If you are experiencing difficulty in catching your horse or pony, rest assured that you are not the only one to be suffering from this exasperating problem. However, the knowledge that there are plenty of other equine enthusiasts walking around their fields in circles, whilst their not-so-trusty steeds show them a clean pair of hooves, does not make the situation any less frustrating.Whilst the most common solution to this problem appears to be approaching said steed with a tempting morsel in an outstretched hand, this is only a 'quick fix' that can lead to greater difficulties in the long term. Horses are intelligent animals, and will soon learn to snatch the treat from your grasp before disappearing over the horizon. What is more, this exciting new game will quickly become a favourite to be repeated day after day, and feeding horses from the hand can also encourage biting - again, not a desirable trait.
What many of us forget is that horses are not children, and therefore should never be rewarded, punished or trained as if they were. If a child was to run off as his mother approached, he or she would most likely be reprimanded once caught. If a horse runs off when approached, he should never be reprimanded once caught; unlike a child, he would relate the punishment to being caught rather than the act of running off, thus making him even more unlikely to come to you the next time you wish to bring him in from the field.Therefore, understanding equine behaviour plays an essential part in successful management and training, and is an invaluable tool when it comes to solving problems such as the one addressed here. Horses are flight animals and so have a deep-seated instinct to run at the first sign of danger. This flight response is at the root of their day-to-day behaviour and is the reason for their sensitivity, including the surprising ability to pick up on emotions.So, first and foremost, never approach a horse that is difficult to catch whilst you have feelings of anger or stress. The horse will automatically pick up on this tension, which will result in him wanting to put himself at a distance from you rather than wishing to be by your side. Whenever you feel annoyance setting in try to exhale slowly, and let your shoulders and adrenalin drop.
Your posture may seem like an insignificant detail, but it is important to remember that horses communicate nearly exclusively through body language, and so your positioning is of prime importance. Never advance towards your horse head on, with your shoulders squared, or with your eyes meeting his - this is 'equine speak' for "go away", often used by herd members to drive inferior horses to the edge of the group. Instead, approach your horse in a non-threatening manner, with your shoulder closest to him lowered, and with your eyes kept to the ground. Be sure to close the gap between you slowly. A gentle zigzagging movement can be effective, as long as there is no instance of head-on approach: always close in from the side, ideally facing in the same direction as the horse, and with your lowered shoulder in line with his. It may well seem that whilst he has his head down grazing he is paying no attention to your movements whatsoever, but do not be fooled! Horses have peripheral vision and he will not have missed a single trick so far.Now that you have managed to reach your horse's side without him galloping for the hills, gently reach out with the arm that is closest to his body and give his withers a scratch. He will relate this to being groomed by a fellow herd member, and thus see it as a reward for allowing you to go up to him whilst he is out in the field. This act of positive reinforcement will make the horse more likely to accept your approach a second time, and the more times you can do this without actually catching him the better.Once you feel that the horse is relaxed enough to accept the headcollar, edge slowly forwards keeping your eyes to the ground and your shoulders drooped. By positioning yourself so that your back is just in front and to the side of his chest, you should be able to loop the arm that is closest to him under his neck before gently slipping the headcollar over his nose. Never attempt to put the headcollar on whilst facing the horse's head. This aggressive, 'sending-off' position will serve to make your horse throw his head up and step backwards at best, or worse, spin and run off. When the mission is complete, be sure to reward your horse again - a simple rub on the forehead or a scratch of the neck is far better than an edible treat, as food in the hand is never a means of reward dished out by the leader of the herd!
Problems with catching often occur when the horse is turned out with others, as this is when herd mentality is in full swing. Trying to fish your friend out of a group of boisterous horses can be quite daunting, especially when they are all gathered at the gate. Again, this is where body language is the key to success. By adopting the authoritative, 'sending-off' stance used by the leader of the herd, you can drive the offending horses away whilst keeping your back submissively to the one you wish to keep by your side. Simply look your target directly in the eye whilst facing him head-on with your shoulders squared and arms slightly raised. Keep your open palms towards the horse, and your fingers spread wide. Do not let your eyes drop, and stride towards him to usher him away.
Finally, try to allow some time for bringing your horse in to something other than work. If he thinks that a pleasant groom is awaiting him, he may be less reluctant to be caught!