We’ve considered teaching the catch to an easy young new horse like my three-year-old Dutch warmblood True and to a more difficult new horse.
But what about Ole Miss, who has refused for years to approach even the gentlest, most familiar human being? The one who lets you walk up, then dodges away and runs an eighth of a mile the minute you lift your hand toward her neck. The one you have to chase for an hour.
First, try the tips in my last two articles. Give them a thorough try—you never know, even with dedicated evaders, they sometimes work. Be sure also that you are catching other horses correctly. If you have trouble catching most horses, well then I hate to say it…but the common denominator is you.
Many people need training to approach a prey animal calmly and fasten a halter on her head. Learn from an experienced handler, and practice with a cooperative horse. Prey brains dictate rapid escape. So approach slowly. Speak calmly. Avoid direct eye contact; look at the horse’s feet. That way you can move away if she startles. If necessary, turn away and squat down to make yourself smaller and less imposing. You want to engage the horse’s natural curiosity: What are you doing? What does it mean?
When your skills are up to the task, but Missy still heads for the farthest corner of the pasture when you arrive, begin Plan B.
Move her into a small stall or pen for a couple of weeks. Yes, I know, you can’t move her if you can’t catch her. But try. If necessary, get some friends to gently “herd” her toward a pen whose gate you can open from the larger area. If you don’t have a set-up that allows this, create a temporary version of one with jump poles or fence panels or people. Let her in there, and shut the gate. Make the new location comfy with food, water, and nearby equine friends. Give her a day or two to get settled.
Now that the horse is in a smaller space, you can teach her to catch. If possible, begin half hour or so before she has been fed. Stand a few feet away from her and say her name. Continue until she turns to look at you. Wave your arms around if you have to; get her attention somehow while you say her name. When she turns to look at you, give her a treat and stroke her neck. Continue this practice for three or four days, eight or 10 trials a day at different times (maximum).
Good. Now stand farther back, perhaps 10 feet or so. Call her name and look away. Continue until she takes one step toward you. Approach, reward, and stroke immediately.
At this point, begin to reward with food only one time out of every three successful trials. On the other two, reward with vocal praise, stroking, and a relaxed demeanor.
As you go along, you’ll taper food rewards to a greater degree (one out of five, one out of ten). Remember, the reward has to be a surprise in order to boost dopamine release in Missy’s brain. We don’t want her to know exactly when a treat will be offered in return for a given action.
Did I mention that horse training requires time and patience? Teaching the catch to a Major Evader is evidence of that. It’s slow. It’s boring. It’s annoying. If you don’t have time and patience for all that, you need a different horse. And the horse probably needs a different owner.
Still no luck? Wow, you picked a doozy, didn’t you? Try adding a dominant equine buddy to the mix. A calm older horse who catches very easily and gets along with your little stinker. Allow your horse to watch while you call her buddy and he approaches and receives a yummy treat. Horse brains learn well by observation. It won’t take long before your Evader wants to get in on the yummies.
As your horse progresses, continue to ask her to approach you from slightly greater distances. If you run into failure, go back to the previous distance and build a stronger stimulus-reward connection from there.
If a horse is very skittish, try to ease forward within 20 feet or so, then turn and move backward toward her very slowly. (For your safety, be sure the horse has space to escape you when your back is turned.) If the halter frightens this horse, don’t bring it with you. Your present goal is to get only one approaching step out of her. The others will come later. Eventually, you can add the halter, enlarge the catch space, follow catching with work, and save edible rewards for more complicated maneuvers. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
When your horse will catch, don’t encourage her to associate catching with work. Sometimes you will ride after you catch. But add days when you catch the horse, stroke her, maybe lead her to some green spring grass for 15 minutes of happiness, and put her away.
Most established adult evaders endured years of poor catching before you came along. People try all sorts of silly tricks, even chasing hard-to-catch horses with vehicles or running them to exhaustion. In addition to being abusive, these tricks only make the problem worse. If your adult horse routinely runs from you after you’ve tried all the tips in these last few articles, contact a qualified trainer to teach your horse to catch.
Remember, too, that your horse is not demonstrating a hatred or fear of you by evading your catch. She doesn’t have the brain machinery for evil strategy or malicious reasoning. Instead, she is using her excellent memory, which tells her that a catch means work, that it is possible to evade a catch, and that if she does evade, you will go away and she can eat more food. If she has been chased or punished for evasion in the past, she is using her excellent memory to avoid such mistreatment in the future.
The primary idea behind teaching a horse to come to you is that she will always allow you to come to her. It would be the very rare horse who would come to you on a regular basis but evade your approach to her. And either way, you can catch her.
You’re teaching the horse two important lessons with all this—to allow you to catch her easily, and to learn to trust you. If done well, both will stick in her mind for years to come and form the basis for a great partnership. Good luck!
Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.
This story originally appeared on janet-jones.com and is reprinted here with permission.