Here I will give three examples of different horses; all had a degree of disengagement with humans, from mild to severe.
Dante – Morgan-Draft X was only ridden occasionally and was plucked out of field to be the grand kids horses when they were visiting. Upon his arrival, I just sat out with him in the field, and at one point he moseyed over to check me out before wandering off again.
When working the bond or connection with your average horse, horses usually start out as detached from humans to some degree. However, this same average horse can be enticed to approach a new human because of their innate curiosity. Just sitting in a field and waiting, will get a horse to wander over – to be rewarded by you with love and a carrot or two.
The key is to leave without doing any work the first few times and always to be reinforcing that each time you show up doesn’t mean work – it might mean companionship – and it always means special attention (scratches or a treat).
This was enough to get Dante to come to me on a regular basis. However, to keep this horse, easy to catch, always remember the first approach is extremely important in your interaction.
There is an important difference in approaching your horse that most people do not realize. The typical person goes out to the field, walks up to the horse, puts on the halter and leads the horse back. This gives the horse zero buy-in or free will to accept your presence on his own.
Instead, try going out to your horse, and about 3 yards away you start stopping and waiting for them to notice you and approach. If no approach, you close the distance a yard and wait again. You are looking for a horse that looks up, turns and starts to approach you. Wait till they are all the way to you before petting and praising.
Using this method you can easily gauge how engaged your horse wants to be. This provides the horse a free will choice to agree to being together. If you have to go all the way up to your horse to catch them, then that is definitely a horse who is thinking about becoming hard to catch or simply finds you boring! If the horse moves away, even a few steps, you have the beginning of a real problem (see Brego and Spotty’s stories below).
It also helped that Dante was pastured with my pony, Dancer, who will come running to me whenever I show up. Horses want to be hang together so if you have a hard to catch horse, pair him up with an easy to catch horse. His mentor in the herd will teach him you are a fine person to come and hang out with. I used a variation of this idea with Brego, our next horse.
Brego – Arabian-QH X was told he was “hard to catch” in a field and that proved very correct. His previous owner was a teen girl who rode him pretty consistently.
At the time I bought Brego, I was on an a 10 acre pasture with a herd of about 7 boarding horses kept together. I would walk up to Brego and he would take off. Ideally, I should have kept him in a smaller area and established a relationship first, but I didn’t think of that until after the fact! LOL
If I was buying a new horse, that would be the option I would choose – keep him in a smaller paddock, spend time with him, don’t work him hard and reward a lot before releasing him to a group with at least one horse that is very easy for me to catch (see Spotty’s story next).
Back to Brego – stuck working in a large field, I would walk out and observe at how close I would get before he would become uncomfortable and take off. At first, I could only get within about two house lengths away before he became unsettled and moved off. When he trotted or cantered away, I turned around and left.
After a few days, he would let me get about 3 car lengths, before he would take off. I would turn and go to one of my other horses and make a lot of fuss over them, feed them a treat and then leave.
I always took the halter and lead rope out with me. I always left when he started getting unsettled. I spent more time with the other horses in the herd that were all friendly. By the end, he turned and willingly came to me of his own accord. I let him do this several times before I haltered him and brought him to the barn.
This process took about 10 days and I never had a problem catching him ever again.
Be very careful about bringing treats or a bucket of feed out to a group of horses. You will quickly be mobbed! If bringing treats, I tuck just a few into a pocket and I try to feed my horse when the other horses aren’t looking or use my body to block the fact that I gave a small treat.
Another trick I use that I think helps my horses easily come to me is I do a lot of tackless leading. For example, when I work Dante, he is fed up near the loafing shed. When he is close to finishing, I walk out to the pasture and when he realizes that I’m going to do some clicker training, he follows me out there of his own free will, where I halter him (or use the cavesson or just play games).
When done, I untack him in the field, and start walking back. If he follows me (tackless lead), I reward halfway back with a click-treat. When I’m fully back to the barn he gets his second helping of food (another flake of alfalfa) and I generally sit with him a while as he eats.
Think about how you approach and leave your horse. These should be the good times, not the “I have to escape this person!” feeling an overworked, under-appreciated or in-pain horse feels when an owner approaches.
If you ever find your horse reverting back to being hard to catch, that means your horse needs to be having more fun with you! Regroup and reconfigure your training.
Spotty – An Appaloosa who, during his pre-purchase, did come up to that owner willingly from the field but the owner had a treat. However, once he came home to his new owner was no longer able to be caught in the field.
Another hard case was Spotty (not his real name) and the reason was because of the owner’s approach. For the first two weeks he was on the property she would chase him around the field trying to catch him; not even shaking a bucket of food would peak his interest (he had a lot of fresh grass so why be caught?).
Spotty thought this was great fun! A horse can outrun a person any time so as you can imagine what ensued with this great game!
I agreed to help. First, we brought Spotty through to my pasture (there is a connecting gate) and just using the game of run-away, opened the gate to my paddock and pushed him through by walking slowly behind him (he took off prancing and ran naturally into the area we wanted).
Over the next month she spent time sitting with him. I started her on clicker training. If he turned and looked at her, she clicked and then tossed him a carrot piece. Eventually, she could come up to his side, click and treat; then touch him and click and treat. This was an extremely slow process as this horse definitely did not want to be caught.
The key to using this system with a horse that is this sensitive is to WAIT. To take your approach very SLOWLY. To give a feed reward from a distance. Keep your hands down low to your sides. Walk slowly. Be quiet and reassure in a calm voice.
After a month with some great progress, you could feed him and brush him. At this time we released him back to the big pasture. At first, everything was fine. But then the cracks started to show because IMO, she gave up on my system. She went back to chasing him, trying to rush things, gave up on sitting with him, and eventually gave up on clicker training (he should know I love him and want to be caught was the rational).
Last I heard the horse went off to a trainer for problems that if she had been patient could have been solved on her own. But not my horse, not my problem.
Probably my hardest case is going to be Dulce. This little girl comes from an abusive home and after 3 years she will let me come up to her but shies away if anything approaches her head or goes over her body. Getting her haltered is often a frustrating process that you never know how it will turn out!
Now that my fences and gates are up, I can isolate her from my dominate pony, Dancer, and she and I can better get to know each other. For various reasons I’ve not had time to spend with her, but I’m making time this summer and we shall see how it all goes.