ASK THE EQUINIST: How to Catch a Reluctant Horse

In "Ask The Equinist", blog readers are invited to submit their questions, and I will do my best to provide a well-researched answer. Here is the latest reader query:

QUESTION: My horse lives out in a five acre field, and I have a heck of a time catching him when I want to do anything with him. He'll let me walk up to him and pet him if I don't have a halter, but if I do have the halter, he runs off as soon as he sees it. I can catch him only if I carry a bucket of grain out there, but I don't want to have to do that. Is there any other way?

Sheila, OR

ANSWER: I agree with you that bribing a horse into letting you catch it is not a good practice. Fortunately, there is an extremely effective way I like to deal with this issue, though it sometimes takes a little patience at first to make it work. It utilizes two very important training concepts:

  • making the right thing easy and appealing, and the wrong thing just a bit difficult
  • pressure on the unwanted thought/action; release on the desired thought/action.
What I want you to do is pick a day when you have all the time in the world, the weather is pleasant, you are in a calm, focused state of mind, and you are not planning to ride. Make yourself a "flag", which is just a white, plastic grocery bag tied to the end of a stick or whip. My favorite is a light, cheap, somewhat rigid fishing pole about 5' long, as they are easy to move quickly. This is the only tool you will need.

Head out to your horse's field with your halter in plain view and your flag in the other hand, but held low to the ground. If your horse stops what he's doing and looks at you, stop your feet and says some words of praise. After a few moments, start walking towards him, keeping your body language neutral -- meaning you are not sneaking up to him, acting meek, or marching like a drill sergeant. 

As soon as he starts to move away, continue walking towards him in the same manner, but start shaking your flag a bit or hitting it on the ground, enough so that he can hear it and see it. You may have to raise the flag in the air if he is far away. Very important: the idea here is not to chase him or make him speed up at all, but to use the flag to pressure the thought of moving away from you. If he seems to get genuinely alarmed by the flag, reduce the intensity of your shaking so that you don't send him flying around in a panic -- but keep shaking it to some degree if you feel it is safe to do so. You want to use just enough pressure so that he's aware of it, but not so much that you are causing him to flee in fear. If he just moves a little faster but is not truly scared when you start shaking the flag, that's okay.

Now, here is the critical part: as soon as your horse stops his feet, your are going to release the pressure by stopping the flag, dropping it down to the ground, and standing still. Better yet, if you can tell that he is thinking about stopping, stop the flag and stand still, and he'll probably stop (if he doesn't resume walking/flag).  If your horse was moving around pretty actively but then slows down (e.g. goes from a trot to a walk) without stopping, you want to reward that as a step in the right direction, so stop the flag and stand still for a few moments (maybe 5 seconds), then begin again and keep going until he actually stops. Once he has stopped, you will just stand there in a relaxed posture doing nothing for about 30 seconds, which gives your horse time to process what just happened. 

Once you have waited the half minute, start walking towards him without shaking the flag. As long as he stands there, no flag, just kind words. If at any point he starts to move away again, start shaking the flag again as you approach. You will repeat this as many times as necessary until you are able to walk up to him and put the halter on.

What typically happens is that the horse soon figures out that he can "turn off" the pressure of the flag by standing still, and it is not long before they will let you walk right up to them. Some horses, however, may keep moving away for quite a while, so this is where the patience comes in. You need to hang in there for as long as it takes, without getting mad or upset in any way. Personally, I have never had it take more than about 45 minutes in the toughest cases. Keep in mind that you are not trying to corner your horse, change his direction, or force him to stop. You are trying to get him to choose to stop by making the right thing (stopping) easy, and the wrong thing (moving away) just a little bit uncomfortable through your use of flag pressure.

Once you get the halter on, I strongly recommend that you do nothing more that first day other than stroke your horse (no neck slaps -- horses don't actually like this) or give him a favorite scratch, then let him go and leave. If you want to, you can give the horse a treat as a reward before you let him go, which is not the same thing as using treats/grain as a bribe. A reward is given after the horse has already chosen to do the right thing. Since the horse already did the right thing, you don't need the treat to make it happen, but it tends to help reinforce the behavior. A bribe is offered to try to induce the horse to do the right thing, and you will usually need the bribe every time because the bribe is the trigger for the action.

You may need to repeat the flag exercise for a number of days, depending on your horse. Pretty soon, you should be able to walk right up to him and halter him with no problem. Carry the flag each time for a week or so after you have accomplished this, just in case, but after that, you can leave the flag in the barn, as you shouldn't need it. 

I do also recommend that you sometimes go out to the pasture, halter your horse, and do nothing more than praise, pet and reward before letting him go again. This lets him know that getting caught isn't always about hard work!

I hope this methods works for you, but always remember that if you are uncertain or the situation seems to be getting dangerous for you or your horse in any way, stop what you are doing and look for a different solution.

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