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.