In her brand new book WHAT HORSES REALLY WANT, horsewoman Lynn Acton explores a number of skills we all would like to bring to the barn, for example:
- The ability to earn a horse’s trust starting from the moment you meet him.
- Knowledge of how to discourage unwanted behavior without punishment.
- Experience turning pressure into a clear means of communication instead of a source of stress.
- And more.
One of the topics Lynn discusses centers around the book’s covergirl: Brandy, a rescue destined to become part of Lynn’s herd. Brandy had been found wandering loose in upstate New York and was so feral it had taken months to lure her into a pasture so she could be herded into a trailer for transport to a rescue farm.
“I have always been good at catching horses,” says Lynn. “I have been doing it the same way for so long I don’t remember when or how I learned, but it works.”
Here’s the technique Lynn shares in WHAT HORSES REALLY WANT:
You might be tempted to skip this if your horse is easy to catch, but consider this: good horsemanship includes preparing for the unexpected, such as a gate left open, a rider down, or a loose horse frantic in a situation where he is in the most danger. Our impulse is to rush toward him in a desperate attempt to grab reins or halter, the action most certain to scare him off. Horses who are frightened or excited for any reason need a delicate approach.
The day we met Brandy, her increasingly desperate charge around the arena clearly showed fear. I did what I have always done with horses who do not want to be caught. I invited her to “catch” me instead. This approach is the best starting place even with horses who appear stubborn because such “bad behavior” often masks anxiety.
I strolled toward the center of the ring with a casual slouch, head down, unthreatening. When Brandy looked at me, I backed away, thus rewarding her for looking at me. When she stopped looking at me, I got her attention by moseying obliquely into her line of sight, weaving little serpentines. When she looked at me again, I stopped. When she began to slow down, I stepped back.
When Brandy looked like she was thinking about stepping toward me, I took another step backward. After a few more laps, she actually did step toward me. I took a bigger step back.
It is an intricate dance, each step meant to reassure the horse that I will not chase, harass, or scare her. The more skittish the horse, the slower my approach. Each time she looks at me or moves my way, I reward her by stopping or backing up. If she moves away, I resume moving, careful to keep my angle of approach in front of her, to avoid chasing her.
When Brandy walked toward me, I backed up slowly, letting her catch up to me. Then I stood still, hands down, just talking quietly to her for a moment. Since reaching toward a horse from the front is more threatening, I executed a slow about face so I was standing next to her, facing the same way. Slowly I reached up and scratched her shoulder. It had taken her about 10 minutes to catch me.
At this point, if I wanted to halter the horse, I would slowly reach the lead line under her neck with my left hand, reaching over the crest to grasp the line with my right. This is less threatening than placing a rope over the neck. Having already faced the same direction as the horse, I am in position to slowly slip the halter on. If she is already wearing a halter, I work my hand up to it. Every move is gentle, in slow motion. I breathe deeply.
Instead of haltering Brandy the first time she caught me, I just visited with her for a few quiet minutes, then walked back to the gate. Brandy followed me. She parked herself within arm’s reach of me, and stayed there calmly until I left. While I was not surprised that I had persuaded Brandy to catch me, I was surprised when she followed me and stayed with me. This told me that she wanted to trust.
WHAT HORSES REALLY WANT is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and videos, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.