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

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?