I Can’t Catch My Horse
Recently I was asked to help someone who was, to put it mildly, having problems catching her horse. When she bought him she knew he had issues and that he was deemed dangerous to ride, so she already had her work cut out for her. The catching problem had evolved and worsened over the 4 years she had owned her horse. Things were now a the point where the only way she could catch her horse was to herd him in from the field and just a mere 4 hours later she would have him in the stable.
By the time she came across me, it sounded like this poor lady had tried everything she knew of and almost everything that had been recommended to her with no change. She was now at the stage where people were telling her her only options were to have her horse put to sleep or to leave him as a field ornament for the rest of his life.
Not many of us can afford to have field ornaments and having a healthy animal put to sleep is rather extreme and so not something that many people would consider as an option. It was clear she was at the end of her tether and so I offered to help and see if we could make some changes that would help her horse.
He had been practicing this behaviour for such a long time that I was sure this was going to be a long process in making changes. I also thought that as we went through the process of unravelling his issues about being caught that we may also be unravelling other issues that would need some attention as well.
Don’t worry about ignoring behavioural issues…
…one day they will become so big that you can’t ignore them any more
When we start to unravel behavioural issues for a horse it really is not uncommon to find that there are more issues buried under the one that was most obvious. Read more about training holes.
Do I Bring You Good Things ?
When we come across issues such as not being able to catch our horses we need to start to ask what it is they do not want to come in for. Is it something we bring to them ? We have to ask “what’s in it for the horse”. If we bring them good things then they will come running when we appear.
We also need to remember that what is a ‘good thing’ can only be determined by the recipient. So we might think that going for a hack is great fun, but our horse might not agree and so might not come running to us when they see us dressed in the reflectives we wear to go out hacking.
It’s important that we begin to understand that the horse is telling us that coming in is not fun (or worse). If it is on the odd occasion that this happens we need to look for the cues that they are responding to, or we need to work out if there is something in the field that is more reinforcing to them. If the grass is lush then that is more likely to be much more reinforcing than coming in for schooling. It may even be better than coming in for dinner.
Once we realise what is happening and we have figured out whether there are specific cues that are stopping our horses coming running, something else is more reinforcing on occasion, or if not being able to catch our horse is just the norm, we can start to make changes.
Are We Having Fun Yet ?
What we need to do is change our horses thoughts about what it is we are bringing them in for. So we need that not so fun thing to
become fun. We have to make sure there is something in it for the horse. Easy, right ?!
The issue my client had was at a stage where we had to go all out to change her horses thoughts about coming in. We had a great advantage in that he had just had to be brought in to have a hoof abscess treated and so we could get to work very quickly and intensely to start to get him realising that people are good and bring good things.
I wanted the horses thoughts about people to be generalised very quickly. Having never met my client or her horse I was not entirely sure what it was that this horse was not enjoying when he came in. So I took a sweeping approach. I asked my client to make sure everyone at the barn had treats in their pockets. Each time someone went to the end of the barn where her horse was they were asked to go out of their way to walk over and give him a treat. I wanted him to start to see that people only ever approach him to give him something he wanted…treats. Very soon he would see people coming towards him and he would walk to the stable door to greet them.
Very quickly he was allowed out to a small paddock. So this gave us a greater challenge. At this stage I asked my client to spend as much time as possible with her horse asking nothing of him. Just being in and around his paddock and any time he approached, give him a treat.
I suggested that if he was really not approaching her then to put a feed bucket in the middle of the paddock and if he even looked at her, walk over, drop a treat in and go back to sitting at the edge of the paddock.
We built this up step at a time and adapted what I was asking my client to do as her horses situation changed with his ever improving abscess and with his ever improving behaviour. Surprisingly quickly he was starting to seek her out to engage with her. This was much faster progress than I could have hoped for.
You Can’t Make Me Leave You !
Fast forward 2 weeks and my clients horse is now back out in his huge field where he used to vanish for days; I was stunned when my client emailed me to tell me “guess who is first at the gate to come in at night !”. A few days later I received another email telling me that for 3 days running he had been first to the gate asking to come in ! Wow ! We had managed to change this behaviour he had been practicing for years in just a matter of weeks.
What had become very clear to me was the dedication my client had to her horse to get this quick a change from him. She had really taken on board each step of the process, what we needed to change for her horse and she put it in to practice knowing that this was going to take as long as it took.
The next email from my client had me grinning from ear to ear….she had tested his horses new-found desire to be caught and asked someone else to catch him. She remembered all the steps we had put in place and worked through them with this new person. What used to be a 4h task took just 10 mins. The next day with a new person less than 5 mins.
Understanding a few simple rules, asking yourself if you bring good things to your horse, dedication and importantly, understanding that changing behaviour takes as long as it takes yields incredible results and a relationship that has its foundations in mutual trust and respect.