This article was published on page 72 of the December-January edition of The Aiken Horse magazine. Click here to read the magazine. All rights reserved.
Teach Your Horse to Meet You at the Gate
A horse may resist being caught for a number of reasons, and it’s important to understand his motivation so your solution fits the problem. Is the horse afraid of people, or afraid to leave the safety of his herd mates? Does the horse associate being caught with something unpleasant, painful, or uncomfortable? Is it a fun game to evade capture? Even if your horse will allow you to come and halter him without moving away, with some very simple strategies you can teach him to be an eager participant in the catching process… and even come running to meet you at the gate.
Horses See the Future
Is your horse clairvoyant? It isn’t magic… because in fact we humans are very predictable! Our horses aren’t dummies; if we are coming out at 7 am or 5 pm with a bucket, it’s feeding time. And likely your horse DOES meet you at the gate with positive anticipation. But if your horse has already had breakfast and you’re coming out with a halter and a determined stride, he might be less enthusiastic. Past experience has taught him he’s probably going to be leaving the comfort of his pasture or stall and going to work. Some horses seem to know when the vet or farrier is there, or when you are planning to take them to a horse show. Divination? Or observation… they may recognize the farrier’s truck, smell the veterinarian’s disinfectant, or see that your trailer is hitched and standing ready. Our horses learn our routines and patterns and they have an idea of what is likely to happen and whether it will be good or bad from their perspective.
Honey and Vinegar
The old saying is that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Horses are the same. If you want your horse to allow himself to be caught consistently (or better yet, meet you at the gate!), you have to make sure he has a positive idea about what is going to happen once he is caught. You need to find your horse’s “honey.” For horses who are naturally easy to catch, their honey is the interaction with people or perhaps the stimulation of interesting and rewarding work. Often horses kept alone are easier to catch because they need people for companionship and relief from boredom in a solitary stall or paddock. When horses are kept in herds in large fields, they are usually not lonely or bored. So you have to a have a big incentive for them to come be with you… really good honey to offer! Most horses find mutual grooming very rewarding. When you halter your horse, start a bonding ritual of 10-15 minutes of finding his itchy spots and scratching them for him. If your horse doesn’t have regular access to good grass, hand-grazing for a few minutes after you catch him can be another big incentive. Of course a few treats can go a long way! Just make sure your horse minds his manners and doesn’t get pushy.
Giving your horse his honey consistently is the best way to make him look forward to being caught and fix your catching problem for good. But until that positive pattern is established, you may need to use a little vinegar to discourage evasive behavior. For horses, the vinegar is pressure. In this case, you will apply pressure by asking your horse to move a little faster every time he moves away from you. You need to do this tactfully and cautiously so that you don’t panic your horses into slipping and falling or even hitting a fence or jumping out. The goal is to cause your horse a little discomfort by not allowing him to rest and ignore you while he is playing hard-to-get. Each time your horse looks at you, moves towards you, or faces you, you will remove the pressure and reward him by walking away, backing up, smiling, or even sitting down on the ground to encourage your horse to approach you. This is a simple technique that can be learned in an hour or so, but requires good reading of your horse’s body language and good timing of your pressure and release of pressure. I highly recommend that you have an experienced horse professional help you with catching problems as poor timing or too much pressure can make your problem worse or even create a dangerous situation for you or your horse. The vinegar technique should be used to help your horse understand that his job is to come engage with you. The honey is to give his a reason to WANT to engage with you. The vinegar approach will help you break a bad habit and put a new good one in place, but will not be needed for long once your horse learns that good things happen when you catch him!
Catching Do’s and Don’t
DO catch your horse’s eye and acknowledge him as soon as you are in visual contact with him. Horses have great long distance vision and are aware of your presence.
DO develop the expectation that your horse will meet you at the gate. Not only is it convenient not to have to go track your horse down, it starts your interaction off on a positive note.
DO take time to bond and just “be” with your horse for at least 10 -15 minutes each time you take him out to work him. Use that time to clear your mind and get into horse mode. It can be a peaceful, relaxing time for both of us.
DO give your horse a treat at the gate. If he sometimes avoids putting the halter on, give him the treat after you have the halter on. If you have to go get your horse, give him the treat at the gate rather than in the far corner of the pasture where you had to go find him.
DON’T corner or gang up on a frightened horse that is trying to avoid capture. He could kick or panic and run over you or another person. Surrounding or cornering a horse really triggers their prey animal instincts and should be avoided.
DON’T chase a horse as punishment for not allowing himself to be caught. Take time to learn the pressure and release vinegar technique. It is safer, more effective, and less frustrating for you and less frightening for him!
DON’T expect bad catching behavior to change permanently unless you change your horse’s expectation that unpleasant things are going to happen when he gets caught.
DO consistently give your horse a good experience when you catch him and you will cultivate a horse that is happy to see you and comes to meet you at the gate!