Catch me if you can! Learn some of the causes of this wayward behavior
Is your horse playing hard to get? Learn some of the causes of this wayward behavior, plus how to recondition a horse that’s persistently hard to catch.
Justine Harrison, with Jennifer Von Geldern / horseandrider.com
A horse that’s hard to catch is highly frustrating. His galloping about can make you late to—or completely miss—lessons, trail rides, horse shows, even veterinary appointments. At a minimum, the time you waste trying to snag a horse that’s determined not to be caught can cause a domino effect that disrupts your entire day.
The good news is there are identifiable reasons why horses—even friendly ones—become hard to catch, plus methods you can use to rehabilitate that behavior.
Read on for advice on how to make your horse want to come to you.
Reluctance With a Reason
First, consider why your horse may want to avoid being caught. Understanding his individual lifestyle and experiences will help you determine how best to change the behavior.
Here are a few of the most common reasons domestic horses try to avoid capture.
• Anticipation of an unpleasant experience. The way a person handles, rides, or manages a horse can have a lot to do with that horse’s reluctance to be caught.
Your horse may associate being caught with something he really doesn’t want to repeat, such as being frightened by his handler, a long period of stall confinement, a wearying haul to a competition, or even a painful veterinary procedure. Think back to what happened the last time you caught your horse.
He may also seek to avoid distress from various activities or situations related to riding or training. He may evade being caught if he knows he’ll be subjected to anything that frightens him or to training sessions that last too long and/or expect too much from him physically or mentally.
• Pain or discomfort. Your horse may have an undiagnosed physical condition. For example, if he has arthritis, he may associate being caught with having to stand in his stall or be ridden while he’s in pain. Has he been behaving differently lately? Has his body posture changed? Is there any sign of lameness, or is he moving slower than usual?
Even if he’s just playing with his field mates less or keeping himself away from his friends, these could be signs that he has a physical problem.
• Separation anxiety. As herd animals, horses rely on other equines for friendship, shared vigilance, and security. Highly social, they’ll doze, groom, and play together. This means they’re keen to spend as much time with their friends as possible.
But owners are often tempted to keep their horses confined inside—because that way horses stay cleaner, their coats don’t bleach, they’re less likely to lose a shoe, and they’re more convenient to access (no chasing!). If, however, your horse isn’t getting enough turnout with company, he may be reluctant to leave the comfort and security of his friends once he’s with them.
Another mistake owners often make is trying to prevent or cure separation anxiety by keeping the horse in an individual paddock or otherwise away from other horses, in hopes of avoiding those strong attachments. In fact, this isolation often causes separation anxiety. Or it makes the problem worse, such that when the horse finally does meet other horses, he’s even more desperate to remain with them at all costs.
What You Can Do
Whether your horse dreads confinement, a training session, or leaving his buddies, there are methods you can apply to help change his attitude and behavior. Here are some things to try.
• Address his physical needs. First, have your horse thoroughly examined by a veterinarian and his tack checked by a qualified saddle fitter. If you can solve any discomfort he may have, he’ll be more inclined to come to you.
• Rebuild your relationship. If your horse truly enjoys your company and feels good about being with you, catching him should be easier. Teach him that your arrival is a good thing and being caught doesn’t always lead to work or something unpleasant.
To start, leave him in the pasture for a week or so, then retrain the catching process. Visit him in the pasture. Walk toward him, say his name, and from a distance gently toss him a carrot or treat and walk away. Repeat as often as possible, ideally five or more times a day. He’ll soon learn he gets something yummy when he approaches and that it’s good to be with you.
Once he’s anticipating treats and realizing you aren’t catching him, he should approach when you call his name. Don’t try to catch him. Just let him approach, hand him a treat, and walk away. When you can consistently get close enough to stand next to him, spend time giving him a good lip-curling wither scratch.
Repeat the whole process carrying a halter—but not doing anything with it at first. Once he’s coming to you consistently as you carry it, go ahead and put the halter on, treat him, remove the halter, then turn him loose again. Continue to build good experiences from this point on.
• Add positive reinforcement. Traditional horse training relies heavily on pressure and release, which is based on negative reinforcement (the horse is “rewarded” when the negative stimulus—pressure—is taken away). By contrast, training approaches that reward your horse’s success can achieve effective results without undue pressure, thereby making training actually fun for him. Reward-based training can greatly improve the relationship between the two of you, heightening that feeling your horse is developing that he actively wants to be with you. (For more on positive reinforcement, see “Rewards Work,” below.)
• Improve his living arrangements. If your horse is stabled for part of the day, make sure he’s housed next to his special horse friend, ideally such that they’re able to touch and mutually groom each other. Even better, adopt a group housing or barn system. Also give him access to ample forage and enrich his stall environment with toys to keep him occupied when he must be stabled. Maximize his turnout with company, as well, so his social needs are optimally met all around.
• Separate him gradually. If your horse already has separation anxiety, work incrementally over time to correct it. Make the changes to his living arrangement described above, then begin to gradually change how he feels about being alone, so as not to reinforce his fear. If he has only good experiences when separated from his friends, and the length of time spent apart is only gradually increased, then his confidence can be rebuilt. He’ll begin to realize he’ll always be returned to his friends and that there’s nothing to fear.
Ultimately, with some insight as to the cause of your horse’s reluctance to be caught, you can work toward alleviating his concerns and building a better life for him and a better relationship between the two of you.
Positive reinforcement in training is the addition of something the horse finds rewarding when he offers the correct response or behavior, therefore making the behavior more likely to happen again. For example, if you’re trying to train your horse to stand still while you mount, don’t focus on punishing him when he moves. Instead, catch him being still for even just a moment, then reward him with a treat or a pleasurable rub on the withers. Then try again, hoping to catch him waiting even longer before trying to take a step, and reward him while he’s still standing. As the rewards increasingly help him get the idea, he’ll be more likely to stand still the next time you mount.