Catch Me If You Can
Most horses can be trained to allow a handler to catch them: The job is easier when catching and handling is correctly done early in a foal's life, but even older, difficult horses can be transformed from evasive run-aways into acquiescent followers if the handler is willing to become a circumspective leader who takes the time to understand the horse. Does the horse fear humans? "Horses have only two goals in life," explains trainer/author Monty Roberts, "to survive and to reproduce. Certainly when they're difficult to catch, they're not thinking about reproduction; their only thought can be of survival. They perceive you as a predator and act upon that instinct after 60 million years of reinforcement."
What Makes Equus Run
The first step to understanding the elusive horse is determining what drives the horse away from his handler.
Is the horse afraid to leave the herd? "Taking the horse away from the herd may create some anxiety," says Carol A. Collyer, director of equine services at Cornell University's Equine Research Park.
Does the horse lack good training? Many horses run away because they've not been properly schooled to respond to a handler's commands.
Does the horse receive negative reinforcement? Clumsy handling, being put to work, or undergoing shots, worming, etc. every time the horse is apprehended reinforces the horse's distrust of humans.
Does the horse receive inappropriate positive reinforcement? Some horses learn that if they evade their handler, they're offered a bribe. Soon it becomes a game.
Consider the cause of the behavior and make appropriate adjustments towards a better partnership through establishing trust, reschooling in the basics, and/or learning better handling techniques.
Restore the relationship by giving the horse positive experiences. Handle him without demanding anything from him so he will associate you with the pleasant experiences. Ditto for the horse that's afraid to leave his buddies. "Accustom the horse to being taken out of herd with a good experience," Collyer says. "Hopefully, the horse will soon develop enough confidence that he no longer sees you as a threat to his herding instinct."
Practice approaching the horse in a small enclosure like a box stall, round pen or paddock. "If you can't catch your horse in a box stall, you're not going to be able to catch him in the field," notes Collyer. "Teachiing them to allow you to approach and handle them and giving them positive reinforcement will help a lot when you start having to catch them in different situations."
Reschooling the fundamentals should help the horse that chooses to ignore his handler's commands or who plays games hoping for a bribe.
Sharon Spier, DVM, associate professor and chief of equine field service at the University of California, Davis, says, "Use the lunge line to teach them to come into you at whatever gait you select, whether it's a walk or trot, in different directions. Train your horse to back up on the lunge line, go through obstacles and over jumps. Ask them for different tasks, with plenty of praise and rest so they get their minds concentrating on you." Commands learned on the lunge line will transfer to the horse at liberty.
Work with the horse through body language. "Approach the horse with the idea that you don't want to catch him," says Roberts. "Push him away by keeping your shoulders square and your eyes on their eyes. As they go away, they will communicate back to you when they're ready to renegotiate the deal through a series of four or five gestures-a position of their ears, eyes, shoulders, neck, tongue, lips and head. Once the conversation is complete about them wanting to return to you, then you go passive instead of aggressive: You don't look them in the eye and do everything in the reverse of what I just explained."
Teach your horse the meaning of "whoa." "A horse that is properly taught 'whoa' will probably stand still in any situation, as long he's told 'whoa,' " says Collyer. "That's a really useful word."
Sometimes the problem with the elusive horse is how the handler approaches or catches the horse. Ask a professional to look over the situation and to pinpoint any problems.
Don't approach the horse, especially young or inexperienced ones, in what may be perceived as a threatening manner. Says Collyer, "Approaching in a frontal position with direct eye to eye contact is very predator-like, and the horse may turn and go away. If you approach the horse casually with a side-long glance, the horse may allow you to approach." Sometimes squatting down arouses a horse's curiosity, drawing him into you.
Never chase a horse: You can't outrun him and chasing may reinforce a fearful horse's instincts that your actions are predatory or aggressive. Slowly walk him down: Eventually the horse will tire of the game and give up, although it could take up to an hour.
Avoid cornering a frightened or nervous horse in the paddock or pasture. Instead, employ the buddy system: Go up to another approachable horse, pat him, start walking him to the gate, and the reluctant horse may follow. Or walk an approachable horse over to the evasive one, and see if you can transfer control from one horse to the other.
Erect a catch pen or small paddock by the pasture gate and gather the whole herd in there before cutting out the hard to catch horse. He will probably follow his companions in, and then you have a much smaller area to deal with.
Think ahead. Don't turn your horse out in a large field 30 minutes before you're going to ride or before the veterinarian comes. "When he's all full of energy, you know he's not going to be ready to be caught in a couple of hours," says Collyer. Don't turn out a horse without enough handling to be caught into a large area without a catch pen or companions to use as lures.
Other Do's and Don'ts
Never punish a horse once you've caught him. Says Roberts, "Pulling him around on the halter, being very aggressive with him, or whipping the horse tells the horse, 'Never let me catch you again.' "
Be sensitive to negative patterns: Part of the reason the horse may elude you is because the only time you fetch him is for work.
Always reward your horse with a pat or encouragement. Be wary of food rewards. Say Collyer, "If we always use food as a bribe, there may be times when the horse is not hungry and the herd instinct is stronger than his desire to eat."
Reclaiming and retraining the hard to catch horse may take a lot of time. Whether the horse has to overcome a fear response or go back to square one for training, there simply are no quick fixes. Each horse is also an individual; what works for one may not work so well for another. But if you take the time to understand what your horse's problem is, those fixes could last a lifetime.