Letting your horse catch you

We’ve all experienced them – haven’t we? Those horses, you know, the ones that not only don’t want to be caught but seem to be equipped with some kind of sensory radar which tells them when you’re just ‘visiting’ for a friendly pat, or if you actually mean business – and if they sense it’s business, they’re off!

I can still remember to this day one afternoon when my father decided to give me ride on Beauty, a relatively unhandled Fell pony, we’d been leant by some neighbours.

We headed off into a 25-acre field to catch a horse – who simply took one look at us and moved away. Fast forward FOUR hours, and you there I was sitting on the wall outside the farm-yard listening to my father shouting and swearing and stumbling around in the dark – having gone through an endless amount of buckets with feed in and the halter hiding in there, endless bribery of apple piece, taken just out of arm’s length, and with absolutely NO hope of catching her. In the end he gave in, simply because he had no choice.

I was only about 12, but I do remember thinking that it seemed like a lot of bother to go to in order to catch a horse. I’m not sure that I yet understood that not being ‘caught’ is actually of course one of the most instinctive flight actions a horse can have, and is, at its most simple level, a survival mechanism.

Luckily for me Beauty went on to become the mother of a beautiful Fell Pony cross Arab filly, Hester, my first ‘own’ pony – and the teacher of many life lessons. Hester, brought up amongst humans was completely at ease being caught, and in fact was always

delighted to keep me company. (She did develop many other mischievous behaviours due to her young owner’s lack of experience, but being caught was fortunately not one of them.)

But despite collecting a bit of knowledge (don’t they say that’s a dangerous thing?) from the long line of horses that have followed Beauty and Hester, there has been the occasional horse who has managed to resist my charms. One was a beautiful Palomino mare, Glimmer – very much a matriarch, and very much only to be caught when she felt like it.

I had never had any intention of following in my father’s footsteps and so when Glimmer first decided she didn’t want to be caught, even though I was unprepared for it, I simply decided not to bother! I think I was catapulted back to my 12-year-old self almost instantly and decided that it was simply not worth the hassle.

So I simply got a stool, sat on it in the paddock – with a carrot to hand and waited.

It didn’t take long, probably only 10 minutes before Glimmer got curious and came up to me to ‘have a chat’. We talked for a little while, I gave her the carrot and I left.

I swear she almost looked disappointed that she wasn’t going to get a chance to race around the paddock and upset me!

The next time I took the grooming kit with me. When she came up to me – after only five minutes – I held the brush out, she sniffed it, I stood up and started to groom her, and we spend a very affectionate half-an-hour with her simply moving when she felt like it, with me moving with her, and brushing her.

The third time was the test. I sat down in the paddock on my little stool, waited, and this time she came straight up. I stood up, slipped the rope over her neck, gave her some carrot, and put the head-collar on. No problems!!

Now, I didn’t push my luck – I kept the head-collar on for a few weeks while we ‘made friends’, but what I also noticed was that I had no trouble catching her…I would simply walk into the paddock, walk near her, stand still and wait until she turned her head towards me, then I would clip the lead-rope on and job done! However, quite a few of my volunteer helpers found it hard to catch her, and when I watched them it was easy to see why. Because they were a little nervous that she wouldn’t be caught – they would do what I call ‘the lunge’. Going up to her and in one swift motion ‘lunging’ for the head-collar – giving Glimmer plenty of opportunity to reef back, kick up her heels and canter off, looking very pleased with herself.

So it became very important to show my helpers that the secret lies in allowing the horse to think it’s catching you, not in you catching the horse. Also, in my opinion, although some people may think differently – it is always kinder to stand next to the horse, scratch it a bit, and put the rope over its neck before attaching the clip to the head-collar.

All of this, of course is predicated upon the idea that a horse might be difficult to catch. I’ve had horses that were so easy to catch that I didn’t even need to catch them – they would simply follow us up to the wash-bay without any need for a halter or head-collar.

So I suppose in a way it’s as it is with everything to do with horses – get to know your horse. Shy horses, mischievous horses, rescue

horses, spoiled horses, calm horses, all react in different ways, and it isn’t until you can get inside your horse’s head that you will find the best way to ‘catch’ your friend, or better still, let your friend ‘catch’ you.

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