd”. At the same time your body language is softened, which invites the horse follow you.
It’s an amazing technique – we have seen this done live and it’s astonishing what results can be had in such a short time.
Below are a couple of links to the relevant parts of Monty’s website.
Join up really works and these techniques are perfectly within reach of the dedicated amateur rider.
We have had some of our horses follow us around the ménage like a little puppy!
Catching your horse
Before we get into specific techniques, it is worth remembering that they are flight animals that survive in the wild by not being caught. They are programmed to run away.
So, set yourself up to succeed.
Whilst you are establishing a bond with your horse, so that it can be
easily caught, you can leave a head collar on but it should be a “field safe” collar. In general, though you would not leave a horse in the field with a head collar on
There are two key things when trying to catch your horse.
- Don’t be in a hurry
- Make sure you understand what your body language is saying
This is all about you, your demeanor and your relationship with the horse.
Okay, let’s take a look at two scenarios. We have put together a short video to try to give a better idea of what to do an what not to do based on the two scenarios below
- You’re in a hurry – you have a deadline.
Because you’re anxious, your energy levels are higher than they normally would be. Horses are sensitive to body language and physiological signs – breathing, heart rate etc.
The horse picks up on this anxiety and thinks “there is something to be afraid of here – if you’re worried, I’m worried” and immediately it’s on high alert (remember they survive in the wild by running away).
You march up the field, head on to the horse, brandishing a head collar and lead rope, arms out ready to get the head collar on as quickly as possible.
It sees your body language as aggressive, big fast movement interpreted as a predator about to pounce. When you enter the field and is suspicious and walks or gallops away.
At best you’ll still catch your horse but it will not be relaxed and likely to be more spooky and anxious when you are riding, whether hacking, in a school, or competing.
At worst, there will be some sort of confrontation between you and horse, which is upsetting for both of you – after all this is supposed to be fun!
And, more seriously, the next time you need to catch the horse it will remember that this is something to be afraid of, making things even ore difficult and starting a downward spiral
After a couple of bad experiences like this, this can become learned behaviour and likely create issues that didn’t originally exist.
- If it takes time to catch him (or her), that’s time well spent
If you can, just spend some time in the field, without any intention of catching him, just being quiet and letting him get used to you. It may be that curiosity gets the better of him and he approaches you. If this happens – reward it – either a scratch, treat or kind words. Make sure that you have a lead rope / head collar with you so he does associate this just with being caught.
You think you have set aside enough time to catch the horse and, if needed, just catching him or her successfully is enough and doing this establishes a good relationship between you.
You are quite relaxed, the Horse senses this, and takes comfort from your leadership there is nothing to be worried about.
You calmly walk into the field making sure you did not approach head-on, avoid eye contact, drop a shoulder and quietly approach the horse. Keep approaching and he will eventually become desensitised or bored with your presence and not feel the need to run away. This will only happen if he does not feel threatened.
If he still walks away, continue to slowly approach, softly, not head on and eyes down. If needed restrict the field size
Walking down is a well-practiced technique.
Still in no hurry, scratch his withers to reinforce that being caught is a pleasurable experience. Also a small treat can be helpful.
If you do you use treats to help at first, once you can reliably catch the horse, start to reduce reliance on treats as it can make some horses a bit nippy as they expect something every time.
Calmly put on the head collar, without flapping it in the horses face and again offer reassurance. Be calm and careful at all times. Ensure that you hold the head collar and lead rope in such a way that if the horse were to run, you would not be dragged. We were talking to a medical nurse recently who was constantly surprised at the number of breaks, dislocations and even amputations this can cause – yes the horse runs off taking a finger with it !
|Be calm||Run toward or chase|
|Walk diagonally to the shoulder||Approach head on|
|Approach softly, with your eyes down||Flap the lead rope /head collar around|
|Use food as reward||Shout|
|Allow as much time is needed||Allow horse to think not being caught is an option|
|Handle horse daily|
|Keep hands by side|
|Check for physical problems|
It is, of course, possible that you are having problems because of physical issues with the horse.
If the process of tacking up and riding is painful or stressful, he will associate this with being caught and quite reasonably be reluctant to cooperate, for example:
- Saddle still fitting well after a period of lower level activity – when was the last time it was professionally checked?
- Is there a change of rider who is less sensitive or capable, or heavier, than previous. Is the bit still appropriate?
- Are you suddenly asking a lot more of the horse, which he is not yet fit for?
Also, If your horse has been put out on fresh grass i.e. a new field, they may be reluctant to leave it, so don’t initially try to catch until it has had sufficient time to fill its belly. The novelty of new grass will wear off quickly and usually stop being an issue.
If your horse or pony is slightly tricky to catch, trying to do so in a hurry is not the answer. It will make matters worse by stressing out both you and the animal.
Okay, so now we have successfully caught our horse and can do so easily each time – Great.
Now take a look at our article on leading and tying up your horse –there are some really serious safety points in this.