By Anne Wilson
Ideally your horse should come eagerly towards you when you reach the field gate and call his name. If not, most horses will calmly stand whilst you walk towards them and put on the headcollar ready for leading in from the field. But sometimes, no matter how good a relationship you have with your horse, he/she will decide that the grass (particularly in spring/summer) is too lush, sweet and tempting for him to want to leave. Added to this may be the fact that his companions are still munching and he is reluctant to leave them.
However, as his owner/carer he has to learn to comply with your wishes. There may be several good reasons that he shouldn’t stay out with his mates. Too much grass is not good for many horses and there are many other reasons, in the horse’s best interests, why he should need to leave the field, as well as for exercise/ridden work.
In my experience a serious unwillingness to be caught is more prevalent in horses living out day and night, and who have not been in regular work for some time. The field has become ‘their home’ and since horses are creatures of habit, they are loathe to change their routine. It is very important for all horses, whether retired, on holiday, or recovering from illness/injury, that they be caught and brought out of the field on a regular daily basis. This facilitates the tasks of picking out feet, adjusting rugs, checking coat and general condition, checking for injuries or illness etc., as well as keeping the horse in a routine of being caught and led away from the field.
Notwithstanding all of the above, sometimes a horse who is normally easy to catch and is caught and ridden every day, will suddenly decide (often in spring time) that the grass is too tempting, and he will resist being caught. Often he will allow the owner to walk up to him and just when the headcollar is about to be put on, he will swing round and dash off; often giving a joire de vivre buck or kick out as he goes. Normally this kicking out is no more than a playful naughty show of exuberance, and is not aimed at harming the owner/handler. But you must always be aware that when the horse swings round to avoid you, he may well do this – you must be quick to step out of the way, so as not to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Advance and Retreat Method
A method which often works well and is advocated by modern natural horsemen, and has doubtless been used by traditional horse people for centuries, is the advance and retreat method. This simply means walking calmly towards the horse with passive body language; eyes cast down, shoulders slightly hunched (as opposed to marching sharply towards him making eye contact), then you retreat away from the horse, as though you are not interested in catching him. Often after a few retreats, the horse will either come towards you or be ready to stand as you catch him.
This is a method which has been used to great effect by Richard Maxwell, even on horses who are confirmed ‘bad catchers’. It involves attempting to catch the horse as normal. When he moves away you walk after him, don’t chase him, but keep walking and don’t allow the horse to rest and graze. This in itself can be very difficult if he happens to be in a very large field, since it could take you a considerable time to reach him. In this case I would suggest sectioning a smaller area, say with equestrian electrical tape, so he hasn’t got so far to run.
In the case of a horse who has been difficult to catch for a long time, you may need to set aside a whole day for this process. However, after the initial time, subsequent attempts should take progressively less time before the horse gives in, and is fed up with being unable to eat, which is his main purpose.
A reluctance to being caught does not mean that he hates his stable or that he doesn’t want to be ridden; it is usually just normal equine naughtiness which nearly all horses display from time to time. The main thing to do is to remain calm – don’t get cross and don’t chase him. That would make the situation a great deal worse and be very likely to wind the horse up into an excited state where he is determined not to be caught at all costs.
Obviously one great advantage you can have is bribery – if you have a tit-bit in your pocket, especially if it is in a bag that you can rustle. More often than not, this will be the deciding factor, in the horse being willingly caught.
In some cases, a bucket with a small amount of food which you can rattle, would be a good idea. This can also present problems if there are a lot of other horses in the field. You may get a whole herd of horses wanting to be caught and trying to get to the bucket! This is an extremely dangerous situation for horses and humans. If there are more than two horses in the field, I would not take a bucket. If just two horses, you could take two buckets, providing the owner of the other horse agrees.
You may have to enlist the help of one or two other people to temporarily catch the other horses, which should make it much easier for your horse to be caught. Obviously all this is very time consuming and annoying, but you must keep your temper and not become annoyed – it’s just one of life’s little set-backs.
If you know that your horse is often difficult to catch, then it’s a good idea to turn him out in a field-safe headcollar. This will make it easier to quickly clip the lead-rope on when you do get near him, without him pulling away at the last moment, as can often be the case when you are struggling to put on a headcollar. A field-safe headcollar is better from the safety point of view; it should snap off in the event of it being caught in a hedge or fence.
Some horses can be head shy (or maybe they just use this as an excuse for not being caught). We all know the scenario; the horse allows you to approach and caress him, may even take a tit-bit, then just as you are about to slip the headcollar over his nose, off he goes again. The obvious thing to do in this case is to turn him out in a field-safe headcollar. However, if you want to ultimately be able to turn him out without a headcollar, you can try catching him with the field-safe headcollar as usual, then slip another headcollar over the top. He then learns that the feel of the headcollar being fitted is not unpleasant, and at the same time he has already been caught so cannot make a break for it. You may need to do this many times before you can trust him to be caught without a headcollar.
Some horse who are perpetually difficult to catch, end up being caught less frequently, and because they are not in a regular routine, they become more and more difficult to catch. In some cases, they may not wish to be caught because their experience of life in a stable has not been a happy one. They may have had the experience of being left alone in a stable for long periods without food or attention, and this will understandably; make them wish to stay out in the field. Most horses who are well cared for and given love and attention when stabled, and ridden correctly, will want to be caught. If they are in a routine they will usually be waiting at the gate at the normal time to be brought in. But don’t be offended or upset if even with such a regular routine and good care, the horse occasionally has a different agenda. It is not a good idea to leave them out; the horse should respect the owner’s wishes and comply with what is being asked. However, sometimes leaving for say ten minutes, and returning with a bribe, works wonders.
All horses are slightly different but above are some useful ways of overcoming the usual problems. As in all things we do with our horses, we are less likely to have problems if you have already built up a bond of mutual trust and respect, and the horse knows he will have a good experience after being caught.
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org