My 19-year-old AQHA mare Okie is notoriously hard to catch. She was hard to catch when I bought her as a three-year-old. For the first three years I owned her, it was not an issue because I kept her stalled and the only turnout available was a round pen (no, not an ideal situation, but it was what I had access to where I boarded). I forgot she was hard to catch until I moved to a barn with pasture boarding and turned her out. It was then that I learned the technique I shared in Catch Any Horse with This One Secret Trick. Yes, that technique works, but it can be extremely time consuming for the first few days, and I know some equestrians just do not have that availability.
I recently started liberty training with Okie, and one of the first things I taught her was targeting. She picked up on it right away, and it made me wonder: Could I use targeting to make her easier to catch?
Targeting made her much easier to catch and I no longer have to walk her down. This is the technique I use to introduce targeting to my hard-to-catch horses.
What is Targeting?
In targeting, you teach your horse to touch a specific object – the target – with its nose. A target can be anything you want, but it should be something that you do not use for anything else with your horse. Mine is a rope ball (buy it here) on top of my dressage whip (buy it here).
I use Positive Reinforcement (R+) to teach targeting. Although I use treats (alfalfa pellets) with Okie, you can use praise and touch instead. Okie was very responsive to the treats, but my 12-year-old APHA mare Lucky has zero interest in them. Instead, she responds amazingly to praise and touch. Be flexible with your horse and find what works best for them.
To introduce targeting to your horse, you do not necessarily have to have them caught, but you do need to be able to approach them.
Hold the target just below your horse’s nose. When your horse reaches out and touches the target with its nose, remove the target, make a clicking noise with your tongue or use a clicker (buy it here) to “mark” the desired behavior, and reward your horse with a treat or praise. If your horse shows no interest in the target, break it down even more. As soon as your horse makes any move towards the target, even turning its head slightly in its direction, click and treat or praise. Some horses need to take more baby steps to get to the end goal.
Once your horse is consistently touching its nose to the target, hold the target a bit farther away so that the horse has to take a step to touch its nose to the target. When your horse takes the step and touches the target, click and treat or praise.
Then, make your horse take two steps, and then three, and then four. Keep building until your horse will come to the target consistently.
Catching Your Horse with a Target
Once your horse understands the target, you can use it to catch them, even if they are hard to catch.
My horses live in 45’ x 55’ pens, so they have ample opportunity to move away from me if they do not want to be caught. With targeting, rather than me walking them down, they come to me.
When I want to catch Okie, I hang her halter on the gate and walk into her pen with the target. I stand a few steps away from her and present the target. She recognizes it and comes to me. She touches her nose to the target, and I click and treat or praise. Then I back up a few steps towards the gate, she follows me, touches her nose to the target, and I click and treat or praise. We repeat this until we reach the gate.
Now she is in a positive mindset and catching her is easy. I pick up my halter and put my lead rope over her neck. If she stands still – which she usually does – I click and treat or praise. Then I slip the halter over her head and click and treat or praise. By consistently telling her the behaviors I expect – standing still while I catch her – she consistently gives me the behaviors that I want.
Reinforce Desired Behaviors
Learning targeting changed my perspective on horse training. By shifting from the traditional ask-tell-demand approach to R+, my horse is more responsive and willing, and her quirky habits are slowly disappearing. Okie and I have had a long journey together, and I am excited to see where R+ and liberty training takes us. Now that I have another technique for catching her, our lessons together start on a positive note.
How have you used targeting with your horses? Let me know in the comments below!
Welcome! I've been a freelance writer since 2002 and have numerous horse-related articles published in print and online publications. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rocky Mountain College with a major in Equestrian Studies and a minor in Business Management. My current business ventures include High Plains Arena and real estate investing.