It’s Not a Catching Problem

Our new clinic horse Top is a chocolate bay with a kind eye and a pink spot on his lower lip that makes him look like his tongue is always out. He came to us from South Dakota, and before that he was a working ranch horse. Top’s ten years old. Undoubtedly, he knows stuff.

We buy ranch horses every once in a while. They’re generally quiet and don’t mind standing tied and are easy to haul. They are easy to get around. Since we need them to do the specific job of being a clinic horse, easy to get around goes a long way.

The first two months that we had Top and would walk into the pen, he would turn his hindquarters to us and trot away. It took an average of two to three minutes to talk him into being caught. At one point Mark did a few minutes of asking Top to bring his head toward him (instead of his hindquarters), but other than that we haven’t had a chance to work on Top’s feeling better about this skill.

What we’ve noticed though is that Top, like most of the ranch horses we’ve bought, has a hard time being caught. Once we are close to with a halter, it’s usually not a big deal. But that first five minutes or so he feels he needs to run, or duck behind another horse, or look for a way out of the paddock that he might’ve missed.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that this kind of behavior is not about being caught. It’s not a catching problem, nor is it really any kind of problem at all. The horse’s stress level has gone up. The way they’re trying to find their way out of being stressed or confused is by moving.

Horses who are in some sort of discomfort, whether it is from their feet, their teeth or in their body, will be more reluctant to be caught. Some horses who have a hard time doing the job assigned to them will also take awhile to allow themselves to be caught. Maybe they don’t understand their role; maybe their job causes them stress or worry or fear. Maybe the person handling them is rougher than the horse is comfortable with. Maybe the saddle doesn’t fit or grooming is uncomfortable or the horse has ulcers or the saddle being girthed up quickly is uncomfortable. 

Catching, like most things relating to horses, is one piece of a larger puzzle. And, as most humans do, we tend to focus on the one small piece to decipher the whole picture. We stare at it with uneasy intensity, thinking that if we could get more light, or wear stronger glasses or frame it on the wall, we could tell what the whole picture is.

Put all of these puzzle pieces together and now we can see the fuller picture behind a horse who we think is “hard to catch,” is actually trying to communicate something much different to us. 

There are many times when we have to help the horse know how we’d like the catching process to go. We need them to stop and face us, instead of turning away and running. This is our preferred way to catch a horse, and there are lots of other ways. Our focus is on keeping the stress level as low as we can, and building on the good behavior instead of punishing the behavior we don’t want.

As for Top, I’ve never thought he was difficult to catch, and neither did Mark. We look at all horse behavior as communication. At any given moment, horses are doing their best to communicate how they are feeling. How they feel and how they act are the same states of being for them. The fact that Top needed to move away from us told us more about how he felt than anything else. He wasn’t being “naughty,” he wasn’t being “stubborn.” The only thing he was being was worried.

So what are the pieces in the puzzle that changed that picture for Top? We had his teeth balanced, and we had a chiropractor work on him. A month later, I gave him a Masterson Method® bodywork session. He has a saddle that fits, his feet were already in good shape, and the saddle pads we use are memory foam based.  When we go out to halter him, the halter goes on with consideration for being in such close proximity to his face. In other words, gently.

From the time we halter him to the time we turn him out at the end of our work day, we handle him as softly as possible. We do our best to be clear with him.

Now we are in North Carolina doing a couple of clinics and we put Top and Rocky out in a large paddock that has a shelter. This morning as we went out to get them, Top drifted away from us at a walk and then turned and faced us. I didn’t feel a raise in his concern level or energy. His head was low and his walk swingy. Walking away from a person with a halter is now just a habit that he doesn’t need. Like all habits, it will take some time to be replaced with a new one. 

When Top walked away, neither Mark or I changed our pace or our breathing. We didn’t spin the lead ropes and “make him leave faster.” Top drifted to our right, so we changed direction to the right and walked parallel to him before he stopped and turned, ears forward and body relaxed. 

Saying a horse has a catching problem is really a way of giving ourselves permission to only stare at one tiny piece of that puzzle, instead of finding the other pieces so we can see what the whole picture actually may be.

I get this kind of mental habit. It’s intimidating to think that we might be doing something that our horse isn’t comfortable with, and change is sometimes pretty danged difficult. It’s far easier to label something and let the label do the talking.

It’s sometimes danged difficult for horses, too, but we ask them to change all the time. Seems to me that fair’s fair, and we can do some changing right along with them. 

23 responses to “It’s Not a Catching Problem”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this perspective. All the details you pointed out and the explanation of why your approach matters to Top is a big part of how good horsemanship rises to the level of being art.

    1. Such a great article on catching. It seems quiet is the way for working with horses in general. I have a mare that avoided being caught when I got her. I would work around the barn with the halter hung on my arm. She never knew if it was for her or not. Sometimes I would just walk up to her pet her and walk away. It took a couple days and she has never avoided the halter again and that was 4 years ago. Thanks Crissi!

      1. Your comment thrills me, truly. This is how we are going to evolve horsemanship; one kind encounter at a time!

  2. Best article about catching I’ve ever read. Kudos Crissi! Joni

    1. Joni!!! Thank you – that makes me smiiiiiile big time.

      1. What a timely post. I just got in a foster horse who is so cool. I can’t wait until he gets more comfortable and opens up. He is so sweet and willing and really adventurous when we walk around the property, but when I go to halter him he walks briskly away. Not far, and not for long. Then he faces up and stands unblinking while I put the halter on. He’s not totally checked out because he does put his nose in the halter. But when they check out like that it makes me sad. He’s only been here for 4 days. It will take some time.

        1. I’m glad this post helped, Andrea. Yes, it will take time, and it will be time well spent for both of you.

  3. Great post and I agree, you have to look at the whole picture with horses. They are communicating and we have to figure out the whole puzzle. Well written! He’s a handsome boy. Kindly, Diana ❤️🐴

    1. Thanks, Diana! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  4. Crisis, I always stop what I’m doing to read your emails. There’s always something in there that is helpful for my situation. Bingo!

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thanks, Lynn! I’m glad to hear that!

  5. Hello Crissi,
    I truly thought you had met my ranch horse. Wow. When I purchased him the owner told me he’s always been hard to catch on the ranch. He’s 100% ranch horse that all he’s done for the 13 years when I purchased him. I figured out the technique you described and it seemed to be ‘safer’ to him a few months after I bought him 2 yrs ago. As you did, I had his teeth, saddle, body work, and anything else I could think of the first 6 months I owned him done for him. He continues to do this behavior-every single time. I’m patient but persistent and it usually takes about 5 minutes. At age 15 I pretty much have accepted that this is how the show will go. As with most ranch horses he’s not a pocket pony and affection is not his thing. He’s all job and while tolerating humans he seems so indifferent. Since he’s semi-retired now there are many days after catching him ( or better yet, he catches me), I might stroke his withers or his forehead which he likes and release the halter. So it’s not always about going to do something. Any suggestions?

    ps. Love you book BTW

    1. Glad to hear you are doing all those great things for your horse! It’s difficult to describe what we do, and it’s also a little different for each horse. I’d not like to give you advice and make what you’re doing worse. It sounds like he’s come a long way and is trusting you more. Total trust may take a little longer. Keep doing what you are doing and I bet someday he will be convinced.

  6. I love your writings. You always consider the horse. We can take things to personal instead of just being curious and asking questions. I love including the horse in these scenarios. So often, there’s judgment which impedes great relationships.
    Thank you for making such a positive difference in the equine human world.

    1. Well said, Kathy, about judgement impeding relationships. There’s a life lesson in those words!

  7. Lovely!! And ever so “mindful”’ to the needs of the horse as always. Best thoughts to not catching
    Thank you

    1. Thank you, Jackie!

  8. Puts a wholly different perspective on horse behaviour. Love your site Chrissi.

    1. Thank you, Elaine – I appreciate that.

  9. Crisisi, this is a wonderful article on so may levels. Observing behavior. Seeking solutions. Asking questions. Working for the horse. Listening to what the horse has to say. Patience. I’m seeing the results of listening and patience with my big lad. I may not always like what he is telling me, but I will work with him to make us a good team.

    1. Mary, I wholeheartedly believe that this is how we are going to keep making horse’s lives better. Thank you.

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