The hard-to-catch horse can make you reticent to ride because it takes so long just to bring him in. Because running away is a fear behaviour and is rewarded because the horse can go faster than you can, it is learned quickly and can be hard to get rid of. See if your horse fits into any of these categories.
- The Wary: Hasn’t been handled much, or has had a couple bad experiences and not many nice ones with humans. If approached too fast he is likely to split.
- The Learned: Having practiced running away for years, he knows all the tricks. He gets the treats and still gets away, lets you pat him then spins and runs, and is master of using obstacles or other horses in his escape.
- The Insecure: Once caught, this one is just fine. But somehow the catching is a roadblock he can’t get past.
The following training ideas will help each type, but some will be more effective than others in different cases. For all, start in a moderately sized, safe enclosure. You don’t want it so small that the horse feels trapped, nor so large that you get tired out! Also think about what the horse gets once he is caught. Does he receive clear training that matches how he learns? Clear training reduces anxiety and improves his experience of being in with you, making him more likely to allow himself to be caught.
Technique 1: Approach and Retreat
This technique is helpful for all catching problems. It will just be significantly harder to apply to The Learned horse, because the body language he will give you will be very subtle.
Begin with no halter and no aspiration of riding today. You are going to very precisely reward the behaviour you want (standing still) so your horse doesn’t leave and feel the reward of distance between you.
Start walking slowly towards the horse. Pay careful attention for any of these signs:
- flicking the ear farthest from you back
- looking away from you
- shifting the weight away from you
When you notice any of these, stop walking immediately. If the horse stays where he is, step back a step or two to release any pressure. The signs are listed from least obvious to most obvious. If you stop moving when you notice an ear movement, your horse probably won’t leave. If you don’t notice the signs until his head is away and his weight is shifting, you’ve probably lost him.
If your horse leaves, never mind. Both of you need to learn this new exercise. Pay attention to what happened just before he left and try to catch yourself and stop a little earlier next time. Just trail behind your horse, not catching up, until he stops and stop too. Then begin again.
If you succeed in keeping your horse still, he will probably turn his head back and look at you. This is your signal to begin approaching again. Go slow and watch for any signs, stopping immediately and retreating before he moves. Once you’ve done this a few times without a halter, try bringing one along and see if there is any difference in his behaviour. You may find, especially with The Learned horses, that you start again from the beginning—but that’s ok, it will go faster the second time around!
Remember, do not retreat if your horse does move. You do not want to reward moving any more than it is inherently rewarding. Just trail along until your horse stops. Do not chase him in any way with actions or words. Be patient.
Technique 2: Counter Conditioning
Most effective for The Wary and The Insecure, this approach used in conjunction with Approach and Retreat can make being caught a great thing. If being caught only ever leads to being taken away from buddies or into a stressful situation, not many horses will continue being good to catch. If, however, it means itchy places are scratched and food is received (as long as aggression is not an issue) and the training is clear, your horse’s opinion of catching may change.
When you get up to your horse by Approach and Retreat, start by visiting. Try to find itchy places and give them a good hard scratch. Starting by the withers is usually good if you’re not sure what your horse will like. The shoulder and chest are often enjoyed by horses too. If your horse shows signs of wanting to leave, leave first. Walk away a bit, and try again.
Bring some food with you (just in a hand, not in a big bucket; we’re not going for a bribe here, but a reward). If your horse lets you visit for a bit, offer a tidbit of food. For The Learned horses, this could be their cue to cut and run before getting haltered, so you can reward being haltered instead, or omit the food.
If your horse finds being alone stressful (most do), bring a buddy along or have a buddy waiting where you’ll be taking your horse. You won’t have to do this for always, it just helps to give your horse a new idea of what being caught means.
Technique 3: Train ‘Come Up’
Best for The Learned horse but helpful also for the other types, here is something to replace the unwanted behaviour of running away with.
When you have your horse caught, it would be a good idea to train something that will make it easier next time. You don’t even have to leave the enclosure you are in. If your horse is food-motivated, don’t hesitate to learn about clicker training and use that to reward your horse’s approach. Otherwise use your voice (same words, same tone, every time) combined with a good scratch in a favourite place. This pairs the word with the scratch, eventually making the word rewarding.
Make sure your horse understands how to step forward from pressure on the halter. Don’t start walking, just put pressure on the halter and see what happens. If he moves immediately, you can carry on to the next step. Otherwise train a couple steps forward from light pressure on the halter by releasing pressure for correct steps and using your voice/scratch for positive reinforcement.
Stand a couple steps from your horse now with the lead rope in your hand. Make the noise (whistle) or say the word (come up) that you want your horse to recognize and come to. During/just after this sound, pull on the lead rope. Click and treat when your horse steps towards you, or reinforce in some other way. Repeat this until your verbal cue elicits one or two steps forward without needing the lead rope. That’s good for a first session. In later sessions you can reward for three or more steps, stand farther away, stand in a different position, train in a different area, and keep teaching your horse that moving towards you is a great thing to do.
Getting rid of running behaviour takes patience because of how rewarding it can be for the horse. Don’t take it personally and keep working on it.
None of the techniques outlined here involve any chasing of the horse to make him realize that moving away from you is more work than coming to you. This may work in the short term because he’ll get tired eventually, and if you are skilled at releasing the chasing pressure when the horse shows signs of coming towards you he will learn eventually. However, because of how horses are wired to learn, any chasing can be very frightening and is likely to perpetuate your catching problems rather than solve them. The faster and farther he can go, the more rewarding it is. So I focus instead on going slow and rewarding him for what I want instead of chasing him for what I don’t want.