Catching a Horse


gray horse gallopThe rider walks out to the pasture where five horses are grazing. Carrying a halter and lead rope, she leans against a rail and watches. The horses raise their heads, flicking their ears forward. After a few minutes, they amble over to her. She greets each one with pats, praise and ear scratches, then she places the halter on one, snaps on the lead, makes a kissing sound and moves forward; the horse obediently follows. This is the way it is — and should be — between a knowledgeable handler who understands equine behavior and a horse that is properly trained and trusting of his handler.

Most horses can be trained to allow a handler to catch them, and the job is much easier when catching and handling is done correctly when they are still foals. But even an older, difficult horse can be transformed from evasive runaway into acquiescent follower if the handler is willing to become a circumspective leader who takes the time to understand the horse.

What Makes Equus Run?

The first step to understanding the elusive horse is determining what drives the horse away from his handler.

Does the horse fear humans? “Horses have only two goals in life: to survive and to reproduce,” says Monty Roberts, a noted horse trainer and animal behaviorist. “Certainly when they’re difficult to catch, they’re not thinking about reproduction; their only thought can be survival. Anything that is uncomfortable for them could then lead to their ultimate death, so they perceive you as a predator and act upon that instinct.”

Is the horse afraid to leave the herd? “If horses are housed in a herd situation, their strongest instincts are to stay with the herd, whether the herd is inside the barn or consists of two or three buddies out in the pasture,” says Carol A. Collyer, director of equine services at Cornell University’s Equine Research Park. “When we take the horse away from the herd, where he’s comfortable, that may create some anxiety because we’re basically taking him away from where his instincts tell him it’s safest to be.”

Did the horse have a bad first experience with being caught? “A foal may never have been halter trained, then the veterinarian comes out at 6 weeks of age, and the horse is caught for the first time,” says Sharon Spier, DVM, associate professor and chief of equine field service at the University of California, Davis. “He gets wormed, vaccinated and restrained; that’s a fearful experience for the foal and not an ideal first way to handle a horse. Those horses can then be difficult to catch, needle-shy and fearful because that’s been their first experience with restraint.”

Does the horse lack good training? Many horses run away because they’ve not been properly schooled to respond to a handler’s commands.

Does the horse receive negative reinforcement? Clumsy handling, being put to work, or undergoing shots, worming or other unpleasant procedures every time the horse is apprehended reinforces his distrust of humans.

Does the horse receive inappropriate positive reinforcement? Some horses learn that if they evade their handlers, they’re offered a bribe. Soon it becomes a game.

Although it may be impossible to figure out why a horse acts the way he does, it is helpful to know whether the cause is due to fear, insufficient training, handler error or a combination of all three.

Regardless, the second step in correcting runaway behavior is careful consideration of each cause and then making the appropriate adjustments toward a better partnership. This is done by establishing trust, reschooling in the basics and/or learning better handling techniques.

Restoring Trust

For a fearful horse, or one whose experiences after getting caught are primarily negative ones, the handler must gain the horse’s trust and confidence. Restore the relationship by giving the horse positive experiences. Handle him without demanding anything from him. “Spend more time not catching him and taking him away,” suggests Collyer, “but just catching and handling him, giving him a pleasant experience. In time he will associate you with the pleasant experiences as well as other experiences. Do something nice like grooming him, giving him a scratch, or just approaching him and handling him.”

This method is also applied to the horse that’s afraid to leave his buddies. “Accustom the horse to being taken out of the herd with a good experience,” says Collyer. “Hopefully, the horse will soon develop enough confidence in you that he no longer sees you as a threat to his herding instinct.”

Practice approaching the horse in a small enclosure, like a box stall, round pen or paddock. “If you can’t catch your horse in a box stall, you’re not going to be able to catch him in the field,” notes Collyer. “Teaching them to allow you to approach and handle-them, and giving them positive reinforcement, will help a lot when you start having to catch them in different situations. By establishing this relationship of being able to walk up to the horse, the horse should be able to relate to the experience no matter where he is turned loose.”


For the horse that chooses to ignore his handler’s commands or that plays games in hopes of getting a bribe, retraining in the fundamentals should correct the problem. Because the goal of retraining the evasive horse is to create a horse that will listen and obey his handler, use tools that make it easier for the horse to understand: the longe line, body language and, if possible, a round pen.

Dr. Spier, who raises and trains dressage and trail horses, says, “If you don’t have a round corral, use the longe line to teach him to come into you at whatever gait you select. Have him change direction. Instead of doing endless circles, train your horse to back up on the longe line, go through obstacles and over jumps. Ask him for different tasks, with plenty of praise and rest so he gets his mind concentrating on you.” Commands learned on the longe line should soon transfer to the horse at liberty.

Work with the horse through body language. “Approach the horse with the idea that you don’t want to catch him, that he ought to go away,” says Roberts.

“When you push him away, you do it with shoulders square, your eyes on their eyes, and all your motions square. As they go away, they will communicate back to you when they’re ready to renegotiate the deal. They do that with a series of four or five gestures — a position of their ears, eyes, shoulders, neck, tongue, lips, head. Once the conversation is complete about them wanting to return to you, then you go passive instead of aggressive: Don’t look them in the eye.” “Use your body language to send the horse out, then when the horse wants to stop, use your body language to draw him back in,” adds Dr. Spier. “The horse will be naturally drawn in to you.”

Round Pen Training

“The round pen is an ideal situation where you can use your body language to communicate with the horse,” says Collyer. “You learn in the round pen how to ask your horse to go faster, slower, stop, turn, and to be alert to your body language. The same basic principles can be accomplished without a round pen, but a round pen makes it easier by taking away all the other man-made barriers that get in the way.”

Teach your horse the meaning of “whoa.” “A horse that is properly taught ‘whoa’ will probably stand still in any situation, as long he’s told ‘whoa,’ ” says Collyer. “That’s a really useful word.”

Better Handling

Sometimes the problem with the elusive horse is not so much the horse as it is how the handler approaches or catches him. Don’t approach a horse, especially a young or inexperienced one, in what may be perceived as a threatening manner. Says Collyer, who has to catch her share of the 80 to 100 client- and college-owned horses at Cornell’s equine reproduction center, “Approaching in a frontal position with direct eye-to-eye contact is very predator-like, and the horse may turn and go away. If you approach the horse casually with a side-long glance, the horse may allow you to approach.”

Sometimes squatting down arouses a horse’s curiosity, drawing him into you.

Never chase a horse. You can’t outrun him, and chasing may reinforce a fearful horse’s instincts that your actions are predatory or aggressive. Walk him down instead. This usually works with a stubborn horse, Collyer says. “You continue to walk slowly after the horse. Eventually the horse knows what’s going on and will tire of the game. Sometimes a stubborn horse, if you just walk quietly along with him, will just give up.” But keep your cool; walking him down can take awhile.

Cornering a wise old horse in a paddock or field might be OK, but it could be dangerous with other types of horses. “A frightened or nervous horse without a lot of experience may run right over you to escape, because being trapped is not naturally comfortable for a horse,” warns Collyer. “If he runs over you once, he’ll probably try it again.”

Use the buddy system. Go up to another approachable horse and scratch or pat him. Start walking him to the gate, and the reluctant horse may follow. Or, if the horses are buddies, walk the approachable horse over to the evasive one and see if you can transfer control from one horse to the other.

Erect a catch pen or small paddock by the pasture gate and gather the whole herd in there before cutting out the hard-to-catch horse. Explains Collyer, “He’s probably going to follow his companions in, and then you have a much smaller area to deal with.”

Think ahead. Don’t turn your horse out in a large field 30 minutes before you’re going to ride or before the veterinarian comes. “When he’s all full of energy, you know he’s not going to be ready to be caught for a couple of hours,” says Collyer. “That sets up a bad situation, and if the horse refuses to be caught it reinforces bad behavior.” Likewise, don’t turn out a horse that has had very little handling into a large area without a catch pen or companions to use as lures.

Be Sensible and Sensitive

Never punish a horse once you’ve caught him. “Pulling him around on the halter, being very aggressive with him or whipping the horse tells him, ‘Never let me catch you again,’ ” says Roberts.

Be sensitive to negative patterns. Part of the reason the horse may elude you is because the only time you fetch him is for work, so don’t overdo retraining (or training) your horse. Play with him, do other exercises, go on trail rides, et cetera.

Always reward your horse with a pat or encouragement. Be wary of food rewards. “If we always use food as a bribe, there may be times when the horse is not hungry and the herd instinct is stronger than his desire to eat,” says Collyer. In addition, attempting to lure one horse out of a herd by taking a bucket of grain into the area could be dangerous. “The horse you’re trying to catch is probably not the No. 1 dominant horse,” Collyer says. “If you go in there with feed, the other horses are going to be competing for the feed and, if anything, they’re going to be chasing away the horse you want to catch. That puts the handler in the middle of a bunch of milling horses — a very precarious position.”

Retraining the hard-to-catch horse may take a lot of time. Whether the horse has to overcome a fear response or go back to square one for training, there simply are no quick fixes. Each horse is also an individual; what works for one may not work so well for another. But if you take the time to understand what your horse’s problem is, those fixes could last a lifetime.


  1. The buddy system worked for me with my 8 month old filly. We are in the process of halter breaking her and now are able to cautiously walk up to her in the pasture and she puts her nose right into the halter. Occasionally, we have to use a buddy to get to her and transfer the control, which works very well. We just pet her best bud and work our way down their body until we can reach her with our other hand and start petting her.

  2. Very helpful in trying to catch a stubborn horse who likes to play games with whoever catches him. Sometimes he comes when called, other times he walks off in the other direction.

  3. when your trying to catch a horse that runs away you must show him/her that you are not a preditor. when you go out there to catch him/her bring there favorite treat along that way the horse knows that every time he/she is cought he/she will get a treat

  4. I think that catching your horse should be simple and easy. You shouldn’t have to go get the grain every time you want to catch your horse because your horse fears you or just doesnt like being caught.

  5. One method that worked with an old gelding a few years ago (and he has kept the lesson very fresh in his mind still) is the “I am rest” way. Where when your horse starts to walk away from who make him RUN away from you. Eventually this gelding just figures “Well jeez, it’s just flat our easier to get caught!” and he hasn’t forgotten it. Though, this is easiest when you have a small proximaty and when I catch my horse, I never offer a treat before they are caught, I may call them up from a huge pasture with grain and let them eat while I halter them, but that’s about it. Then I go to something that makes them want to be with me, like grooming them or scratching them in their “itchy spot”

  6. I bring a treat and I dont come directly behind him or in front of Shiloh, th ehorse I am leasing. I don look at him because then he knows I am getting him. So yea this wasa good artical!!

  7. I try and get lancelot and auditor ready for a ride by letting them in there pins, it;s easier. Sometimes take the whip in with auditor, strong headed. He tryes to show me his butt and bucked at me a couple of times, so that is when I smack him on his butt once to make him go a direction away from me, then i hit him on the other side and he goes a different way, I go back into the corral and do it again but at the same time i give him some choices. He can either let me walk up to him and bridle him or the whip continues. It usually is about 15 minutes worth of cracks on his butt. Then loe and behold the lip licking and the ears flick and i know he is done working, so i put wip down and he lets me approach him with the halter…Good Adutor

  8. I am trying to teach my horse to come to me, when I call her. I have been doing it with treats. This article doesn’t seem to approve of using treats. Is there another approach I should use?

  9. I have never had too much trouble catching my horse, but what i do with other horses when they run from me is to walk up to them nice and confidently and if they run i just keep following them at nice paced walk and stay a good distance from thier rump and i’ve found that if i keep folowing them they eventually get tired of running and they will stop and let you halter them.Also just to note this method involves patience ,wich most don’t have ,but this has worked with me for every horse that has ever ran from me.

  10. Nice article.This may sound harsh and doesn’t really help correcting this behavior ,but one method i have used for catching a really wild horse is to get a thick ,long rope tye one end to a post on a fence about 2 or 3 feet high on the post then let the rope slack and get someone to herd the horse toward the slackened rope and when it gets close pull it up tight and run around the horse and pin it to the fence then get that person who chased it to put a halter on it.It could be dangerous and may terrify the horse ,but i’ve found that usually the horse is so shocked that it will just stand there amazed.Not to brag or anything but, once some friends of ours had a very naughty pony that they hadn’t touched in about a months and were trying to move it to a pasture across the street and they had tried feed ,lassoing ,and chasing it till it was tired to catch it and i caught it using this method in about 5 minutes.:):P

  11. I just got in 2 untouched colts about or near a year. One has a halter on, the other a rope. I can get to touch and rub the one, but the older one is so afraid. Slow is the key, and to start to build trust.

  12. I recently brought home a rescue horse that proved very difficult to catch once turned out. All the tips provided in this article were very beneficial, and after 5 days of consistency and working towards the horse’s acceptance of my presence, we have a much easier catch.

  13. One of my horses not only runs from me but turns her rear at me when I try to catch her. She is taught to never position her rear end facing me and is a very good girl when I have the halter on. She is amazing on the longe line (and at liberty) will turn, back up, come to me, in all gaits I ask. Also none of the reasons why horses won’t be caught apply to her. I think she just knows that most of the time when she is caught she has to do something (although not all the time), and she is very lazy. So honestly this wasn’t helpful at all.

  14. I have a horse who is 15 years old. When I got him he was still a little skiddish when rode or being caught. I had stopped working with him for about 4 years or so. I have recently started to work with him again. I can lead him wonderful on his halter, but once I take him out of the pen he is OK but he doesn’t like to be too far away from his buddy (donkey). It’s like he gets to scared being out of the pen. There is no way I could put a saddle on him and ride him, but how do I eventually get him back to the point of riding him, and not having him be homesick of his buddy??


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