Some horses don’t like to be caught, which can make heading out to the paddock with a halter a dreadful chore, resulting in frustration and setting a negative tone for the day’s lesson. Oftentimes, a horse is hard to catch because he associates your appearance with work, or even discomfort, as opposed to something pleasurable.
There are many reasons a horse may avoid being caught, however. He may run out of fear, or lack of handling, in response to human inconsistency, or due to previous trauma. And don’t forget, horses can read your intention – they know exactly what you’re up to. If you consistently greet your horse with a mind to catching him, then it’s “game on!”
You’ll see all kinds of suggestions about how to catch such a horse, including trying to lure the horse with food or treats, hiding the halter, or even rounding the horse up on an ATV. Some people recommend taking a book to read in the pasture to just “be” with the horse. There are even those who advise denying access to food and water and leaving a halter on the horse, all of which ignore the fact that if you can’t catch your horse, you haven’t established a good relationship with him.
Meet and Greet
I worked with a horse recently who had many issues related to previous traumas, including being difficult to catch. This is not surprising, as trust is a big issue for horses like him. But whatever the cause, the approach is the same – you become the assertive lead mare through your movements and how you ask the horse to move. You want to move the horse as a dominant prey animal, not as a predator.
If you’re using a very large paddock (more than five acres), you can either make the area smaller by sectioning it off, or work while mounted on another horse. This will help ensure the horse doesn’t have a chance to rest too long should he run away. You want to emphasize that being away from you is not a good place and being next to you is. The only rest you want him to have is when he stands still and lets you come to him, or he comes to you and wants to be with you.
If I am working with a horse that has had minimal handling or has been traumatized, I may start in a large round pen, but only initially. There’s no point in only being able to put a halter on your horse in a round pen, but it can be a good tool to help build some foundations of trust. In addition, it is very easy to put too much pressure on a horse in a small fenced area, so this method must be used carefully.
If the horse moves away when you approach, puts his hindquarters to you, or only gives you one eye, drive him away and keep him moving until he stops and puts two eyes on you. I will drive the horse by twirling the lead rope at his hindquarters (not touching him) or slapping it on my leg or the ground to create energy.
As soon as the horse puts two eyes on you, take the pressure off immediately by taking a step or two back. If he turns and gives you one eye – drive him off. Keep this up until he is willing to stand with two eyes on you.
Keep an eye out for signs that the horse is thinking: lots of licking and chewing.
Just as I do when circling the horse on a lead, I will drop my head and look down. Some horses may walk up at this point. If the horse stops and still has two eyes on you, walk forward slowly and confidently until you reach the horse and can rub him between the eyes, but avoid the urge to put on the halter!
Thinking Time Tip The simple act of being able to go up to your horse (or meeting him part way) and slip on a halter will yield results in all aspects of working with your horse.
Depending on the horse, I might simply praise him and walk off before returning to slip the halter on and off straight away. I will repeat this entire sequence (un-halter, release and repeat the catching sequence) once or twice, just to ensure the horse understands and accepts this action.
When the horse is comfortable having the halter on and off a few times, lead him a few steps, take the halter off and end on a good note for the day. Don’t be surprised if the horse follows you – praise him and give him a rub.
The next day, you might try going out to meet and halter your horse again, and again turn him loose. Or perhaps you might halter and groom the horse before turning him loose and gradually build up to longer working sessions, always ending on a good note. The point is to help the horse consistently associate “good” things with being haltered.
Intro to Halter Breaking
Many horses I meet are not what I would consider to be so-called “halter broke” – even some 10- and 20-year-old-horses. That just makes it even harder to make the haltering process consistent or “good,” because the horse doesn’t understand the basics of giving to pressure on the halter.
I came across a good example of why halter breaking is essential at a recent clinic, where I mentioned to a participant that it was not a good idea to leave a halter on the horse in the yard during a break. She was adamant that she always did. Well, the horse got itchy and scratched her head on a post, catching the halter. The horse panicked and we had to cut the halter off. What saved the horse was the knife, not her understanding of how to give to pressure.
I like to introduce this exercise as early as possible. I recently worked with a little filly in her pasture where she was comfortable with her mum and among the rest of the herd. In this, her first haltering and giving to pressure lesson, I was able to use her natural curiosity to lay the foundations of trust, consistency and comfort in coming up to me and following me.
I used a small, light rope to get the filly used to having the rope over the poll and giving lightly to pressure, before introducing her to the feel of the rope over her nose, like a rope halter. I lightly rubbed the rope over her poll, then, leaving the rope over the poll, I made a little loop over her nose. At any time, I could have quickly released the string if she suddenly felt “trapped”, something that shouldn’t happen if you’re moving at the appropriate pace for the horse. If she doesn’t understand this lesson, she will not understand giving to pressure, or, later, leading and tying up.
A young horse like this might start to walk back to avoid this light “squeeze and release” pressure. If this happens, go with the horse, provided the head is in the same position, but don’t hold so tightly you “trap” the horse. You don’t want the horse to feel trapped. Go with the horse and release the pressure when she stops. Then you can repeat the process. Be sure to keep the lesson short and positive – leave the horse in a good place and you’ll find her in a better place tomorrow.
Haltering from Horseback
The advantage of haltering another horse from horseback is that with other horses around, the horse you want to catch may be more comfortable accepting the halter. If he runs away, you apply the same principles – you’ll just be able to cover more ground and get there more quickly.
Be sure you know the horse that you are riding – he must be well-educated and able to focus on the job at hand. It’s a great example of why I like all my horses to be “working horses.” The first time I asked my gelding to do this particular exercise, he followed my leadership and was not distracted by the cheekiness of the young brumby I was trying to halter, or the other mare who was nearby. All the foundations of a good relationship that we’ve talked about previously come into play in a situation like this.
If you’re using a rope halter to catch your horse, it’s easier to tie it large enough to allow it to slip over the horse’s nose and behind the ears when you approach him on horseback. Then, once it’s on, all you have to do is adjust it and retie the knot. A webbing halter will hold its shape and you’ll just have to do up the buckle. You may just find your horse “catches” you!
Take Home Message
If your horse can’t trust you, follow you and respect you, he will show discontent through undesirable behaviour. A smack here, a nudge there, and jerking on the lead can all quickly destroy trust. The same is true if all you ever do is catch the horse and bring him out for work.