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Coaxing The Shy Horse

By Jeffrey Rolo

You enter a paddock or pasture with lead line in hand and call out to your horse, hoping to catch your equine partner with a minimum of time and fuss. Unfortunately for whatever reason your horse is being coy and is either sticking by the herd or keeping a safe distance between the two of you if no herd exists. You approach the horse, hoping to coax him with your soothing voice, but it turns into a game of cat and mouse. Just when you think you're close enough to capture your equine partner, he deftly evades you and the game begins anew.

Does this situation sound familiar to you? Chances are good that it does, for most horsemen have had to experience this pesky little ritual more than once in their lives. What starts out as a bemused smile and pursuit can turn into an exercise in total frustration as you come to realize that there's no way you're going to easily catch your partner without his consent.

While even a good horse can feel "frisky" occasionally and give you the runaround, in most cases a horse will evade you for one of two reasons:

  1. The horse does not trust you, either because you haven't established a relationship or because your approach mimicked that of a predator.
  2. The horse likes you, but doesn't really respect you as a leader and would rather stick by the herd. This is what many horsemen refer to as "herd bound."

So how do you catch a shy horse?

The ultimate answer is to build a solid relationship with your horse and make him view you as his alpha leader. Horses flock to the alpha leader by nature and look to him or her for guidance, so once you have established the alpha role in your relationship your horse will likely run to you rather than away from you. Since there are other articles throughout the AlphaHorse website that pertain to building a solid bond with your horse, I won't focus on how to do it in this article I'll just emphasize that it's the only real long-term solution to avoid such cat and mouse games in the future.

The various tips shared from hereon should be considered a Band-Aid that may help coax your shy or distrustful horse over to you, rather than a final solution.

First, always remember to keep it cool. The moment you allow your anger or frustration to bubble up, you've lost the "battle." Horses are incredibly perceptive when it comes to human emotion, and if they detect anger or hostility you can bet they will only be doubly determined to keep a safe distance from you.

Do not approach your horse in a manner that he perceives as predatory. Humans tend to be direct and to the point; when we want to get from Point A to Point B, we generally take a straight line between the two. This directness doesn't work so well when it comes to horses, particularly if you are advancing towards their head in a straight line. Instead you should try and approach the horse in a diagonal direction, and consider stopping from time to time along the way. A leisurely pace will go much further than charging ahead full steam ahead.

Talk to your horse in a soothing manner as you approach. Predators attempt to approach their prey in a silent manner, so by announcing your arrival you lessen the red flags. A side benefit to calm verbal coaxing is that you can better gauge your frustration level. When you detect a sense of urgency or a bit of a snarl in your voice, you know that you're probably too upset at the moment to productively work with your horse.

One tactic that works very well with foals, and can work to a lesser degree with adults, is crouching down while calmly talking to your horse. Let him approach you rather than the other way around. By crouching, you won't tower over the foal and will therefore appear much less intimidating.

Horses are naturally inquisitive animals, so sometimes you can coax a horse into coming to you by feigning disinterest in him. Turn your back on your horse, fiddle with a bucket or fence basically try to convince the horse that you're involved in something interesting, and the last thing you care about is capturing him. This may or may not work depending on the curiosity level of your horse and whether or not there are other stimuli in the area to capture your horse's attention, such as feed or other horses.

The option I like least, because it can create false expectations for future encounters, is bribing your horse with sweet grain or another edible treat. Of course it often does work, so if you have to catch your horse immediately then sometimes you just have to do what you just have to do. Just don't allow it to become a crutch, lest the horse demand treats from you during every encounter in the future.

If your horse is herd bound and you have a good relationship with the alpha leader, often the best approach to capturing the troublesome evader is through catching the alpha horse. When a follower notices the alpha horse is very receptive to you, it can often indicate that he too has nothing to fear from you. At the worst, you can always lead your alpha horse into an enclosed area because chances are the shy horse will follow you both closely behind rather than be left alone in the field. By guiding the evasive horse into a smaller pen or area, you make it easier to capture him through steering or cornering.

Depending on your horse's age and motivations, the above tips may or may not help you capture him in a timely manner, but the most important key to success is to always remain patient. Once you allow your emotions to take over, you've already lost the battle.

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