I watched an episode of Dr. Phil once where a woman wanted to lose weight so she bought a horse. Dr. Phil said that owning a horse was great exercise for the horse, but what was it going to do for her?
Horseback riding is an excellent, full-body workout itself, but those of us who own a hard-to-catch horse burn double calories trying to get our horse haltered before we ever get to ride. Dr. Phil obviously hasn’t spent a lot of time around horses.
In 2008, I worked with Buddy Lemaster, a hunter/jumper trainer who has solved all sorts of issues with top-level horses. It turns out, the secret to catching the hard-to-catch horse is very easy but requires a lot of patience.
For many years I had to balance riding with working a full-time job and all my other life obligations, so most days I could only squeeze in a quick trip to the barn. It never failed, my horse would see me coming and immediately run to the other end of the pasture. We would go around and around, and some days I could not get her caught before I had to leave. On those days she won, and I enforced a bad habit. Now that I know better, I do better. All it took was one secret trick.
The secret to catching the hard-to-catch horse is to be non-reactive.
Sure, you want to holler at your horse, swing the lead rope and make them run until they are tired enough to catch, but this is enforcing the bad habit of moving away from you when they should allow you to move closer. In a large area, the horse runs and then stops before you have a chance to catch up to make him run again, so all he learns is that by expending a little effort he can avoid much harder work to come. You get frustrated and he wins.
By being non-reactive, you will catch your horse much faster.
Enter the paddock carrying your halter and walk at your relaxed normal pace towards your horse. I use a flat nylon halter because I can buckle it easier than I can tie a knot in a rope halter, but the choice is yours. I use and recommend Weaver brand halters, and you can buy it here.
Do not make eye contact but watch your horse’s reactions. It is tempting to say “whoa” (or sometimes something more colorful!) but do not talk to your horse just yet.
If your horse moves away from you, still avoid eye contact and walked relaxed towards your horse. You do not need to change your pace if your horse changes his. Keep your same relaxed gait moving towards your horse.
When your horse stops and turns towards you, continue moving forward. If he takes a step back, you take a step back to match his movement. Take a deep breath, exhale, and start walking forward again. Eventually he will let you walk all the way to him and put the lead rope over his neck. I use a cotton lead rope so that if the horse bolts the rope won't burn my hand. Again, I use and recommend Weaver brand, and you can buy a good cotton lead rope here.
Once you have your horse haltered, praise him and reward him with treats if he is food motivated. He needs to know that being caught was the objective and earns rewards so next time he will be easier to catch. My horses love Manna Pro Peppermint Nuggets. You can put them in your pocket or use a treat pouch like the Outward Hound Hands-Free Tote Treat Bag.
Budget Your Time
This is NOT a quick process. The first time I tried this, my horse was turned out on 160 acres with three other horses and it took FOUR HOURS to catch her using this method. I thought Buddy Lemaster was nuts. This was never going to work. I couldn’t take FOUR HOURS to catch my horse every time.
The next day, I caught her in 45 minutes.
The day after that, less than 10 minutes.
Now she takes three steps away from me and gives up. On the rare occasion she meets me at the gate.
Training Takes Time
Remember, teaching your horse to be caught takes time and patience, just like anything else you teach him. Choose a day to start when you have no other obligations because the first two days may require a significant time commitment. Once you break through though you will be happy that you spent the time walking down your horse.
How do you catch your hard-to-catch 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.