8 ways to catch a horse

In the book No Life for a Lady, the biography of Agnes Moreland Cleaveland, the children were put in charge of catching a horse and riding into town in order to get supplies. This was New Mexico in the early 1900s. The author said that they didn’t have corrals so catching a horse could take half a day. The horses would know you wanted to catch them and would hide behind trees.


Anyone who knows that southwestern part of New Mexico knows the trees are not very big in that part of the country, but if a horse thought he could not be seen behind one of those little trees, he might be able to fool his captor!

It also amuses me that this was the job of the children. The adults in the family didn’t want to spend that long looking for and catching horses! Nobody thought to build a corral to make it easier, not if it could keep children busy for half a day.

IMG_3231Native people are said to walk behind a horse for days, “walking them down” so that they got used to the presence of the human. The human was also matching stride with the horse, not being too close, just going the same pace. This was useful on the American Great Plains where there were no fences, and there were few ways to engage a wild animal other than to get him or her interested in what you are doing. We have incorporated that activity into the Liberty Foundations, because it is something horses do with each other and if we mirror their rhythms, we have a better chance of forming some kind of connection.

Once at a clinic, a horse came in who clearly didn’t want to be caught. Every time his owner got close to him, he took off galloping again. He’d just gotten off the trailer and was let out into a big pasture. No wonder he didn’t want to be caught!IMG_3206

It really was best to let him get used to that space, but it also seemed that the more he got used to it, the more he liked it and didn’t want to have to deal with the humans. I could tell that my being interested in him was going to drive him off. It was a game really. Whomever had their eyes on him inadvertantly sent the horse to the farthest corner.

I decided to completely ignore him. I turned my back and picked at grass or went over to visit one of the other horses across the fence. He began to come closer. I turned a couple of times slightly and then he would jump aside or take off running again. So I kept doing different things that were not involved with “catching” him. I collected different bits of grass and added it to my pile, or went behind the barn, without looking at him.

Finally he came over. I felt that between us – he was ready to take off if I just twitched my hand or tried to put a hand on him. So I stood there and stared off into space with him. After awhile I felt his energy relax and I reached a hand to the place where the neck meets the withers. He was fine with that and then I could stroke his neck a bit. Then we just stood next to each other. I walked a little way with him while he grazed and it was all quiet. In a little while I was able to slip the rope around his neck and halter him.

cropped-img_28851.jpgIn that time, something changed. Something made a difference to him. He didn’t feel any urgency about being caught, or that it would be fun to evade me any more.

Karen with Beau
Karen with Beau

I have a mare who sometimes doesn’t want to be caught. She likes to play with me because she knows I want something. When we first moved out to the new barn with lots of space, she thought it was loads of fun to just take off when I came to see her. She was reveling in her freedom.

I might say, I want to go on a trail ride. But if I go in with that written all over me, she will most likely decide she doesn’t want to be caught, even though in general, she likes trail rides. She enjoys the game of having me walk behind her until she turns to me or stops. She also enjoys having me figure out that I need to be in the moment and not so focused on my goals. She has also engaged my younger mare in the same game, so when a friend comes to ride, the two mares take off together. Recently she has been more interested in being caught because she thinks I might have something interesting to offer.

Of course we can resort to offering a treat. I use food often in Liberty Foundations, in a getting-to-know-you way, to be able to build trust in the beginning. Often food isn’t really needed later in the session.

But with catching a horse, I am often looking for a different quality to the relationship. I want the horse to want to come with me of his own accord, maybe even making it his own idea. If you offer a child a cooky if he finishes his homework, for example, he doesn’t really want to finish his homework, he has his eye on the cooky. It may take longer without the cooky to engage the curiosity and desire of the horse or child, but it’s well worth it in the end. If you don’t have the time to try it, then you know the cooky works.

Here are seven ways to catch a horse:

  1. Walking the horse down. This is done by walking behind and possibly at the side of the horse at their pace until they are no longer trying to get away.
  2. Get interested in something else: fixing a fence, building a fort, working with another horse, etc.
  3. If you can, drop your focus on the horse, and your agenda.
  4. Go behind a tree or building. The horse knows you’re there, but is curious as to why you are there. If you have time, you can even make it into a “hide-and-seek” game.
  5. Know what your horse likes to do, preferences in terms of activities. My older mare loves to explore and climb, so I sometimes ask if she’d like to go on a walkabout with me before I suggest the halter.
  6. If the horse comes close enough to touch, don’t immediately slip the lead rope around the neck. Stand quietly for a moment and put your hand on the juncture between neck and wither. You can stand and stroke her if she is comfortable with that. Or if she comes up to you from the front, extend your hand in greeting.
  7. Try mirroring – looking off in the direction the horse is looking.
  8.  Take a few steps and stop. Inching closer, if the horse is not trotting off, will eventually get you next to the horse, and he or she won’t feel crowded.

Above all, engage your horse’s curiosity. I’ve written about this before, but it’s really huge. Temple Grandin wrote about this in her book, Animals Make Us Human, Creating the Best Life for Animals, about horses’ and other animals’ need for curiosity in their lives, what she calls the “seeking” instinct.

You may need to combine a few of these ideas, or you may get lucky and one will do it.

If you still have difficulty with your horse, it’s time to look inside and see what energy you’re carrying. Sometimes we carry emotional stuff we aren’t even aware of and some horses are more sensitive to human energy fluctuations than others. It’s really a combination of the horses’s stuff and human stuff. By examining each, and figuring out some ways of shifting yourself, and ways to help your horse, you’re on the road to a winning combination: a horse who wants to be with you!

Related blogs:

Through an Open Gate

The thinking horse: promoting healthy curiosity in your horse

Copyright (c) Susan Smith


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We will interact with the herd in the morning, and work with horses in the arena in the afternoon. We may possibly go to lunch at a nearby restaurant or bring a lunch. Excellent herd to liberty experience! Space will be limited, be sure to enroll soon to ensure your spot. Location: Mac’s Overnight Stables, Canoncito (near El Dorado), Santa Fe, NM.  Time: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. $150 Early Bird before Oct. 1, $160 after Oct 1. Contact susansmith@orthohorse.info or 505-501-2478 for information.

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Susan is a member of the Independent Liberty Trainers Network. libertytrainersnetwork.com/

Associate Instructor, Advanced Practitioner – Ortho-Bionomy & Equine Ortho-Bionomy

Practitioner, Equine Positional Release




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