My Horse Will Not Let Me Catch Her
This topic might be one of the most commonly misunderstood among horse owners and trainers. I have seen many different horse-catching methods in my travels and I must admit that I have tried most of them at one time or another. Perhaps you are familiar with the "Bucket-o-feed" method or perhaps the "chase 'em 'til they drop" method. What about the passive aggressive "I will just walk towards you until I catch you"? I have seen this one go on for 30-40 minutes. I think the most common is the "sneak and treat" method (usually accompanied by a lead rope stuffed down the front of the pants or under a sweatshirt).
"My horse can only be caught when she is good and ready to be caught." "Sometimes she walks right up and drops her head into the halter but this is only when she feels like it." These statements perfectly describe the root of the horse-catching problem. The problem does not really have much to do with physically catching the horse. The horse-catching problem has more to do with the horse "being ready" or "being willing".
The symptoms of the problem can be found in the antics that we perform while trying to catch the horse. Have you ever thought about what the other horses in the pasture must think? The problem is not "I can't catch my horse." The problem is "My horse does not automatically come to me when I show up on the scene, whatever that scene may be."
As long as we try to fix the symptom ("I can't catch the horse") our solutions will always be nothing more than different ways to outsmart (not really) and catch horses. If your primary goal is to catch your horse, buy a lariat and learn how to use it. Roping is by far the easiest and most efficient way to catch horses; next to herding them with a helicopter of course.
More than a few years ago, I learned a Ponca horse-catching song. The young male members of the Ponca tribe sang this song just prior to a horse-catching expedition. Their method of choice was to walk after the herd, rather than run. They essentially used a several thousand acre round pen until the horses gave them one giant inside turn. If given the chance, I would gladly teach you the song but you should know that the young men rarely followed the herd for less than a week or two.
I know of a better way to catch horses. The first thing we must do is change our mindset from problem to opportunity. I owe this realization to a very dear friend and although it may sound like nothing more than semantics and a bunch of positive thinking stuff, it is the beginning of success. We are either facing a horse catching problem or an opportunity to become a better horse teacher.
How can we convince our horse to take the opportunity to come to us? The most logical approach is to study how horses perform this task and then try to duplicate their methods. If you have been to a TEAM PONYBOY WORKSHOP or perhaps to the PONYBOY LEARNING CENTER, you have probably heard me say (probably 100 times) "If you want to catch a horse, chase him away." I did not come up with this theory all by myself. I learned this method by watching many very smart mares (most of them equine). This "chase away" is the opposite of "chase down". Horses chase horses away to provoke them to come. Men in helicopters chase horses down in an effort to tire them out.
"Chase him away" simply means move the horse from where he/she is currently at rest. If you can look at a horse from across the pasture, focus on that horse, walk towards him/her and make the horse move away from you, you have "chased him away". If you can consistently manipulate your horse's movement and release the pressure at the appropriate time, your horse will begin to believe that you are in control. If your horse believes that you are in control, responsible, consistent and compassionate, he/she will want to be near you.
Try the following experiment: Go to your horse's pasture or corral with the intention of moving him/her 10 times. Focus on your horse's hip (we focus on the part of the body that we are trying to manipulate. Because the hind provides impulsion or forward movement, we place our attentions on the hip.) Point the index finger of your dominant hand at the horse's hip. If you are right handed your dominant hand is your right hand. Imagine that there is a laser beam coming out of the tip of your index finger and place that laser beam on the horse's hip. Now walk towards the horse, being careful not to allow the laser to move from your selected spot. Do this until the horse moves away from the pressure. If you do not have immediate success, turn up the power on the laser. Try to focus all of your energy into your finger and then down the path of the beam.
When the horse moves away from the pressure, point your finger at the ground, turn away from the horse and walk away from the horse. I like to pick something else to focus on like a tree or plant. Look at the tree as if it is the most interesting tree you have ever seen. The point of focusing on the tree is to take every bit of energy away from the direction of the horse to provide relief.
If you are successful with this experiment, just one time, you are already becoming a better horse teacher. Now try this nine more times. As your timing gets better, you will notice that when you release the pressure, the horse's nose and perhaps even the front feet will have a natural tendency to follow you.
You should understand that by providing pressure and making your horse move, you are threatening your horse. Different horses deal with these threats in different ways. Some very aggressive horses may perceive this threat as predatory and may decide to try to move you away. If the horse responds with an aggressive posture (technically defensive since you were the aggressor), and if the horse is able to move you, you are being taught how to be caught. I would suggest that you move your horse before he moves you so that the teacher does not end up being the student.
If you were able to move your horse ten times, your status in the herd has easily gone up one notch, perhaps two. This is the beginning of being able to catch your horse every time. Next, (next day or next week depending on your success rate), we move this exercise into a controlled environment. I prefer to teach in a classroom. The classroom is an area that we have set aside specifically for teaching students new concepts and lessons. The classroom should be safe and comfortable for both the student and teacher. Most of the exercises in this series were performed while using the TEAM PONYBOY CLASSROOM, but any horse-safe enclosure is fine. An enclosed arena is a great place to start but try not to have too many distractions in your classroom.
Start with your horse in the classroom, at liberty. Your horse should not be wearing a halter. Turn on the laser, point at the hip and move your horse away from you.
When you apply pressure, your horse has several
1. If everything goes perfectly, your horse will move away from you and you will immediately drop your hand to your side, turn and walk away from your horse.
2. Your horse may choose the second option and avoid the pressure. If your horse avoids the pressure, it will be evidenced by his pivoting on the front feet and facing you. If this happens, do not allow the laser off the hip. Follow the horse as he/she pivots, maintaining laser contact with the hip. It is possible that this little dance could go on for 10-15 minutes before the horse moves away from the pressure. When your horse has had enough pivoting, he/she will move away from the pressure and you will immediately remove the pressure. NOTE: It is normal and natural for you to move closer and closer to the hip, especially when your horse refuses to move. Please resist the temptation to move closer to the horse. You should stay 12-15 feet away from the horse. I have seen several horses lure a trainer closer and closer so that they could give that trainer a goodnight kiss. Maintain your distance just in case the horse chooses option #4. You may also have the urge to speed this exercise up by introducing a rope, whip or other training tool to the exercise. Later, when refining forward movement, these tools will be helpful but for this exercise, they would be counter-productive. The only way to end up with a finished, light horse is to start with a light touch.
3. Another common avoidance mechanism is bolting. Moving away from pressure is acceptable and desired but bolting is not. Bolting is when your horse flattens his/her ears, extends the neck and takes off at a full gallop. If your horse decides to bolt, it will be necessary to turn him/her immediately. Do not jump in front of the horse; this is a good way to be run over. Do not let the horse run round and round. Convince the horse to turn by getting way out in front and providing a visual barrier. Sometimes it is helpful to wave your arms as if trying to stop a passing car. If you are not able to turn your horse, I would suggest that you step outside the classroom and allow your horse to calm down. Spend some time thinking about what went wrong and how you will handle the situation differently. Chances are your timing was off and you did not see the bolt until after it was already happening.
4. Your horse may try to fight the pressure. This is the least common response; nevertheless, you may see this response. If it looks like your horse is getting ready to turn and charge you, he is. Timing is the most critical skill when dealing with the aggressive horse. Remember that your horse's front hooves are usually the first part of the body to charge, not necessarily the head. During the exercise, while focusing your eyes and finger on the hip, pay attention to your horse's front feet. If they should happen to lunge or step towards you, turn the horse immediately. If the horse is able to get into a full charge, get out of the way. Step outside the classroom and think about the point when you should have noticed the charge. Next time, you are armed with the knowledge of what the horse is probably going to do when you apply a certain amount of pressure. If the horse charges, or even bluff charges, and you were able to turn the horse, I would end the lesson for the day. The horse will go away with the knowledge that you are fully aware of his/her body language and will be hesitant to try it again next time.
Sometimes the horse will kick out towards the pressure. Although this is aggressive, it is more a show of frustration. The horse is upset because you, a lowly human, are able to move him. I would not reprimand the kick at this time. Watch the front feet, especially the hoof closest to you. The front feet will cue you to an aggressive move or charge.
I would try moving the horse 10 times, from the stop. I think you should try this exercise twice a day for a week or so. Every time you move the horse, you should try to refine your release of pressure. If you release the pressure (turn and walk away) at precisely the right time, your horse will come to you. I would not turn and pet the horse until perhaps the tenth successful "move away". If the horse pulls his/her head away as you try to pet him/her, pill your hand away and end the session without the reward of petting.
I have watched many horses teach their owners how to catch them. It starts with that little avoidance when you try to pet them. It is natural, because you love your horse, to follow the horse' head with your hand and force the horse to be pet. Your horse essentially ran away (by moving its head) and you chased the horse with your hand. You lose. This exercise should extend throughout all of your horsemanship. Never chase a horse to catch him. Chase a horse so that he comes to you. Never chase a horse to put a bridle on; chase him so that he comes to you to get help putting his bridle on.
One last note on the subject of catching horses: If you are constantly trying to force your child to learn how to tie his own shoes, he/she will probably dread the idea and avoid it at all costs. If you provide him/her the shoes and release the pressure any time the child gives a hint that they would like to try it, they will learn and like to tie their own shoes. Every time the horse gives to the pressure, reward him.
This article is an excerpt from the upcoming, limited edition release entitled "My Horse". To reserve your copy, contact Team PonyBoy at PonyBoy.com.
About the author:
GaWaNi Pony Boy's teachings have been embraced worldwide. His “Relationship Training™” is about fully understanding the horse, student or partner before attempting to communicate. Pony’s teachings are all about creating a life long bond between those involved in the relationship. To contact Pony:
The Pony Boy Learning Center
PO Box 2110
St. Augustine, FL 32085