I was watching a rodeo recently and they had a calf scramble with about 30 kids ages 8-12 and the same number of calves weighing about 400 lbs. The kids were in a marked off area in the center of the arena that was about 75 feet square. The calves were let in the end of the arena, the announcer said “go” and the kids took after the calves with a halter in their hand. There were 30 kids with halters chasing 30 calves all at the same time with one thing on their mind, to get their halter on the calf.
Most of these kids were probably raised in town with no knowledge of livestock. But I am not sure that makes any difference because I see the same show over and over with people that have a lot of experience with livestock when they try to catch a horse. So often when people go toward a horse to catch him they obviously have one thing on their mind and that is to get there and get the halter on. If the horse stands quietly everything goes fine; if not, the contest begins.
First of all, the earlier we can anticipate that the horse is going to avoid us and then eliminate all their other options we can so he doesn’t get practice at avoiding us, the better things may go next time. Don’t give him experience at getting away from us.
If there are other horses with him this may help and this may hinder, depends on how you use them. If the one you want to catch will stand and get some confidence from the other horses, fine, IF THEY STAND. If the horse you want gets on the opposite side of the extra horse or horses, you may be teaching him how to use the other horses for a shield to avoid you. When this starts to happen, don’t let him work you. Recognize this for what it is. We are supposed to be the more intelligent ones in the game. So often I see the horse getting keener at positioning the person so he can’t be caught instead of the person positioning the horse so he can be caught.
When the horse starts shaping this game up, first of all separate him from the other horses. Eliminate the option of him setting you up to fail, and help set him up to learn to accept you.
The next thing is to approach him so that it is the best experience for him you can make it. If the way you walk toward him doesn’t feel good to him, he won’t be expecting anything better next time.
A friend of mine once said to approach a horse like you have a full glass of water balancing on your head. If you think about not spilling any water, your feet will be softer, smoother and more acceptable to the horse.
Don’t approach the horse if he is preparing to leave. Stop him by stepping away from him to the balance point, let himsettle for at least a few seconds, then approach him again. If you are moving towards the horse and he is moving away from you, you are chasing him. Identify this and don’t do it. Step away, step to balance him, get the grain bucket, anything, but don’t chase him!
Then when you do get up to him if he is suspicious of you being there, reach and touch him with your hand about eye level, using the back of your hand, your knuckles, not your fingertips. Rub him firmly a few times, then you can turn your hand over and scratch him. Don’t pat a suspicious horse, it’s not something that will make him feel good. Rub and scratch him until he is comfortable with you and he will be easier to catch and quicker to accept you next time. Don’t be in a hurry to put the halter on. It takes time to earn his trust, you can spend more time to give him a good experience, or you can spend less time and leave him with an uncomfortable experience. The next time you go to catch your horse will tell you what he thought of you.
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.65