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How to Handle a Runaway Horse

By: Rebecca Sweat

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Whether your horse is an older, long-time companion or a youngster wanting to "sow his wild oats," there's always the chance he may take off running if the opportunity arises. You may be putting on his bridle when he bolts. Or perhaps you're doing some groundwork and when you turn your back for a second he darts off.

If you board your horse at a stable and there are other horses in the vicinity, they also may want to get into the action. Once they realize their buddy is loose, the other horses may get excited and start bucking, whinnying and dancing around in their stalls. In a very short time, bedlam can erupt.

Not only does such a situation trigger stress for horse owners, escaping also can be dangerous for your horse. A loose horse, especially one that is panicked, could run through fences, dash in front of moving vehicles, careen into buildings, or rush onto unsafe footing and fall. It's not a good situation for you or your horse.

What Motivates a Horse to Flee?

"Horses don't like being confined anymore than we do," says Dr. Dean Scoggins, equine extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois. "When they get the chance for a little freedom, most of them are going to take advantage of the situation." They may bolt on an impulse and once they are free they may not know what to do. "It's as though they run because the opportunity is there, but once they stop to think about what they're doing, they don't know why they're doing it," he says.

According to Tracy Porter, a John Lyons select horse trainer, horses can also bolt out of fear. "Maybe something has them spooked and they feel the sudden need to take off and get away from whatever has them scared."

Other times, Porter says, the horse simply may need to work on his manners, or perhaps the owner has to work on horsemanship skills. It could be that the owner tied an improper knot when he roped the horse to the horse trailer, and so the horse was able to get loose. Or maybe the owner didn't do a good job bridling or haltering the horse and as he fumbled around trying to get the bridle on, the horse ran off.

How to Catch an Equine Escapee

Obviously, your best bet is to take precautions so you don't have to deal with a runaway horse in the first place. Check the latches on your gates to make sure they are working properly. Practice your haltering and bridling techniques so that when you take the bridle completely off your horse's face, he doesn't think to bolt.

That said, if your horse does get loose, certainly you want to capture him and get the situation under control as quickly as possible. Here's what Scoggins and Porter recommend you do:

  • Stay calm. Try not to panic. If you get upset and start yelling and screaming, you will just make your horse afraid of you and motivate him to keep running. Make a conscientious effort to relax. If you are calm and confident, your horse is likely to follow suit.

  • Access the situation. Take some deep breaths and try to get a handle on the situation before you approach your horse. Look the terrain over: Where is your horse likely to run and how can you best capture him? Do you need equipment? What's the horse's frame of mind? Is he particularly energized because he hasn't been out of his stall all week? Is he spooked out about something? Does he seem like he's going to bolt if you approach him? Give yourself a few minutes to figure out how to best handle the situation. Not only will this help you come up with a plan; it will take the pressure off your horse and give him a chance to calm down.

  • Approach slowly. If your horse has stopped running and is just resting or grazing, slowly walk up to him while speaking softly. Scoggins says the best approach is with your eyes and head down, not looking the horse straight in the eyes, with a relaxed, carefree walk. The more you can be soft in your movements and non-threatening in your approach, the less likely your horse will want to run off. Carefully monitor your body language; if you give off any signals that you are upset, it's unlikely that your horse will let you get close. If you are lucky and the horse allows you to approach, quickly place a lead rope around his neck to secure him.

  • Don't chase your horse. If your horse runs away when you try to catch him, don't chase him because you are likely to make him more frantic. Your best tactic is to back off for a few minutes and give your horse time to calm down before you make another attempt to approach him.

  • Corral your horse. If your horse takes off running when he sees you coming, you may need the help of one to two people to "corral" your horse in order to catch him. Look around the area. See if there is a fence, wall, building or other solid object that you can "herd" your horse to and create a "corral" or at least block off two sides.

    How do you corral a horse? Imagine a line at the horse's withers, right behind his elbows. If you want to drive your horse forward or make him turn right, you should get behind that line. If you get ahead of the line, you'll either stop the horse or you'll turn him away from you. If you get in front of the horse to where you're almost at his eye, you'll actually get him to turn into you.

  • Use the equine buddy system. Bring another horse with you on a lead chain and try to coax your horse over to you that way. The horse you choose to accompany you should be gentle and quiet, preferably one your horse gets along with. Walk in the direction of your horse and see if you can get him to follow the other horse. If he does, lead them both back into the barn or paddock. This often works because horses don't really like being by themselves. They may have fun being loose for a short while, but then all of sudden their herd instincts kick in and they want to be with a buddy.

  • Don't punish your horse. Once you get your horse back in his stall, try to keep your cool. Don't yell at or hit your horse – even if he really gave you the round-around. Punishment for escaping is never effective. It's too far after the fact, and your horse won't understand why you're angry at him. Furthermore, you may make your horse afraid of you and he'll want to run away in the future. Keep in mind that your horse is going to be in an excited state of mind. Give him time to calm down, give yourself time to calm down. Think about what happened, why your horse got loose, and try to come up with a plan to reduce the chance of a repeat performance.

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