Trainer’s Tip: Catch up

by Brent Winston, head trainer, Harmony Equine Center

Hello again! I hope everyone has been staying dry during this unusually wet spring and summer we’ve been having in our beautiful state. With rain comes green grass, and for those of us that turn out our horses on pasture, we know that can make them frisky and hard to catch at times. Even if you don’t have your horse turned out, spring and summer just makes horses feel good and feisty.

Horses that are tough to catch can take a lot of the fun out of horse ownership, causing frustration each time we go to play. Often, this becomes a game that the horse trains us to play with them. In the past, I have seen a lot of people develop “tricks” to catch their horse, such as walk backwards, hide the halter, sneak up on them when they are eating, and the list goes on. I admit I know a lot of the tricks because I’ve tried several of them myself. However, eventually your horse gets smart to the tricks, and then we start the game all over. At the Harmony Equine Center, we believe that teaching our horses to get caught is every bit as important as riding them.

Often, the root of the problem is that we only catch our horse when we are going to ride them or put them to work. At Harmony, we often catch them and give them some grain or groom them and then turn them loose without riding or working them. We start a lot of horses that are hard to catch in the round pen. Once in the pen, position the front of your body toward the girth area of the horse, which I like to call this the drive line. If you get in front of this line, you’ll turn the horse the other direction, and if you get behind the line too far, you stand a chance of being in a zone to get kicked. Once you have positioned yourself in the drive line, start driving your horse around the pen. Move your horse through all three gaits, walk, trot and lope. More than likely at first your horse will be looking to the outside of the round pen and not paying attention to you. Keep moving your horse until he gives you a glance, then back the pressure off by backing yourself up. Remember to reward the smallest change and the slightest try, even an ear flick toward you might be a good start. You might have to change directions by stepping in front of the drive line a couple times so that your horse knows that you are in control of moving their feet. This behavior is what other horses do to them in the herd to establish respect. Once your horse starts paying attention, back the pressure off and let them stand to rest. A common mistake that’s made at this point is to immediately approach and try to catch them. I like to get my horse thinking that every time they look at me they get no pressure and can relax. After a minute or two, you can approach. Once you begin to approach, watch your horse, and if they start making a motion to leave or go away stop and back up again, which is a friendly reminder that they’re supposed to stay. If they leave, start the process over again by moving them around. This approach works in any corral or pasture as well.

In a bigger pasture, I like to work the front and the back of the drive line to block the horse from running past me. It’s important to remember that you’re either blocking or driving while you’re positioning yourself. This might change if the horse changes its body position. Once your horse starts to look at you, back off and let them rest and think. Then start the approach and retreat process mentioned earlier. It’s important to not get mad, frustrated or give up during the process. If you let your horse think he can run away from you, it’ll take longer to teach them to get caught.

Sometimes, your horse will behave great for you in the round pen and arena, but he’ll still be hard to catch out in his pen. If this happens, start working your horse in their pen to establish that you’re the leader in their territory, not them. Do some groundwork games out there and even ride them to drive home that wherever you are, you’re the leader.

Remember, don’t make getting caught every time work for your horse. Spend time catching your horse and just hanging out. Stay patient and reward the smallest change by taking pressure away. Work at getting your horse to want to be caught, and the reward will be a lot more enjoyable for you in the future. I like to call this time well spent. Until next time, ride safe and check yer cinch from time to time.