What to Do When You Can't Catch Your Horse... and It's Not Funny Anymore

by Tik Maynard /

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t a horse trials last year a new student of mine turned her horse out into a small, rented paddock. “Great,” she thought, “he will be able to relax and eat some grass.”

That afternoon she found me and admitted, slowly: “I can’t catch him.” 

“How long have you been trying?”

“Hours…” 

Hmm. Interesting, I thought. When I have the time, I enjoy a challenge. (Years ago I made up my mind to appreciate puzzles with horses, instead of finding them frustrating. It’s also no fun for me, or the horse, if I’m in a hurry.) 

“I will be over there right after my last ride.” She nodded, trying to smile.

As I warmed up my last horse my mind wandered. A horse should never learn they can’t be caught. At the least, it’s time consuming; at the worst, it’s an emergency. And what does it say about the relationship?

Photo by Agnė Bekeraitytė/NoelleFloyd.com.

Even if I have a horse that is easy to catch, I think, “How can I make this better?” I believe everything we do with horses can be improved upon. Our lives with horses are made up of thousands of small habits. All these tiny actions added up are exactly what determines how we get along with our horse. (And equally important, how they get along with us.)

[INSIDER] Learn how to create a positive experience for your young horse at their first horse show.

I asked Florida horseman, Pete Rodda, for his top three tips on creating good habits when it comes to catching horses. He sent me these the same day:

  1. “It is not a race.”
  1. “If they have a halter on, do not grab it, catch as if you have to put it on.”
  1. “Don’t trap them or catch them just for today.”

The next day he sent me these:

  1. “Sometimes leave when the horse is in a better spot, even though you have not caught him.”
  1. “Have them learn to catch you instead of you catching them.”

Then on the third day:

  1. “Don’t catch at the gate.”

Jonathan Field, a horseman from British Columbia and one of the biggest influences on my life, helps a lot of people and horses in clinics around the world. He suggested this when it comes to catching a horse:

“Do not be in a too big area! I want to practice success. So if I have a horse that already has a history of playing the ‘You can’t catch me game,’ then I will keep them in a smaller pen close to the barn and go out to catch, rub, and turn that horse loose as many times in day as I can. This way I practice a new pattern and also show the horse every time I come to their stall, pen, or pasture they won’t always be taken away for a ride.”

Photo by Erin Gilmore/NoelleFloyd.com.

Repetition is a strong reinforcer. In other words, habits are reinforcing. They will get easier and more natural as time goes on. These are some of my favorite habits:

  • Allowing them to touch the back of my hand once, twice, or three times before I ease into their space and give them a rub.

  • Don’t think of a horse being caught or not caught, but have a grey area in between. For example, could I put the rope around a horse’s neck and give them a rub, then a minute or two later put the halter on? When I let them go, could I unsnap the bottom of the halter, then lead her a few more feet, then rub her, then let her go? The last thing I want is to have a horse feel free when I don’t have them, and trapped when I do, then spin and gallop away as soon as I take the halter off.

  • This one is controversial: I greet my horses with treats. The treat is usually a carrot or a cookie, but at the minimum, a treat might also mean a rub or undemanding time. Please, do not have your horse start their day by heaving the halter over her head, yanking the rope, and dragging them into the barn.

If how smoothly a horse can be caught is on a spectrum, most of the horses I see fall somewhere in the middle. Occasionally I see really difficult ones. (Once it took me an hour to catch a horse in a stall. Pete said it once took him 40 hours to catch a two-year-old filly in an 8-acre field.) Even more rarely however, do I see exceptional ones. What might that look like? How good could a catch get?

Master the art of riding a hot horse with French show jumper Pénélope Leprevost.

Maybe this: I unlatch the gate of a 10-acre field and call, “Larry!” He looks at me, his ears go forward, he leaves the other grazing horses, and he trots, then canters, to me. He gently coasts to a halt in front of me and lowers his head. He takes a deep breath as I rub around his ears and then his withers.

Photo by Erin Gilmore/NoelleFloyd.com.

Or what about this: At a horse show, “Po” uses his mouth to open his latch and escapes from his stall. He is distracted by the wind and the mares stabled down the aisle. I rock back on my heels and whistle. His head swivels and he scans the crowd to find me. He walks around a wheelbarrow, lowers his head to pass under a tent, then trots across the courtyard to me. As he reaches me I start walking, and he smoothly spirals around me so that his ears are next to my shoulder. He lowers his head and I rest my hand on his neck as we walk off together.

Back at the Horse Show...

After my last horse at the horse trials, I went to find my student. Her horse was in a paddock about the size of a tennis court. There was a group watching one person try to catch the horse.

I asked if I could take over. I gathered all the people watching and we walked in together. There were 13 of us. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with small gaps between us, we effectively made a wall. We waited until the gelding was not scared, and then we took a step forward. Over the course of 30 minutes we reduced the size of the arena by three-quarters.

I asked one of the girls in the line to walk halfway to the horse. When he stood still, I asked her to return to the line. We repeated that until she could walk up and he would sniff her hand.

Photo by Erin Gilmore/NoelleFloyd.com.

Then I took a turn and repeated the same thing. Once he was comfortable with me coming up to his head, I repeated the same exercise coming up to his shoulder. I backed away every time he stood still, or relaxed, or looked at me. (Backing away is his reward.)

Eventually I could stand beside his shoulder. Then I let him get used to me rubbing him with the rope and eventually let it fall easily around his neck. As I took both ends of the rope I backed away and led him a short distance. Then I stopped and led him again. I wanted him to feel “with me” before I slipped the halter on. 

Getting the halter on was the easy part. The whole process took us 45 minutes. It was time well spent. I enjoy riddles. And the more I enjoy them, the easier they get. 

There is no one way to catch a difficult horse. It depends on why they can’t be caught. Are they scared or is it a learned habit? It depends on the size of the space they are in. It depends how dangerous they are. It depends on how many people are around, and what skills and experience they have.

We want a horse to want to be caught, and that is created by good habits and by understanding what motivates horses.

Chime in below, riders! Have you had trouble with catching your horse in the past? What worked for you? 

Feature photo by Laura Bennett for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Tik Maynard

Tik Maynard was shortlisted for the Canadian eventing team and has twice won the Thoroughbred Makeover Freestyle. His passion is learning about how horses think, feel, and play. In 2018, he published his first book, “In the Middle Are the Horsemen.” His lives in Florida with his wife, Sinead Halpin, and their son, Brooks.