How to Catch a Runaway Horse

We worked on how to release a horse into the field (without getting your arm pulled out of the socket). Now we'll show you how to catch him again.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of trying to catch a runaway horse who doesn’t want to be caught. Whether we claim it’s because your horse sees the halter in our hands or a juvenile delinquent buddy in his pasture leads him astray, it isn’t fun. But this system of catching a runaway will help make that a thing of the past, and in a more advanced lesson, you can teach the horse to come to you on cue.

Before we head into the how to, let’s pause for a moment to rule out what doesn’t work, or what won’t work reliably. Generations of horse owners have thought themselves clever by hiding a halter in a bucket of grain. The horse comes for the grain, and while he’s munching, they try to slip the halter onto his head. The problem is that it doesn’t work for most horses, and often complicates the problem.

The grain part often gets the horse close, but he ends up snatching a bite, not truly near enough to halter. The attempt to capture him normally results in him bolting away with increased wariness about getting caught. The more savvy folks let him have several mouthfuls of grain before trying to snag him, which only results in a horse who’s wary and full.

Another technique that we do not recommend is running a horse until he’s tired. That’s definitely asking for trouble or potential injury to the horse, as well as training him to run from you – the very opposite of what you want him to learn. The only benefit to using this system is that you get your exercise.

Cornering a horse doesn’t work well, either, though it may make sense to restrict his escape routes, as we’ll mention later. Cramming a horse into a corner will panic some horses, causing them to try to jump out of the pasture or run through or over obstacles or people in their path. If a horse is already frightened, trapping things will only make his fear worse. And scared horses often hurt themselves or others.

People have tried roping the horse, but unless you’re very experienced at that, you’ll end up merely chasing the horse with a long rope. Should you catch him, then you’re holding a line attached to a horse you have no control over. As with everything else we do with our horse, we need to operate from a position of control. Catching a horse shouldn’t be a random snag.

Control – Yeah, Right
It’s seems contradictory: We should be in control of a horse we can’t catch. But if you keep control in mind, you’ll have a lot more success.

Plan to enter the field with a friendly, but matter-of-fact attitude. Resolve to keep your emotions in check – no expressing frustration to your horse or trying to punish him when he causes you extra work. Realize that the horse is going to make some decisions that aren’t in keeping with getting caught. Your best options are to use this method to catch the horse, and when time permits, teach the horse to be caught or even to come to you when called.

We begin any lesson where we can – no use wishing for an ideal setup. Ideally, we’d begin in a small corral with safe fencing and footing. So if you have the option of turning your horse into somewhere like that to teach yourself the lesson, so much the better. As you work through it, you’re also teaching the horse to be caught.

Catch, Not Corner

  • Keep a matter-of-fact attitude.

Identify dangerous areas and mentally fence them out of bounds.

Plan to approach the horse from either the left or right, not head on

Approach the horse, but stop before he moves.

Kiss to get the horse to look at you. Quit kissing when he does.

Control the horse’s movement and direction, working toward getting him to look at you longer and longer.

Step to the side to encourage him to turn to face you. Continue doing that, moving closer to him until you can pet and halter him.

But let’s say you find yourself in a large pasture with a horse who doesn’t want to be caught or, worse yet, loose around your yard in an unfenced area. First, eyeball the surroundings to note any place that could be hazardous if the horse goes there. If there’s an area of the fence that’s weakened or likely to injure the horse if he comes up against it, mentally fence off that area. The same goes if there’s a piece of equipment in the field or a muddy or rocky spot. Also note any areas where you can’t or don’t want to go, such as down a steep hill.

If you have helpers, position them to block access to the area you’ve mentally fenced off. You want them to stand quietly, unless the horse approaches, in which case you want them to wave their arms and use energetic body language to discourage the horse from going there. Be sure to tell them to stand quietly again the moment the horse has turned away from that area.

Next, decide which side of the horse you want to catch. We’re used to thinking of horses as coming directly toward us, but that’s unlikely, especially in the case of a horse who doesn’t want to be caught. Most horses are more used to being handled on their left, and most people are more comfortable with that, too. That may change depending on what the horse does, as you’ll see later, but picture walking up to your horse’s head from the left side.

Already you’re starting to develop a plan – limit the horse’s territory and walk up to his left side. But first you’ll have to get close enough.

One Step at a Time
We’re going to control the horse by controlling his movement. If you imagine one horse chasing another from a pile of hay, you know that the boss horse merely makes the other move away a few steps. She doesn’t defend her hay by chasing the other horse around the pasture for 10 minutes. An ugly look or a step in his direction and he moves off. Case closed.

That’s the plan we’re going to use with our loose horse. We’ll want him to move a few steps in the direction we choose. Case closed. Then we’ll do that again. By backing off the moment the horse does what we want, we set up a dialogue that he can understand, and we also tell him that we’re not going to play cat-and-mouse games.

Haltered Horses at Risk in Pasture

We know. It’s tempting to leave a halter or even a halter and drag rope on a horse who’s hard to catch. But unless that halter will break if there’s much tension on it, resist the urge. (A breakaway halter has a thin crown that will break readily.) Though we’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating that horses have a knack of getting themselves hung up and have broken their necks or had serious injury snagging their halter on a tree limb or fence post.

Let’s say that you can approach within 15 feet of the horse, but when you try to get closer, he moves away. That tells you 15 feet is his safe zone. Rather than following him, we’re going to get the horse to come toward us. He may not move his feet toward us initially, but we’ll be able to see that his eyes and mind are on us and he’s willing to stand for us to approach him.

When the horse is standing quietly, move toward him quietly until you’re 20 feet from his left side. Stop and stand relaxed. If he doesn’t move away from you, that’s a first victory. You might even turn and walk away, letting him know that all you wanted was to walk within 20 feet of him. If your horse is skittish, you may have to do this several times or at several distances until you find the distance where he’s comfortable with you.

Approach again, and again stop 20 feet away, or stop if you sense that the horse is about to move away from you. Now, instead of thinking about approaching his head directly, step to your right as if you were planning to walk behind the horse. In order to keep an eye on you, the horse will have to turn his head, or at least his attention, slightly to the left.

Our goal will be to get the horse to look at us with his left eye, then to turn his head to the left and then finally to turn himself so he’s looking at us with both eyes. The longer he stands with his neck bent, the better chance we have of catching him.

This procedure requires some intuition. If you think the horse is about to leave, he probably is. If you think he’ll stand, he may.

Make a little noise, such as kissing to the horse or patting your leg. You’re only trying to get his notice, not get him to move his feet. So if he stops eating and raises his head, even if he’s not looking at you, stop kissing, perhaps even turning and walking away. That’s the beginning of conditioning him that kissing means move and when the kissing noise stops, you’re telling him he did what you wanted.

Move a little to your right and kiss again. Again stop the noise as soon as he turns to look at you. Play with kissing and moving until the horse turns to face you.

While that’s the overview of the plan, it won’t happen as simply as that in most cases. The horse has to have a reason to turn toward you, and you may have to tell him to move his feet.

At some point, you’ll lose his gaze. When he turns away from you or begins to move away, shoo him away a few steps, focusing directly on his left hip. You don’t want to get him running. You just want to move him a few steps. When he learns that you can move him without hurting him, he begins to respect you and to realize that you’re controlling him, and it’s OK.

Do Treats Work?

Sometimes. There’s no reason you can’t reward your horse with a treat when you catch him. That will help condition him to think that getting caught has its rewards. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that you have control of the horse or that treats will always work. If other horses are in the mix or if he’s been munching green grass and knows you’re catching him to put him up for the night or to go to work, treats may not be compelling enough. Only use treats as a treat. Don’t rely on them for training.

Though your goal will have been to move him a few feet, he may take off on his own. That’s OK. Next time, try quieter body language when you’re moving him. His running off may have had nothing to do with your body language, but it’s worth noticing.

Remember which side was closest to you when he took off. So if he went off to the left – if his left side was toward you – then you’re going to want to bring him back and catch him from the left. When he tries to turn to the right, see if you can move to the right to cut him off or discourage the right turn. You won’t be able to control him as you might if he was in a round pen with the fence to restrain him. But if you’re persistent, he’ll get the idea, just as he would if you were another horse.

Put pressure on him – moving toward him or shooing him to turn to the left, when he’s moving to the right, and stop shooing him when he turns to the left. The more specific you are when you do the green light/red light game, the quicker he’ll understand what you want. Eventually, you’ll be back in position so that you can approach within 20 feet of him. Then you can begin once more, getting him to look at you, asking his head to look to the left again.

At some point, you may be able to walk up to the horse directly, but most likely, it will require him turning several times. From his left side, step to the right, asking him to look at you with his left eye by kissing to him. When he turns, stop kissing. Keep working with that, moving closer to the horse when you feel that you can without him leaving.

There will be a time you can pet his head. When that happens, don’t nab him. Pet his head, then stop petting, particularly if you sense that he’s about to pull his head away from you. Try to feel when you should move away from the horse to tell him that’s all you wanted to do or when you can continue to engage him. When he takes his head away, don’t “chase” it with your hand. Kiss to call him back to you.

Move to the horse’s left side and pet his neck, or hug it. When you feel that you can halter him without him running away, then slip the halter on, pet him and lead him back to the barn. Resolve to work with him in a smaller place before you turn him loose in a three-acre field.

Back at Home
You successfully caught your horse in the big pasture, but you obviously don’t want to go through that every day. What are your options? Use the same lesson in the horse’s stall, teaching him to turn to face you when you open the stall door. Then graduate to a small corral, then a slightly larger corral, then a situation with more than one horse and so forth. Work with your horse on leading lessons, and teach him the “head down” cue. The more comfortable he gets working with you, the easier he’ll be to catch.

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