It's a familiar scene: You walk out to the pasture, halter and lead in hand, in a hurry to catch your horse because the farrier or vet is there. Your horse lifts her head - she sees you. She freezes for second, and then just as you approach, she takes off. Frustrated now, you grumble under your breath and try to chase her down. But the harder you pursue, the faster she tries to get away.
How many of us have been there? (*Raises hand*) Two of the horses that I've owned in my adulthood started out as entirely green "runaways" - with absolutely no desire to be caught and restrained. I've owned Lilly for about 9 months now, and we really only just rounded the corner with catching her in pasture - something I've prioritized because she's on 16 acres and chasing her in that much space is exhausting and almost physically impossible. And I'm guessing that if you're reading this, you've had some experiences having to chase horses down, too.
So, what do we do about this situation that is beyond frustrating at times and often seems impossible to solve? The very first thing we have to do is consider why the horse is running away in the first place.
Horses are prey animals. Which means that they have 3 basic options of how to respond to things they don't like: flight, fight or freeze. Sometimes they freeze, which makes it easy to catch them (but ends up being an issue in the long-term - that's a post for a different day). Rarely, they will act aggressively. But their most likely response will be to run away.
If you think about it, running away from someone with a halter makes sense if you're a horse. Equines are very adept at creating associations in their brains, so they can quickly draw a line between you walking up to them with a rope and something unpleasant following afterward - whether that be a shot by the vet, having to get their feet trimmed or being required to work up a sweat in the arena. And as prey animals, having their head and body movements restrained can range from terrifying to annoying.
And this is key here: if you haven't been able to catch your horse yet and you respond by chasing them, they will only flee faster. Because as prey animals, being chased = death in the equine mind. Chasing a horse to catch them is completely counterproductive and in fact, most likely will lead to the horse being harder to catch in the future.
Once we understand why our horse reacts to us catching them this way, we can get creative and find ways to change the way they view being caught:
Positive reinforcement: By using positive reinforcement (treats) to reward a horse for letting you approach them in the pasture, the horse forms a solid positive association between being caught and receiving the reward.
Clicker training: I trained Lilly to approach me completely at liberty and then to follow me from the pasture, through to gate to the paddock, with no halter or lead rope. Clicker training provides a training framework where the horse gets to make choices and receive rewards for making certain decisions (whether to follow me or not follow me, for example) and gives the horse a sense of freedom that helps training in the long-term. Lilly has almost never decided not to approach or follow me when there was a click and a treat involved! (For more information on clicker training, check out this post).
Change up the routine: Make sure to do things with your horse that they enjoy after catching them, sometimes. If you only catch your horse in order to tack up and ride directly afterwards, your horse will know that pattern and likely try to avoid being caught. But if you take off-days to halter up and go for a little walk together or anything else your horse enjoys, then she will learn that sometimes there's really something in it for her.
Catching a horse doesn't always have to look like a rodeo - and in fact, once we understand things from our horse's point of view, it becomes very easy to finesse our approach to catching and haltering in-pasture, in a way that improves our bond with our horses overall.
Still need advice for how to catch your horse, or on other training issues? Contact me at email@example.com for a consultation.