Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of horses that have developed bad habits or behaviors, and it’s always interesting to look further into the problem and think about why they might have developed that behavior. For the most part, horses aren’t inherently mean, and they aren’t behaving poorly just for the fun of it. It always helps if you look beyond the behavior and get to the root of the problem before you try to fix it.
An employee at my ranch has a mare that has always been well behaved and easy to catch in the pasture. Recently, she’s been on oral antibiotics twice a day for a few weeks. Like most horses, she hasn’t enjoyed taking the antibiotics very much and has started to become difficult to catch. Like I said, this isn’t her normal behavior, so I have to assume it has something to do with not wanting to be given the antibiotics.
In this article, I’m going to show you how I have been working with this mare to rebuild her trust so she will willingly let us catch her without causing any problems. A horse that’s difficult to catch is not only a nuisance, but it can be dangerous if they buck or kick out when you get close to them. So, keep reading to see how to safely work with a hard-to-catch horse.
More from Warwick: Slow Down a Fast Lope
Horses have fight-or-flight instincts so when you come near a horse that doesn’t want to be caught, he’s going to flee. The mare that I’ve been working with is normally very calm and friendly, but she’s started to walk away from anyone who is trying to catch her. My presence is clearly making her uncomfortable and stressed so I started to act in a way that would help her relax a little bit.
Instead of just walking up to her head like I normally would when going to catch a horse, I went in her pasture without the intention of catching her. I started to walk around her and let her become comfortable with me being there. I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t there as a threat, and she didn’t need to run away.
In the beginning, when I walked up to the mare, she would walk away from me. So, I started to follow her and match her steps as we walked. I was walking a safe distance from her but staying close enough that she knew I was still there for her. I matched my steps with her front feet—her left foot, my left foot, her right foot, my right foot.
Wherever she went, I followed her at the same speed in the same direction. When she turned to the right, I turned to the right and so on. And finally, when she stopped, I stopped. The mare finally realized that I wasn’t there as a threat, and I wasn’t going away. When you act in a way that’s natural to them, it helps them become more comfortable with you in their personal space.
More from Warwick: Refocus Your Distracted Horse
Once the mare stopped walking away from me, she let out a big sigh, which showed me she was relaxed and comfortable with me being there. Then, she turned her head over her shoulder and looked at me like, “Hey Warwick, what’s going on?”
The most important thing that you can do in this part of the process is to just keep standing there calmly. You want your horse to realize that you’re there for him, you’re not a threat, and that he shouldn’t be afraid when you try to catch him.
You might have to stand there for a while or keep following your horse around the pasture until he finally becomes comfortable with your presence. Eventually, he will stop being afraid of you and become intrigued by what you’re doing.
It didn’t take this mare long to warm up to me being in the pasture with her, and after she stopped and looked at me for a few seconds, she slowly walked up to me and reached her nose out to sniff me. I knew this was a good sign that she trusted me and would most likely let me catch her now, but I didn’t want to rush things.
It’s easy to want to quickly grab your halter and throw it on your horse now that he’s standing still willingly. But, while that might work for this moment, you’re just setting yourself up for this problem to continue in the future. You need to build up trust with your horse so that each time you go to catch him, you aren’t starting this entire process over.
I mentioned in the beginning of this article that the reason this mare started becoming difficult to catch was because she associated being caught with being given her antibiotics. If you run into a similar problem, make sure that once your horse trusts you to catch them, you aren’t only catching them to go do something they don’t like—like being given medication.
It’s important that your horse associates you with positive experiences, too, so be sure to add in things that aren’t traumatic for him like catching him and then going for a graze or giving him a bath. If you keep giving him positive experiences, he will know to trust you no matter what you ask.