Catching Your Horse From Pen Or Pasture

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Common Complaints

Help! I Can’t Catch My Horse!

Want to catch your horse easily when retrieving him from pen or pasture? Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse be respectful and worthy of praise.

Does your horse throw his tail over his back, running to the far end of the pasture when he sees you approach? Do you have to sneak up on him with his halter hidden stealthily behind your back and your pockets packed with carrots? Do you engage in a game of cat and mouse, chasing your horse into a corner, dodging back and forth until he makes a hasty retreat, nearly running you down in the process?

If any of these scenarios describes your normal catch routine you’ve become an unwitting pawn in your horse’s game of stump-the-owner. Let’s take a look at the hard-to-catch horse and how to cure this undesirable behavior. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may avoid the catch and you’ll understand what you can do to stop the frustrating process.

The Reason

Horses love to play games. They are quick to learn how to manipulate you, the human, into playing along. Your horse may be reacting to movements you don’t even know you’re making. On the other hand, you may be reacting to movements your horse is making. The latter means that your horse is in charge and making the rules.

Because horses are prey animals, they are programmed to mirror the emotions of animals around them. For that reason, they are very tuned-in to human emotions; they easily recognize your emotions. Frustration and aggravation are easy for them to detect—and therefore horses quickly learn to manipulate. If your emotions aren’t in check and you’re ultra reactive, you’ll soon have a horse that pushes your buttons and gets an emotional response from you. Game over, horse wins. Emotionality has no place when you’re training horses.

Horses are so keen to your level of intention and determination that they can learn how to get what they want from you in one session. That said, they can also learn in one session, that you are not a pawn. You’ll have to master the art of being cool, calm, patient but persistent, so that your horse can’t engage you in his games. Armed with that attitude and this simple process, you can permanently cure your hard-to-catch horse in just a few days. It’s time to get started.

The Solution

To convince your horse that his antics are futile you’ll need to “walk him off.” Put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and allow yourself plenty of time (you shouldn’t need more than an hour). Walk out into the pasture/pen with halter in hand (don’t try to hide it) and adopt an expression that says, “I am going to catch you come hell or high water—even if it takes me all day.”

Walk straight towards your horse’s head. Look him straight in the eye with a look of steel-hearted determination. Do not chase him, herd him or try to corner him; those are games horses love and are much better equipped to play. Be patient but persistent; always looking at him and heading straight toward his head. I sometimes stalk him in an angle that drives him away from the herd or from the place he most wants to be. When I separate a horse from the herd or his comfort zone, I’m setting the rules.

Know that your horse probably will run off with his tail up in the air. He’ll most likely stop and look back at you. Keep walking toward his head. He’ll become frustrated to see that you’re still coming and are still determined. You’re applying mental pressure to help him know you’re in charge and that this isn’t game time. When your horse can no longer take the mental pressure, he’ll stop and face you with his head hung low—your company will be much more comfortable than the constant pressure he feels during your walk.

The most disrespectful horse I ever walked-off took 45 minutes to turn and face me. Be patient and wait for the transition. This is a critical juncture.

When your horse stops, faces you and drops his head, it’s time to stop walking and turn your back to him. This body language—much like that used in round pen work—will release the mental pressure your horse feels. Your horse will feel a release—that’s his reward for exhibiting the correct behavior.

Next your horse may walk toward you. If he doesn’t, take a relaxing breath then approach him slowly and casually—with your eyes down and your shoulders angled away from him. Make sure your body language is dramatically different from the pursuing posture you used when starting your walk; non-threatening posture with eyes deflected and shoulders down. If your horse runs off again, lock in your assertive posture and begin walking toward him—you’re on a mission again. Repeat the walk and retreat steps until your horse approaches you or willingly allows you to approach him.

When you can walk close to your horse, put on his halter and lead him a few steps. Then pet him and let him go.

Repeat the process 24 hours later. When you go to catch your horse, you should find it takes less time. If you were patient with your horse on day one, you proved you were in charge and that the easiest place to be is with you. Don’t worry if it takes a few days before your horse meets you at the gate when you approach with his halter. Keep repeating the process. It will work.

If your horse has been difficult to catch, he may be exhibiting other disrespectful behaviors, too. To learn how to teach your horse other important ground manners, check out the DVD, Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

Issues From The Ground: Hard To Catch In Stall

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Dear Julie,

I recently purchased an 8 year old Shetland mare for my 5 year old daughter to ride, and she arrived at our barn a few days ago. The pony is difficult to catch in her stall and I would like some suggestions as to how to improve this situation. She came from a ranch where she ran in the pasture with the herd, and in order to catch her she was “herded” into a corral so she could be ridden by the 6 and 8 year old kids who lived there. She now lives in a stall in the mare barn at my boarding facility. When I enter her stall, she pins her ears and turns her hindquarters towards me. She likes to stop with her nose at a 45 degree angle into the corner, so she can turn her hindquarters towards me and block my approach to her head from either side. I have tried walking calmly towards her head, as you have described on your web site as a technique for hard to catch horses in the pasture; however in the small space of her stall she is very effective at positioning her body as she walks so that she can swing her butt around quickly towards you. I have even had her try to kick at me – I was a cautious distance away and she got nothing but air. Needless to say, my daughter is not allowed in the stall with the pony.

Once she is caught, she displays a slave-like obedience. She is very easy to lead. I have taken her into the round pen twice now. It seems that she hasn’t had much if any previous round pen work. I am able to get her to walk and trot, as well as reverse directions, but I am having trouble getting her to join up with me. I do work with a trainer who has emphasized the importance of round pen work and also suggested the pony might have had a bad experience with her previous owner’s kids. I will keep working in the round pen with her. In the meantime, do you have any suggestions for helping me to catch her safely and quickly in her stall? Since she has only been with us a few days, I would like to nip this behavior in the bud so it doesn’t get worse. I also own a massive Percheron gelding who has great ground manners. He trots up to his stall gate when he sees me approaching with his halter and practically puts his head in the halter for me. Needless to say, this little pony is a challenge for me and I am afraid I will get frustrated and angry if I don’t find a way to improve this situation soon.

I really enjoy watching your show on RFD-TV, and wish it was on air more often and at prime time!

Thanks for your help,
Pam
Tucson, AZ

Answer: Pam,

Sounds like you have done the right thing in getting your daughter a well-trained riding pony and this little glitch will be easily fixed. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the pony has had bad experiences, she has just learned some clever pony tricks which is very typical. My son’s Shetland was a great ride except when he took you under the hitching rail to rub you off. I grew up on Shetlands that I learned to keep away from trees and low-lying branches for the same reason. They are clever little horses and because they are handled so much by children, they learn inventive techniques to get out of work.

It’s easy to solve this problem with this simple exercise for catching horses in stalls when they turn their butt to you. I would not use the same technique you mentioned above which is for horses that are hard to catch out in the field and run away from you (for more about this, http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=12 ). For this exercises, all you need is her halter with a lead rope attached (at least 8’ long). I suggest you use this technique yourself first until you get the desired results, then teach your daughter to do it under your direct supervision.
Hold the halter in one hand (your throwing arm) and the very end of the lead in your other hand. Enter the stall slowly and wait for the horse to turn and come to you. If instead she chooses to turn her butt to you, simply toss the halter at her, bumping her rear end. Make sure you stay well away from her kick range. Reel the halter in and keep tossing it at her rump until she gets annoyed and turns toward you to get her rump out of the way. Then immediately walk out of the stall as a reward and release of pressure for turning to you. Take a brief pause and then start over again entering the stall and throwing the halter if necessary. It may only take one or two throws before the pony gives up this antic (if your timing of the release is good), but you may have to reinforce this for a few days or longer to break a long-standing habit so always be prepared when you enter the stall and always give her a chance to turn and face you before you barge up to her (mares in particular can become very territorial in the stall– see http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=32 ).

Whenever a horse turns his butt to you or even leans his hip toward you, it is a clear message that he is considering kicking you. Although many times this is a bluff, I would never take that for granted and always assume any horse will kick you under certain circumstances. Therefore it is imperative when you do this training exercise that you never come within kicking range of the horse. Remember that the kick zone is a half-circle around each hind leg—he can reach forward almost to his front leg, out to the side with full extension and behind him with full extension. When doing any type of ground work with horses, always be aware of where the kick zone is and make sure you stay safely out of it. This is one reason why we use a stick or whip for ground work but in this case, your halter and lead are acting as an extension of your arm so you can bump her on the rump without getting into the kick zone.

Your pony may have never been worked in the round pen because it is easy to cut corners when starting ponies under saddle. I would continue what you are doing and if you are using appropriate techniques, eventually she will join up with you. Some horses are more reticent than others and you must have more patience and persistence with them—pony mares are notorious for this. My video called Round Pen Reasoning goes through a step-by-step process for round pen techniques to establish authority over the horse, get the horse to accept you as leader and develop a line of communication with the horse. In the video I work with several different types of horses so you can see that some react differently than others, although the steps remain the same for all horses.

I think this pony will be fine once you establish some ground rules. Of course, 5 years old is about the youngest appropriate age for riding and at this age she needs qualified one-on-one supervision at all times. Also, particularly with small children, she should wear an equestrian helmet at any time she is around the pony—not just riding. When all safety precautions are taken, riding can be a wonderful family sport. Your daughter is lucky to have a horse-crazy mom with good horse sense!

Good luck,
Julie

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