Monday, January 26, 2009

The Hard-to-catch Horse

"Oh, my horse is great, but she's sometimes difficult to catch in the field, so I have to leave her halter on." You don't want to know how many times I've heard this one. "But we have a great relationship!" I've taken a horse out of a pasture, someone in an adjacent pasture attempting the same thing, and returned later only to find that person still trying to catch their horse! Heck, I've even seen people chase down their horse in an ATV or on another horse and ROPE the horse they ride every day, their partner!!

I remember being asked to aid in the roundup of one gorgeous black gelding "oh, this horse is fabulous, just sometimes he's hard to catch!" Uh-oh, heard this one before. This horse was not just your usual "hard to catch" horse, he was mortally afraid of humans! He'd been herded into a smaller pen for ease of catching (as if) and it was our "simple" job to "just catch him up for the farrier". Wait a minute....we couldn't even catch this horse, and a farrier was supposed to waltz in and work on him??!! We finally cornered him in his pen and I remember taking a look around. Wow, we were completely justifying that horse's fears. Here's this poor horse, cornered, with four predators crouched around him, prepared to block his next move to escape. His head was up, nostrils flared, muscles tensed to explode through our barricade. Eventually someone did get a halter on that horse but I can tell you it wasn't me! There was no way in hell I was walking up to such a time-bomb - with my luck my move would be the one to set him off. Isn't there a better way to work with our horses?? Shouldn't our supposed partners (whom we constantly proclaim to "love") actually want to be with us?

As a side note, leaving a halter on a prey animal that needs to flee or fight (to the death, if necessary) in an emergent situation (ie. being caught up) is not safe, particularly if you've never taught your horse to think through a situation or puzzle-solve!! Leaving the halter on a horse potentially poses a hazardous situation - the only benefit is one to us in the case of a hard-to-catch horse. Our horses should always come first; so solve the hard-to-catch problem and voila, potentially fatal situation avoided!! Of course there are times when you might be working with a horse and leaving a (breakaway) halter on might be necessary, but where you can avoid it, please do. Furthermore, if you find yourself leaving the halter on your horse for ease of catching, take note - you have work to do.

So let's look at it from the horse's perspective.

"Uh oh, here comes (insert name here, including mine at times!)" Head pops up, body tenses, horse takes flight.

How do you walk up to your horse? Well most of us waltz up to our horses in a direct line, often even at a quick pace. We want to catch our horse and get on to the good stuff!! Well horses are not direct-line thinkers. When a horse walks somewhere, they do not do so in a direct line, they'll walk here, and there, finally approaching the object in question. Now, we've all seen our horse run up to another horse, right? If the partnership between both horses is strong, both horses will run directly up to one another. If the horse being run up to is at a lower level in the hierarchy or is unsure of the horse running up to him though, he's going to move off!

When I was younger, our house backed up onto a greenspace. Well one day I climbed the rocky hill at the back of our house, finally reaching the top and the large greenspace beyond to find a large herd of deer! I was ecstatic and quietly sat myself down about 20 feet from the nearest buck. I sat enthralled for about an hour, until my parents called, as each buck in the herd grazed their way up to within a foot or two or me and then gradually grazed his way off again. I listened raptly as the young bucks "spoke" to one another in quiet voices. Do you think any of those deer saw me and strode right up to me? Heck, I'd have been out of there in a flash had any of them done so! No, they gradually made their way up to me before once again moving off.

Well, horses are the same way. They know they're prey animals, it's naturally bred into them, and they know we're predators. We smell like predators and we act like predators. So when we march up to a horse that is already unsure of what they think of us or what they think of our last session, they're going to instinctively walk away from the predator that's possibly threatening them. So it's not a "horse problem" but rather an "us problem". If we create a partnership where the horse truly wants to be with us, he'll come running when he hears us coming!

At one of the places I boarded my horses, I had Silver (my Quarab) and Koolaid (my WB) in 40 acres of hilly and rocky pastureland by themselves. Now Koolaid wasn't all that thrilled about me at the time, but Silver was his only herd, so where Silver went, Koolaid went (to an extent, Koolaid is still my "lone wolf"). I would walk into that pasture and whistle, then stand quietly. Sure enough, I'd immediately hear an answering whinny. It'd usually be a moment or two before I finally saw Silver poised on some rocky outcropping above with another answering whinny. If for whatever reason Silver couldn't find me, I'd hear a number of calls, requesting me to whistle back to him my location. Once I had, I'd soon here galloping hooves and find Silver cresting some hill to race down to me. Upon arrival, he'd gallop small circles around me excitedly. Koolaid, meanwhile, usually was still making his way down the hill (lol). It wasn't always that way though and there were times in the past where I had had to chase down Silver to catch him! Those were the days I realised I needed to earn his friendship back.

So what do humans usually do, and what does it look like to the horse?
What we do: we cut a horse off and crowd it into a corner. As we move quickly to cut off the horse, we're usually even crouched down!!!
What it looks like to the horse: a pack of circling wolves, crouched and poised to spring.
What happens next: either the horse realises it's been caught and resigns itself to its fate, or it reacts instinctively in an attempt to evade being caught. He's not worried about being haltered at this point, he's worried about being taken down and eaten!
Then, as soon as we do get close to the horse, we swing our arms over it and entrap it with a rope! Take note that we just proved the horse right: we're a predator looking to catch them (and do who-knows-what-with-them) and they're possibly in danger.
This may seem dramatic, but these are prey animals. They're seeing us as predators and furthermore, we're acting like predators! So they're going to react as any prey animal would do - they're going to fight their way out of a potentially life-threatening situation or flee from it.

What can we do instead?
Long-term, you can develop a partnership with your horse where your horse wants to spend time with you. "Take everything off your horse and you see what you have." If you were to take everything off of your horse, what would your horse do? Would he still continue in partnership with you? Could you still perform your dressage test or reining pattern? Or would your horse walk away from you to visit his buddies, eat some grass, or just get away from you?
Solve the root of the problem, whether it be further cementing that partnership between you and your horse to the point where your horse sees you and comes running, or whether it be engaging your horse's mind in such a way that she sees spending time with you as fun and exciting. Create a partnership where your horse is catching you!

Short-term, don't chase your horse!! In doing so, you are only confirming your horse's worst fears. "Take the time it takes so that it takes less time" and be willing to spend all day out there. "If you act like you've got 15 minutes, it will take all day, but if you act like you've got all day, then it will only take 15 minutes." My favourite horseman, Pat Parelli, always says "I've never seen it take longer than two days!" It's true! Get out there and be prepared to simply watch your horse graze. If she's in a stall, wait until her nose comes around to face you instead of her bum. Bring a book and sit and read if need be. Meander around the pasture visiting the other horses, or quietly but not threateningly following your horse. When your horse gives you an eye, an ear, a look, or a step towards you, remove any pressure: turn away, walk away, whatever need be for your situation. As Pat says, get your horse to catch you! Find your horse's moolah, or motivation, and use it. If your horse likes treats, bring along some treats. If your horse loves being groomed, when you finally get close detangle that mane and tail and just spend some quality time together. Figure out what you need to do to attract your horse. You can also play some games on increasingly longer lines and eventually, at liberty - get your horse to move away from you and return to you, using the line (and then, at liberty, a roundpen) as a safety net rather than a tool to bring him in. In this way, you are practising for when you bring him in from the pasture next time. Lastly, keep in mind that your horse's 'catchability' will also be a reflection of your last session with him; if your horse really enjoys working with you, he won't be difficult to catch. If he's difficult to catch - no worries, but you have work to do.

No comments: