The most important thing to keep in mind when working with a horse that’s hard to catch is he has a reason for wanting to avoid being caught. It doesn’t matter what his reason is. What matters is to work consistently and systematically to change his mind. This is a training problem, not a horse deliberately being ‘bad.’
This catching exercise should always be done with no time constraints. It’s important not to think of success or failure in terms of how long this takes. It might take almost no time one day and two hours another. When applied with time, patience, and consistency, this method will always work. Over time, it will produce a horse that’s easy to catch, and will often come to you.
In the photos below, we work with two difficult to catch horses.
Step 1: Approach
When you first approach a horse that might be inclined to run away, you should do so indirectly, moving towards the horse in an arc with your eyes down and your body language soft. This will help demonstrate to the horse that you’re not trying to be aggressive.
Approaching the horse with sloped shoulders, from an angle, eyes soft and down.
Step 2: Follow
If the horse moves off, change your body language. The idea here is simple. You want the horse to be comfortable when he’s looking at you or letting you approach, and uncomfortable when he’s trying to escape. If the horse runs, follow him. Keep your eyes on the horse, your shoulders square, walk quickly or jog straight at the horse. Staring directly at a horse will put a lot of pressure on him.
As long as the horse continues to move away from you, you should continue to move after the horse and apply pressure. How hard you drive should be determined by how far away the horse is and how quickly the horse is moving away from you. If he’s far away or moving fast, you should move quickly as well. If he’s nearby and moving slowly, you adjust your speed to match. You can swing a rope or whack it on the ground to apply pressure from far away. Ideally, the horse should get no break from feeling your presence while he is trying to escape.
Swinging the rope with active body language because the horse is running.
Step 3: Offer Relief
What you’re looking for is for the horse to give you his attention. If he’s inclined to run for a long time, it can be helpful to get ahead of the horse’s driveline from time to time to force him to change direction along a fence. Having to turn around will help the horse engage his thinking mind.
During this part of the process, you’re not punishing the horse and you’re not trying to get near him. You are presenting a puzzle. You are saying, “I’m going to keep after you until you find the right answer.” You want your horse to search for a solution, not become afraid.
Eventually, the horse will realize you aren’t going away. At this point, he’ll stop and look at you. As soon as that happens, stop moving immediately. Even if the horse just slows down and glances at you, drop your shoulders, tip your body away from him, and look at the ground. Release all tension in your body and make your body language passive. Do not approach. His reward for looking at you is a little break.
The horse is looking, so the pressure comes off.
Step 4: Repeat
Usually what happens next is the horse will look away again. If the horse looks away but doesn’t move, you can try to approach as described in Step 1. If the horse moves off, go back to staring and following.
Continue to do this for as long as necessary, but don’t get angry. If you become angry, the horse will want to avoid you (and for good reason.) Remember that you’re helping him learn a new skill. His instincts are telling him he needs to move. He’s only doing what feels natural to him. You need to teach him that looking at you and thinking about you feels better than running away.
The horse has stopped running but isn’t certain. Now is the time to be soft and slow.
Step 5: Make Contact
Eventually there will come a moment when the horse stops moving and lets you come near him. The closer you get, the slower you should go. It can help to approach sideways, or with your back mostly to the horse. Sometimes you’ll get to this point several times before he lets you all the way up to him. When you reach him, you should touch him softly, not thinking about haltering, just thinking about making him feel good with you nearby. Pet him on the neck for a while, using long, soft strokes. If he moves off at any time, return to following and applying pressure until he stops and looks at you again.
Approaching with the shoulder facing the horse.
Step 6: Halter
Once the horse is able to stand quietly and accept petting, present the halter. It’s important that the horse has a choice in this moment. Every horse can be caught by being cornered or restrained, but doing this only teaches him that he should have tried harder to get away. If you want to change how the horse thinks of being caught, he needs to CHOOSE to stay.
If the horse reacts negatively to the halter, lower it and return to petting until he relaxes again. If he stays relaxed, move the halter into place. Be careful not to pinch his ears or startle him by bumping his nose. Don’t rush the haltering process. Be smooth and soft in your movements. If the horse needs to leave, let him go. You job is to be relentless. Not scary, not rough, not angry. Just relentless. You want your horse to learn that he only wastes his energy to no purpose by running way.
Gentle and slow with the halter, no rope around the neck. The horse might leave, and that’s ok.
Step 7: Reward
Once your horse is caught, you should spend several minutes loving on him and making him feel good. Then lead him softly, giving him plenty of rope. How you feel about him when you lead him away will have a big impact on his desire to be caught again. If you yell at him, hit him, or crack the halter on his face, all your effort will be wasted. Rough handling will make him think maybe he shouldn’t have let himself be caught afterall. If you smile and congratulate both of you on a job well done, he will begin to learn that a halter isn’t so bad after all.
Yay! We’re caught and happy about it.
Down the Road
It can take many months for a horse to overcome his concerns about being caught. It’s important during this time that you go into catching EVERY TIME with the mindset that it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Most horses make rapid process when catching is handled correctly, but horses are not linear learners, and some will take longer. It’s important to remember that something that seems so simple to us (accepting a halter) is a huge show of trust for a horse.
It’s also important to do this EVERY TIME in the exact same way. Don’t skip steps. Don’t change your approach just because things are getting better. Stick with this until you haven’t had even the hint of a problem for several months. Even then, be prepared. Stress, anxiety, changes in season, social habits, or herd dynamics can cause old habits to resurface. If that happens, go back to the beginning and don’t worry about it. Rest assured, if you’re consistent and fair, this problem will eventually go away for good.