How Do I Get My Horse to Come to Me When I Don't Have a Grain Bucket?
Story and photos by Leslie Desmond
Does your horse walk away when you approach him with a rope and halter? This is a common problem and it can be fixed. However, it is a lot easier to prevent it than it is to change this behavior once it has become a habit.
Imagine that friends at school only let you play with them when you give them your lunch money. It wouldn't be much of a friendship. Your horse catching problem is not much different. Horses caught with grain are bribed.
Wouldn't it feel good to have your horse come up to be haltered because he likes you and wants to be with you?
First, the bribery must stop. Make the transition from a relationship based on bribery to one based on trust and friendship. It may help to move the grain bucket closer each day to the gate until just having it on your side of the gate will be enough for him to come up and be haltered. For a while it may be necessary to continue rewarding him with grain after you take him out of the pasture. Phase out the grain bribe over a period of days or weeks.
Eventually he will come to the gate because you are there. Be sure to call his name when you approach with your bucket so he will associate his name with what you want. Make being caught as pleasant as possible for him.
Second, we're going to rule out trapping your horse in the corner of a field or in the stall. It's dangerous because it teaches the horse to fear and resent you. Nothing between a horse and rider is less attractive than this. We're also going to stop chasing him around until he's "tired" because the more you chase him, the better shape he'll get in to outrun you. Also, he will get much better at outsmarting you.
Third, you need to reset your clock to "horse time". The horse's idea of time and yours are very different. To communicate clearly and get the most from your relationship with him, you need to be on his wavelength. "Horse time" is to have endless patience with your horse, and is necessary for retraining yourself and him.
I recommend spending more time with your horse when you don't want to catch him. If your friendship feels good to him, he'll want to be with you. Take your brushes out there and stand or sit a while. Just watch him. It will surprise him to see you out
there in a peaceful, unhurried state of mind. He will want to know what you're doing, especially if this is not part of your normal routine. His curiosity will eventually bring him to you.
When he comes up, let him touch you first. Don't reach out for his nose or neck right away, and don't move your feet quickly unless you are in danger of getting hurt. Please do not get discouraged if he ignores you the first few times you try this.
You might have to wait an hour or more. Remember, for this to work, you must be on "horse time" and not on a human schedule.
Begin to touch him gently and brush him, without putting so much energy into it that he has to move away. When he seems ready to walk away, you walk away first. You want to leave him with the idea that your visit is pleasant, comfortable and unhurried.
If the sight of the rope and halter sends him in the other direction, spend several sessions like this with him before you bring the halter out again. After he's comfortable and comes up to you willingly, halter him, lead him a little, and let him go. This will change his idea of what it means to be caught.
How Did He Get So Hard to Catch?
Think about the things you do with your horse after the halter is on. You care for him more than anything in the whole universe, and probably most of the time you are gentle and loving. But perhaps once in a while you lose your cool and snap the reins too hard in frustration. Maybe you've jerked on the lead rope with a chain over his nose. Maybe some of your equipment is not fitting properly, causing pain for the horse. Perhaps he's an older horse who can't run as much as you want to. Only you and your horse know the ins and outs of your relationship. I mention these things as possible reasons why your horse avoids you when he can.
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Remember, most of the things that matter to you have no meaning to your horse. He doesn't give a hoot about the television, the phone, or your next horse show. He cares about now, the moment, because that's where he exists. Right in the moment. To be truly effective you must look at yourself and your horse from the horse's point of view.
Finally, when you go out to the pasture or stall each day and your horse is right there waiting, remember this: He has no idea about your schedule or the day you just had. He has no idea you only have twenty minutes to spend with him because it's late, you're cold, and have lots of homework. But he can feel the pressure of your schedule.
He can feel your hurry and it has no place in his world. Sometimes, that's all it takes to make a horse turn and walk away.
Now that you're ready to try this with your horse, get permission from your parents or riding instructor first. If there are other horses in the same pasture as your horse being caught with grain, make sure an adult who has had successful experience doing this is with you.
Leslie Desmond is a world-renowned horse trainer, people educator, and author. For more information about Leslie, her clinics, and the recently released book "True Horsemanship Through Feel" by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond (with an introduction by Buck Brannaman), visit her website at www.lesliedesmond.com