Problem Solving a Horse That’s Hard to Catch
by Parelli Professionals on Jan 03, 2024
By Neil Pye — 6-Star Parelli Instructor Emeritus
A horse being hard to catch is often a problem many people face. Let’s look at it differently and realize how humans can often blame the horse. A good example is if you imagine your spouse running out the back door every time you come home, trying to get away from you.
It would tell you that you have a relationship problem.
So, when it comes to horses, people say, “Oh, he's a good boy, but he's hard to catch.” They fail to see that he's given them absolute feedback, which is why he doesn't think of cooperation when he sees you. He doesn't think of connection; he thinks get away!
Now, the good news is, don't take it personally. That’s easy to say but often hard. It feels like he doesn't like you, or you'll get mad at him. You'll judge it incorrectly.
Now, more than likely, it's just that he hasn't had much training, or the handling has been with people who don’t look at life from the horse's point of view.
If you've got a hard-to-catch horse, just recognizing and taking the personal feelings out of it will be a positive step.
Secondly, understand that horses are prey animals, and we turn up with ambitions, usually a reasonably direct line approach, a predatorial approach. You often don't realize you emit an energy that conveys that to a prey animal. Their survival over a millennia has been based on reading energy. As prey animals, they have eyes on the side of their head. They look at the world a certain way. A horse’s natural enemies are predators.
It's often a big surprise to first-time horse owners. We don't like to think of ourselves as a predator. However, we walk on our hind legs and have eyes on the front of our heads for depth and perception. We usually have ambitions, timelines, outcomes, and a very direct line way of doing things. We don't mean it, but we put horses off.
So, what can you do?
If you think about when you're trying to catch a horse, you are often a sneaky predator with the halter hidden behind your back or bribes in your pocket.
Wouldn't it be nice if he understood and just stood there and accepted your presence?
You've established enough rapport and respect with him that he sees your approach as not a threat but just a partner coming over. That'll be your goal. You'll never have to catch him, as the name suggests.
Let's look at it another way. How can we present ourselves so they see us as friendly energy and allow us to approach, touch, pet, and politely put on the halter? That would be a way to have your horse accept and connect with you. You don't catch him!
It sounds like a play on words, but it's a different approach. I hope that makes sense.
Now, here are some practical things that can help you.
Firstly, if you have a horse that doesn't like to be caught, change the approach and understand a little bit about why he sees humans that way. Then, we can start to approach him in such a way that we'll change how he looks at things. To do that, don't start in a big pasture. You'll get frustrated. You'll get angry and repeatedly show the horse that you don't understand enough about him.
So, start in a small, confined area.
Let's just accept that he doesn't even face you. As soon as you walk in, he turns his butt to you. He just doesn't like to look at a human. Don't take it personally.
Ensure you are not in an area where he could kick you if he misunderstood your intentions. Enter the area with the halter and lead rope in your hand so the horse can see.
Take the tail of the lead rope and move it rhythmically towards his hind quarter, which is pointing at you. Not that much that you scare him, and he starts banging against the walls and jumping out, just enough to bother him. Just bother him a little, and this is where you have to be vigilant. If he moves and starts to look at you, stop swinging the rope, step back, turn away, and give him some peace for a few seconds. Let him think about that.
Start to approach again. He will most likely swing his nose away and offer you his butt. Repeat. Just add a bit of rhythmic energy with the tail of your rope. Remember, don't be too close that he could kick and hurt you. Just move the rope in a way that does not scare him.
Instead of avoiding you, the horse starts to learn; instead of hiding my head from the human, the quicker I look at them and face them, the faster the pressure comes off me.
So, we put something in it for the horse. He doesn't care about praise and recognition. He cares about feeling safe and being comfortable. With his needs foremost in mind, we apply a strategy where we start by getting at a turn and face.
From there, as you back off when he looks at you, you'll be surprised. As you back off and look away, he may even start to come towards you. If he does step towards you, your screaming energy will want to put the halter on him. But don't do that. That’s your predator energy. Instead, leave him alone, turn around, and walk out of the pen.
As Pat has often says, we use reverse psychology.
From little things, big things grow. Now you've got him to turn and face you. Then you can learn to approach.
Touch him, retreat, then eventually, you'll be able to take the halter and lead rope, bundled up, and use it like a back scratcher. Way before you put it on, use it as a curry comb and make it feel good, rub him all over, walk out with it, and do that several days in a row every day for seven days. If you can put him in a pen, leave him in there for a couple of hours a day, approach and retreat several times throughout the day. Remember, as soon as he looks at you, leave him for 10 minutes. You can do it for a short time, but often.
As long as you're not in a rush, you can start to change the way they perceive you. Through repetition and rewarding at the right time, the horse will learn to be a good citizen. As soon as he sees you coming, you stop, and he turns and faces you, knowing he's safe.
Then, as you follow the Levels program, Level 1 teaches you how to approach and retreat, how to put the halter on in an inoffensive way, how to make it feel good for the horse, and how to develop habits and skills.
You will see how looking at life from a horse's point of view makes such a big difference. That's what this program's all about. Instead of catching a horse, you will have a horse that approaches you.
As you develop your way through the levels, he'll trot up to you in the paddock, knowing the quicker he puts the halter on, the faster he feels good.
Let's reframe it. Think about connecting with your horse versus catching them.
It might be the little change that makes a big difference.