Ah, the wind in your face and your horse’s mane as he turns and snorts and shows you his heels! The carrots in your pockets, the handful of grain, the whistle and call you’ve developed for him (and only him), and yet, the writing is on the paddock fence: He’d rather not trot circles today. He has no use for cavalletti. The sun is out and the grass is green—there’s no way you’re getting a halter on that noble head.
Whether it’s the occasional flirtation with freedom or a tiresome habit, there’s no doubt the elusive horse can be a source of immense frustration. After all, time is never on your side: your instructor is waiting, or you only have an hour before you have to pick up the kids, or you’ve had a long, stressful work day and just want to decompress on the trails…preferably on horseback and not on foot. Lifelong rancher and renowned author Heather Smith Thomas says you can surmount the challenge of the horse that refuses to be caught.
Here’s what she recommends in her book “Good Horse, Bad Habits“:
1. Use a reward. If you always give the horse a treat (a few bites of grain, a horse cookie, a carrot, or another snack he likes) once he’s been caught, he’ll learn to come to you. Caution: Do not take a bucket of grain out to the pasture. The horse may try to grab a bite while avoiding the halter, and if there’s more than one horse in the pasture, a fight may erupt, making it hard and/or dangerous to catch one of them.
Always halter the horse first, then give him the treat (the horse cookie, or some grain that he can have after you catch him and lead him out of the pasture). If you consistently reward him, he’ll learn to willingly play by the rules.
2. Use positive reinforcement by changing your routine. When a horse is difficult to catch or becomes more so over time, try to determine why. If you always work him hard after he’s caught or make him do things he doesn’t want to do, he might learn to avoid you. To correct this problem, catch him every now and then just to give him a treat and turn him loose again. Or, catch him and do something short and easy—for example, groom him and turn him loose again—so he isn’t always anticipating hard work whenever he sees you coming. Rubbing and scratching the places he likes to be rubbed and scratched can be as just as rewarding to him as food, so use your imagination.
3. “Walk him down.” When the horse insists on moving away when you approach him in the pasture and he’s not interested in a treat, follow him slowly and patiently until, sooner or later, he lets you walk up to him. Attempt this solution on a day when you have plenty of time so you won’t get frustrated and impatient. Casually walk toward the horse without looking directly at him. Use a zigzag approach rather than moving straight toward him. If he moves away, follow slowly, even if he runs to the far corner of the pasture. When he stops moving, stop following—or even step back a little—to show you are not pressuring him. His attitude will tell you if you should wait quietly or go toward him. If he moves away from you, follow him again.
For a while the horse may keep avoiding you, but this takes effort; eventually he’ll grow tired of it and let you walk up to him. Praise him when this happens, and don’t be in a hurry to put the halter on. When you do, give him lots of praise and/or a treat, then just turn him loose again after a moment and leave. The first few times you walk him down like this, don’t do anything else with him—just catch and pet him and turn him loose. It won’t be long until he realizes that being caught by you is not a bad thing. Eventually he will stand still or just move a short distance away before stopping and letting you approach. Even when he gets to this point, you should continue to catch him every now and then to just give him a treat and turn him loose again, so he won’t expect a serious workout every time he sees you coming.
4. It often works to use a small pen to retrain the horse that is hard to catch. This process may take several days or several weeks, depending on how ingrained his habit of distrust may be. In a small pen he can’t run far away from you, and so he’s more apt to resign himself to being caught. This solution is particularly effective when you catch him before every mealtime (for example, morning and evening), feeding him only after he’s been haltered, and if you make a point of catching him at other times throughout the day (even when you are not going to ride him) just to give him a treat.
5. If the horse is with a group of horses that are hard to catch, he may evade you just because the others do. Horses in a group can become hard to catch if one or two are habitual runners. Put him in a small pen by himself and catch him several times a day to give him a treat (see Solution 4).
6. Pair your horse with a buddy that is always easy to catch. This often works in a pasture as well as a small pen. The horse that wants to be caught is a good influence on the one that avoids you. When the elusive one sees you feeding and petting his buddy, he won’t want to be left out.
7. Build a “catch pen” in the corner of the pasture (even if it’s a temporary pen created with portable round-pen panels) and feed him a small meal of grain as a special treat in the pen every day for several days (without catching him). Lock him in until he has eaten the grain, then let him out again when he’s done. Once he realizes he’s not going to be caught and put to work, you won’t have to herd him into the pen; he’ll come in on his own. Once he comes into the catch pen willingly for the grain you can start working with him in a small pen as described in Solution 4.
Note: It is never a good idea to leave halters on horses, especially out in a pasture. The horse may catch the halter on something and be injured. It is better to spend the necessary time and improve this behavior.
This excerpt from “Good Horse, Bad Habits” by Heather Smith Thomas is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.