How to Catch a Horse – Permission, Reward, Punctuation

The second component in learning how to catch a horse involves observing the horse’s reaction to your approach. You look for “permission” — in the horse’s manner, attitude, and in his eye. Here is how it goes:

During your approach, the horse will begin to notice that you and he are “joined” up.  You might need to manage this if your horse is in a herd with other horses. If your horse is the dominant horse — no problem. You just work on joining up with him directly. If your horse is being chased by a dominant horse, there are two scenarios to choose from. If your horse prefers you over the dominator — you work on joining up with your horse and driving the dominator away. If your horse prefers to follow the dominator — you have to join up with the dominant horse first, then approach your horse with him.

During approach work, your horse will begin to slow down and stop. When the horse stops, you turn directly toward his barrel and deliberately walk toward him. Not hurredly, but deliberately. When he looks at you, you have to observe if he looks unsure (tense, skeptical eye) or if he is expressing “permission” (relaxed on his feet, soft eye). If he is tense, you pull back and turn parallel in the join-up position. If he is expressing “permission” to do so, you continue to walk straight up into his barrel.

(If he moves on, you simply start over with your approach.)

When you reach your horse, you do NOT go into automatic mode. Remind yourself what you have just communicated to your horse : a sense of affection, bonding, join-up, and respect for his permission. Reward this with soft, gentle patting along his withers and middle. Then raise the halter and look for (continued) permission. Put the halter on. THEN DO NOT RUSH OFF! Pay more attention to the relationship you are building. Take at least 30 seconds (count if you need to!) to scratch, pet, and touch your horse– on both sides. At then end, draw a slow long pat over the top line of your horse, and then another one along the bottom line. This is the kind of affection the mother horse gives her foal that brings her foal nearer to her (usually when she wants to be milked).

Finally, be mindful all through  your approach. permission, and reward phase how you are handling the halter and any tack you are carrying/ wearing. The halter should be held in both hands (the left hand carrying the halter part, and the right hand carrying the lead rope) across the plane of your body. If you carry it off to the side, you will be giving incoherent signals — a bonding signal and a driving signal). Make sure you use the halter as an extension of your body, in a soft, inviting way. Don’t make it “about” the halter. Keep it “about” relationship.

Lastly, signal to your horse when it’s time to go to work.  Say something (out loud or internally) like “That was nice, thank you. Now let’s just get to work.” Punctuating the transition between relationship and work (or sport, or having to see the vet or farrier) builds trust in your horse because you will be more coherent overall.

How to Catch a Horse – Approach

If you watch the previous video closely, you should see that the mare and her filly always move in parallel. You can see that no matter where they are running, how close or far apart they are, or what turns they make, they arrange themselves like this. Similarly, when approaching your horse, you should arrange yourself so that you are always parallel to the horse.


This position is the natural bonding position between horses. Just walking with your horse in this relationship of bodies  creates a kind of resonate  morphic field and will result in a significant difference in your horse’s attitude. Try it! It draws on the natural instincts of horses. Some horses have lost much of their instincts. Horses that have not spent enough time with their mothers, and have been raised in box stalls and paddocks all their lives, away from herd relations, are more difficult to bring around (see A Friesian’s Journey on the Path). But most horses — if they have lived a relatively “normal” life, can dig down into their past experience with their mothers, and understand what you are communicating here.

A few years ago I was interviewing for a horse -human teaching job. The horse in question was a spunky shetland pony. As I stood in the ring with the horse’s owner, talking about the horse and her daughter (the human part of the equation), the little pony ran around the ring, tossing his head, refusing to be caught. While I was talking, I kept making these little adjustments to my body, turning this way and that, depending on the angle and direction the pony was going. A couple of minutes later that pony was standing by my side “at attention” as if to say “ok, what do you want to do?” … and the owner was dumbfounded. Needless to say, I got the job.

If your horse is in a big wide field, you don’t have to keep up with him. You just have to keep walking with him, even from far across the pasture, in a way that keeps the plane of your body parallel to the plane of his. If the horse is turning inside to you, all you have to do is circle inside with him. If the horse takes a big bold, outside turn, you do not have to chase to the other side. Watch the video of the mare and her foal again. When the foal cuts to the outside, the mare “crosses over” and turns once again inside.

A person cannot keep pace with a horse. While approaching, then, you must create a “virtual path” to follow. Here is a diagram:


 The black line is the path of the horse. The yellow line is the path you would be taking, if you could keep pace with a horse running in an open field. Even if you could, there is no need to do so. To create a bonding situation, all you have to do is follow the virtualfollowing path with your body language.

You might almost just pivot in place like I did with the pony. Here is an illustration of the actual path you would take: VACT

 From the above illustration you can really see that the person actually crosses over his own path, though the person and the horse only cross-over “virtually”.

How to Catch a Horse

There are a lot of good techniques and sound advice on the topic of How to Catch a Horse. My approach helps contextualize or explain why some are more or less true, while others are more or less “wives tales.” My approach is based on observing herd behavior in horses, and interacting with a small herd of horses in an 80 acre open field for over 20 years.  The foundation of this approach is the same as the body language that establishes a bond between you and your horse — or even between you and a horse you’ve never met before.

 I do not recommend “pretending” that you do not want to catch your horse. Why would you want to establish that kind of duplicitous relationship with your horse? There is a kind of disconnect in this thinking that produces incoherence. You can feel the incoherence in your own mind as it tries to think what it isn’t thinking, mean what it doesn’t mean, and feign something that is not truly going on. This kind of incoherence the horse rejects.

The second kind of disconnect the horse rejects is incoherent body language. Few people understand how much we communicate to the horse with our body language. The horse is very keyed into the angle of our approach, the tilt of our shoulder, the expression/ angle of our hips, the cadence of our step.

Third, how we present ourselves to the horse, vis-a-vis the halter, rope and/or tack must also be coherent with what we are asking.

And finally, there is follow-through– what we do in the first 30 seconds (not to mention the next 30 years!) after we catch the horse is very important.

I would like to address each of these points individually. In practice they come all as a whole, but in this format, we need to dissect them one by one. Out goal will be to take  all these individual skillsets and combine them seamlessly into one coherent whole — which will naturally attract the horse to us.

Lets start by watching a video of a mare and her filly. What do you see?