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How To Catch a Horse in a Field

Learn safe horse-catching tips and how to train your horse to be caught easily when being brought in from the pasture.
A woman holding a halter and lead rope walks out into a paddock to catch a bay horse
Getty Images

Some horses are easy to catch from the field—they see you coming, maybe wait for you to call their name or produce a carrot, then amble toward you. Others make you trek out to wherever they’re holding court but come willingly once you’ve arrived. Another population seems to think a game of “catch me if you can” is a grand way to welcome you to the barn each day.

Regardless of your horse’s personality type, there are a few basic—and important—tips to remember when you head out to the field to catch your horse:

  • Retrieving horses from pastures—especially if your horse isn’t turned out alone—can be dangerous. We can easily find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and get injured if horses kick, bite, or rear at each other; bolt; spook; rush at the gate; get loose outside the field; or any other number of scenarios. At (very) least, until you know how your horse will react to coming in from the pasture, wear a helmet to protect yourself when you venture into a field of horses.
  • Never wrap a lead rope around your hand or drape it over your arm or shoulder. Always hold it in your hand, folded in a way you can release the rope without it constricting around body parts should your horse take off.
  • Always secure the gate behind you when you enter a pasture to reduce the likelihood of horses getting loose.
  • Do not approach your horse from behind. Always approach the front half of his body, ideally on the left side. Be sure he sees you, and engage him with a scratch on the neck or shoulder before putting the halter on.
  • Stand parallel to your horse, just in front of his shoulder. Hold one side of the halter in each hand, and position it under your horse’s muzzle with the crownpiece—the part that goes over his ears—in front of his head, not behind it.
  • Guide your horse’s nose through the halter’s noseband and chin strap, and gently slide the crownpiece over his ears. If your crownpiece only attaches on one side of the halter, softly pass it behind his ears and over his neck to secure it.
  • Fasten the halter on your horse either via a clip under his jaw or a buckle on the crownpiece. Finally, give your horse a treat and a pat and head toward the gate!
  • When you remove your horse from the field, open the gate wide enough for your horse to fit through without bumping against it, and walk through first while your horse waits. Then hold the gate open for him to pass through, bringing his head around toward you in the process (not so rapidly that his hind quarter swings and bangs into the fence or gate, however). Then, when her haunches are clear from the gate, close and latch the gate.
  • If you’re dealing with other horses crowding the gate, ask a barn friend for help. He or she can help usher the other horses away while you exit with your mount. Eventually, and with practice, you can learn how to do both at the same time. But be sure you can safely bring your horse through a gate and in from a pasture before taking on additional responsibility at the same time.

Watch: How To Turn Out and Catch a Horse Safely

Hard-to-Catch Horses

a woman holds a lead rope attached to a horse
Always hold the lead rope folded in a way you can release the rope without it constricting around body parts should your horse take off. | Getty Images

Hard-to-catch horses are frustrating and time-consuming to deal with. But the good news is many can become easier to collect from their fields with time, effort, and patience.

One option is to make yourself as unthreatening to the horse as possible. Walk slowly, remain calm, and don’t rush the process. Typically, your horse will watch as you advance. As soon as he shows the slightest intention of turning to walk away, stop and wait. As you wait, your horse might relax and allow you to move closer. Repeat the process until you can halter your horse or place a lead rope safely around his neck and reward him for remaining still with a few treats.

Many horses figure out that if they let you secure them, they get a treat. That’s plenty of enforcement for many equids!

Training Your Horse to Be Caught

If your horse continues to run away, you might need to take a longer and more intensive approach. This one from renowned equine behaviorist Dr. Sue McDonnell essentially teaches horses that all good things—food and water—come from people.

Start with your horse in his stall (yes, you’ll have to catch him first) with no feed or water except what you give him. For about three weeks, you (and/or one or two helpers) will hand-feed and water him two or three times a day. At each feeding place a flake of hay and a bucket of water near the stall door. Open the door, stand there, say your horse’s name, and wait quietly for 10 minutes. If he doesn’t come toward you during that time, place the bucket of water and hay at your feet just inside the stall and wait another 10 minutes.

Try to grab your horse’s attention a few times during this second 10 minutes. Say his name. Run your fingers through the water. Put a handful of feed in the bottom of a small bucket and rattle it around. If he doesn’t come after another 10 minutes, take the feed and water away and close the door. Continue this process every couple of hours until he approaches the hay and water. When he does come, let him eat and drink while you stand there quietly.

If, at the end of the first day, he hasn’t approached on his own, have an assistant to help you catch him as quietly as possible and lead him to the hay and water. Stand quietly while he eats and drinks. Take the leftover hay and water with you when you leave. Once he starts coming toward you when you open the door or place the hay and water, calmly attach a lead rope to his halter. Hold him on a loose lead while he eats and drinks. Then start catching him in the stall before bringing the food and water.

Once he becomes easy to catch in the stall, move him to a small paddock without grass and repeat what you did in the stall. When you catch him, give him a pat, rub him gently along the neck under the mane, offer him a treat, bring him to his hay and water, and let him go. Whenever you have time (but not at feeding), try catching him first with a grain treat, and then try without food.

Once he comes to you reliably in the drylot, try turning him out in his field and see if the same approach works. Give him treats when you catch him in the field, and give him lots of pats for not running away. Your hard work has paid off!

Creating Positive Associations

A person hands a carrot to a horse
You might need to use treats to entice your horse and reward him for allowing you to catch him. | Getty Images

Remember: Your horse needs to associate being caught with good things. This means that, no matter how frustrated you are that your horse doesn’t want to be caught, don’t punish him. Just keep calm, smile, and carry on.

Once your horse is easy to catch, fawn over him for at least a few minutes. Give him treats, let him hand-graze outside the pasture, give him a nice grooming. Equids are smart, and most will quickly figure out that if they only ever come inside to work or have a veterinarian or farrier appointment, they’d rather stay outside!

Finally, catch and halter your horse regularly. Go out and catch him, but just give him a treat or a gentle pat on the neck. Then let him go. This can help reassure him that being caught is a good thing.

Halters: On or Off for Turnout?

Some equestrians leave halters on their horses whenever they’re turned out. Others don’t. While proponents of both approaches say they have their benefits and drawbacks, it might be useful to—at least while you’re working to modify his behavior—leave a safe halter on a hard-to-catch horse.

The key here is not all halters are safe for turnout, so you must select an appropriate one:

  • Halters made entirely of nylon (whether they’re flat with hardware or rope-style) do not, in most cases, break under pressure. If your horse gets a nylon halter stuck on something (a fence post, gate latch, tree branch, or water trough, for example), he can seriously injure himself if he panics, pulls back, and the halter doesn’t give. Never turn your horse out in a nylon halter.
  • Halters made of leather (or that have leather parts or connectors) are more likely to break if your horse gets caught up. Some nylon halters have leather crownpieces or connectors—called breakaway halters—designed to be safe to leave on during turnout. If you elect to leave a halter on your horse until you’re confident you can catch him, select one of these.

If you’re unsure whether a halter is safe for turnout, ask an experienced rider or horse owner before leaving it on your horse in the pasture.

Take-Home Message

With patience, good training, and a positive approach, you can make bringing your horse in from turnout effortless. Just remember to stay safe and avoid getting frustrated if your horse doesn’t let you catch him right away. With particularly tricky horses, you might need to recruit an experienced horse owner or trainer to help.

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