Having a horse do what you want depends on how close you are – both emotionally and physically. When your horse is in his or her paddock, whether adult or immature, your ability to exert operant control is out the window. You can’t reinforce quickly (you have three seconds), you certainly can’t reinforce immediately, and you will find it very difficult to use pressure / release, because when you pressure, the horse will just leave and then all of a sudden you are chasing him.
Now you can chase a horse, and sometimes you have to – and when you do, there are some tips below.
But you really don’t want to be in a chase. So, let’s think about getting a better start.
One of the most common issues here is getting the horse to come to you and allowing you to lead him. You’ll notice I didn’t say “catching him”. That’s on purpose.
I never want to catch a horse. I want him to catch me.
So I think about why I Iike to be with my friends and why they might like to be with me. Then I behave that way with the horse. I try to be nice to be with. I try to make it worth coming to me. I try to make it less enjoyable to leave me.
If your horse has a favorite treat, bring a few with you to the paddock. Break them up so they are small and not completely satisfying but still nice – you don’t want him going “oh, I’m full” or “oh, that’s all I wanted”.
The first time, enter the gate, stop, show him the treat and wait. If he comes toward you at all but stops, go to him, feed him the treat, pet him all over then go back to the gate, If you are lucky and he follows you to the gate right then, reward him with a treat, pet him for a while and then go.
After the first time, go out some distance you think it’s likely the horse will go, offer the treat and don’t go closer until or unless he comes. Be patient and wait, wait wait. If he comes to you, reward him. If not, when you can’t wait any more, leave.
Once he comes to you at a certain distance, next time, increase the distance.
The first few times he comes all the way to you, do not halter him. Why? Because if he finds the halter aversive, you’ll wreck the work you’ve done. Once he’ll come all the way to you, start to walk away, reward him if he follows with a treat. You’d love him to walk around in the paddock with you and listen to your body language rather than the lead rope, but it doesn’t always work for horses who have trouble being led. You also need to learn how fast you can walk before he disengages and how far away you can get before he disengages. This will be different every day.
Once you learn all this, he will go with you, and all the rest gets easier.
When your horse is willing to come to you and potentially let you halter him, you don’t have to put the halter on his face right away, especially if he’s worried about the halter or has a hard time putting his face in it – just slip it over his head onto his neck. In either case, if he gets upset, remember – you can’t take it off until he calms down or you will be telling him you want him to react that way, when what you want to do is reward him for being calm. Just let him do what he needs to, don’t let go, don’t give in – he has to stop acting up before you can give him a treat or a pet.
You can lead a horse around with the halter on the neck position. I did this once rescuing an excited horse next to a road. Once I got to a safe place, I put it on properly, but it was more important to lead him than to have everything right.
Once you can properly halter him, you can start to transition to intermittent reinforcement and not always bring a treat. If you’ve been scratching him on the shoulder in front of the withers already, that’s the best substitute reward. You can also start to work on his following you in the arena, by first using light and then no lead rope tension, and then when you have confidence, tossing the lead rope over his withers and having him follow you. It’s also a good idea to do this at the end of a riding session so you continue to keep alive the idea that he should be able to follow you with no rope.
Keep in mind that this is definitely a secondary thing you want to train into him. It’s a great capability to have when you want to pick him up, and it’s helpful when something goes wrong (like a bridle falling apart – which happened to me once), but the vast majority of the time you want the horse to only listen to the lead rope. So train him that when the lead rope is in your hand or over his shoulders, he can follow, but if the lead rope is on the ground, he should stand.
With all this being great for the long term or the normal circumstance, what do you do when you need that horse NOW? And how about if he isn’t that good about coming to you or he’s too upset to behave normally.
Pursuing a horse can do damage to his training and your relationship with him, but sometimes you just have to do it. If you do need to chase him down, he’ll zig and zag and try to see if you disappear. You have to follow him move for move. When he goes right, step so you are visible from the right eye. When he goes left, step so you are visible from the left eye. Don’t run, just stay with him. This makes you seem inescapable and in most cases the horse will capitulate after four or five zig zags.
It’s tempting in a sequence like this to drive the horse into a corner with the idea of “trapping” him. This isn’t a good idea for handling a prey animal – his stress will go through the roof and he’ll just try to burst past you. Keep him in the open, be inescapable, and when he capitulates,be soft, friendly, non-confrontational, and rewarding to be with – have a treat or offer pets. Take some time before you put on the halter, and after that, pet him, treat him, and take some time before you lead him somewhere.
It’s all about patience. Take your time, be a friend to your horse and he’ll follow wherever you go – lead rope or not.