Thursday, March 31, 2016

How to Fix Hard to Catch Horses

Aspen leaving her friends to meet me at the gate.

Let's start this post with how I like to catch my horses.
  1. I show up to the barn and get within hearing or eyesight of my horses so they know I'm there.  Ideally this happens even if they're very far away.  To help this process I've been known to make loud and obnoxious bird calls and other animal sounds to get their attention... when in the company of other people I usually just call out, "heyyyyy pretty laadddiieesssss!" which works just as well as a bird call, however much less fun.
  2. Next my horses look up and see that I'm there.
  3. They run to me.
  4. They put their heads in my open halter and stand quietly while I tie it up.
If these things don't occur I know something is wrong and that 99.9% of the time it's going to be a rapport and relationship issue.  If my horses see me and don't come in I ask myself a few questions:
  1. Is she sick or injured?
  2. What did I do with her last time that may not have been as good for her as it was for me?
There hasn't been a single time that my horses haven't come to see me because they were sick or injured.  If they're not coming in it's because whatever we did together last time didn't enthuse and inspire them to want to do it again the next time.

This logic puts all of the responsibility back on ME if my horse's are hard to catch, or at least not enthusiastic about seeing me.  In no way do I ever, ever, ever blame my horse for not coming in or label them as "hard to catch" or "bad catchers".  They were fine in the pasture doing what they do until I showed up, so it's the human that needs to take responsibility for adding that variable that caused the horse be hard to catch.

Some horses are extreme, they see a human and run away!  Some just always maintain their distance at an arms length.  Some will stand there and watch you approach.  Some may walk a little ways to you and stop.  I repeat, I want my horses to trot or canter in (or at least walk in with some pep)!  That is my ideal catch.  

When I bought Aspen a few years ago she did not want to be caught.  She'd see me and walk away, stay out of reach, but eventually resign herself to her fate and let me halter her.

As we started going through the Parelli Levels Program and building rapport and respect she became more and more interested in seeing me, eventually regarding me with a very positive expression when I would arrive.

Next thing I knew she was trotting in every day, sometimes even cantering.  She was so excited to see me that even when I turned her out after a ride, in a big grassy pasture with her herd mates, she'd often stick with me anyway.  Standing at the gate and watching me drive away before moseying out to graze with her pals.

That has become our norm.  However, about a month or so ago she started not greeting me at the gate, eventually walking away when I'd come out with the halter!  

I was really hurt at first and took it a bit personally.  It'd be like knocking on your best friend's door and having them snap close the blinds and hide.  So I began reflecting on our last several sessions, realizing I'd been using her for a lot of beginner Level 1 lessons and not doing as much for her as she was for me.

I thought eventually the problem would just go away and she'd be happy to see me after a few "regular" sessions with me and not students.  Nope.  She wasn't impressed and preferred if I didn't come for her.

So I went back to my favorite thing to do with my horses whenever something isn't right in our relationship or if I've had to make a big "withdraw" from our relationship bank.  Undemanding time.

I began taking her out and not even brushing her (she doesn't much prefer to be brushed), I wouldn't even look at her, I just took her to some grass and sat with her while she grazed.  I did this for several days, which was hard because I wanted to ride and do things!  I forced myself not to even think about riding when we were together so there was absolutely no pressure on her.

Then, all of a sudden one day I showed up and she walked right up to me with forward ears and bright eyes.  She was happy to see me!  Last night she cantered to me for the first time in a couple months!  Victory!  

Here is a little video from tonight of her seeing me as I walked down the fence line to the gate.  I want to be clear that this is not about bribery, treats, or food. The change occurred because I did something that she wanted to do!  Now, that might be a little different for another horse, maybe your horse likes being brushed or going exploring On Line, however Aspen does not.  She just wanted zero pressure and to be in my company, the bonus was the grazing.  So you see here she looks happy to see me and connected.

And here's a video of her from last summer, her usual catch!  She left grain and a herd of horses (which you can't see over the hill) to greet me at the gate! 

I did an Externship course at the Parelli ranch a couple years ago and 6 weeks into the 12 week course students' horses were starting to sour.  They didn't want to be caught and were becoming dull to the idea of being played with and ridden... Most of them except Aspen.  She maintained her excitement to see me and our Liberty (our best and favorite Savvy) continued to be awesome!  I mention our Liberty because this is a truth test when you take off the halter, you get to see how they're really feeling about you especially when you start making requests of them.  I had several students asking me how and why our draw was so good, our catching was so good, and our relationship was still solid.  

My answer?

Lots of undemanding time.  LOTS!  

In a herd environment horses are spending 24 hours a day together.  Maybe only 10 - 30 minutes of that time are they pushing each other around.  It could be more if you have very playful horses, but in our herd it's minimal.  There are 1,440 minutes in a day and say only 20-30 minutes of that they are pushing on each other, that's only 2% of their time together that isn't undemanding!  

Compare when we show up, we spend 1 hour a day with our horses and 100% of that time we're pushing on them, asking them to do things on our timeline and under our goals.  You can see why horses would rather be with each other than us!

I challenge you to start to shift that ratio and spend more undemanding time with your horse and see what relationship gems blossom from it!

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