Walking down a horse in pasture or a large turnout can be a real challenge, and there are several methods. Certainly the best method is to convince the horse in a smaller area (using round pen training or other handling methods) that you are the herd boss, but sometimes the horse also needs to be convinced of that human status when turned out on pasture. Much depends on their motivation to avoid you on pasture, but IMO driving a horse away – one who should know better! – until they tire of the keep-away game is not the quickest method in a large area … particularly if the human is on foot!
The method I have found most effective is to pay close attention to my approach angle, and know when to vary my speed or stop. By angle, I mean (example) not approaching from the rear / toward the hind because that will usually drive the horse away. Same general concepts as round pen free lunging positioning.
BTW – the same general concepts and method described below I also apply to catching a loose horse who has gotten untied or somehow wondered from his confined area. So this might be handy at the next horse show or at the barn when someone’s horse gets loose … and the most important thing to remember is "don’t run after him!" <g> Anyone who has learned that much from experience already has a good foundation for walking down a horse on pasture.
My objective is to get the loose horse initially to slow down and stand still for me to approach, then later learn to come to me, so I’ll describe the entire process I use. My method is based on various herd behaviors to control the situation and better communicate with the horse. And in case it isn’t obvious below … remaining calm and patient will reduce the time it takes to walk down that loose horse. 😉
Since the horse is loose, I need to control him by using mostly body language, watching his body language to see what my next move should be to influence his behavior. Rather than my playing his game of keep-away I will insist he plays by my rules, and in the process he’ll understand that I am the boss. An important note is that while on the surface the horse seems to be playing keep-away, the underlying behavioral message is that he doesn’t consider the human alpha, so he sees no reason to stop and be caught simply because the human is on pasture with him. There is also potential for that horse to feel a degree of fear of that human based on prior contact, so the "stand and be caught" lesson should always be a positive experience. The human needs to be careful about what is expressed in body language in order to be successful, and learning from the herd makes it easier.
"Herding" to teach a horse to stand still and pay attention to the boss exists in herd behavior, and the horse will recognize the quiet movement of the alpha … learned initially as a foal from his dam. Horses will respond to other horses (and humans) differently depending on the direction, speed, and likely intent of the approach. An example of "intent" is seen in other common herd behavior … to stay out of the way when an alpha horse is moving with a more aggressive body language. Self preservation. <g> Yet that alpha horse can also express an invitation to come closer … and herd members will respond to that invitation to buddy up with the boss. So the walking down process should have the human in the role of the alpha while avoiding the aggressive looking movement that would keep a horse more distant, with the process indicating you want the horse to stand still, then ultimately expressing the invitation to come closer. But first the horse needs to learn to pay attention and recognize the human as the boss.
I’ve found the best "approach the loose horse" quadrant to encourage him to stand and pay attention to me is angled from the front, staying ahead of the shoulder. (I imagine a box around the horse, with diagonal lines to the corners to create 4 quadrants, then extend those imaginary quadrant lines into the pasture or surrounding area.) My presence in a quadrant can be used for directional control on that horse, according to how close I am. If that horse pivots / moves off, I veer off (away from the rear quadrant) and keep my distance while along his side, not getting closer than 25+ ft. until I’m again in the front. Distance varies depending on the horse’s response. If he moves to the side while I’m in a side quadrant, I’m too close … unless I’m intentionally turning him, in which case I’d adjust my distance according to how quickly he is making the turn. So in general, the human position in the front is to stop the horse, from the side is to turn the horse, and from the rear is to drive the horse forward. Distance from the horse can be neutral, or can apply a degree of pressure / send a command to that horse. All subject to modification depending on how that horse is responding. 😉
Often I will parallel the new horse, gradually closing the gap, or even circle around the horse from a non-threatening distance to improve my position. I say non-threatening because a relaxed, more quietly moving horse is less likely to run off. The closer I am, the more pressure is on the horse that I am claiming alpha, and he has an excuse to move off again if he isn’t ready to yield. If the pasture is large, I might plan ahead with my positioning to turn that horse so he’s headed back toward the gate … so I have a shorter hike when I’m done. 😉
If the horse is doing serious "I’m outta here" moves, I position my angle at a less threatening distance to slow the horse’s retreat. If the horse slows, I slow, and maybe stop. When the horse stops to look, I stop. Depending on how that horse is responding (read the body language!) I might slowly approach, or even use my same round pen language to call the horse to come to me. If the horse has been taught to face you in the round pen, and by your shifting around out in front of the horse he’ll move with you to stay facing, you know you have his attention. Sometimes I back several steps away at that point, and maybe the horse will follow up on that invitation. But more importantly, I want him focused on me. After the horse has committed a few steps in my direction, I know the "catch" part will be soon. Depending on the horse and situation I will either slowly finish the approach from the front quadrant, ask the horse to come closer, or a combination. I’ll usually stop again at @ 10 feet in front, then move forward a step or two at a time depending on how the horse is responding. If he hasn’t moved toward me with a few steps, or at least fully turned to face me, my approach to him will be slower, still suspicious that he may move off again.
Once I’m standing next to the horse I give plenty of verbal praise, along with the reward of scratching that favorite spot with the horse is standing quietly (with or without the halter) for me. During the walk-down process I also use his name, to help him recognize it in the future.
Timing will vary, but I find repetition of a few successive days helps reinforce the "horse will stand still for the alpha human" training. Typically the first 2 times I’d spend 5-10 minutes just petting and praising the horse, then leave. 3rd day I’d carry a halter over my shoulder, and may or may not actually put the halter on, but would again leave the horse on pasture. By now, the horse would usually follow me back to the gate, where more petting and praise is given before I leave. Repeat daily as required, until the horse will at least stand still to approach and halter. Later – often as little as a few days – the horse will see me coming and start in to meet me. Over time, I can just stand at the gate, call his name to get his attention, and wait for the horse. And I don’t leave or lead the horse off without praise and reward to reinforce that good behavior.
BTW – I also make a point of giving each horse a nice "favorite scratch" while standing in the pasture or before actually turning them loose after riding or working. That way their last memory of being around me is a pleasant one, and they’ll be more eager to repeat the experience. 😉
You need to stay relaxed for this method to work, or the horse will pick up the more aggressive body language generated by your frustration. Sometimes you will want to project a more aggressive image, but only long enough to get the horse’s attention. This might be a single aggressive stride or sharp sound that will startle him into looking at you, but hopefully not aggressive enough to drive him off … unless that is your intention. (Much like the training used in round pen work.)
Our own horses are accustomed to my cues, and I can often stop them with a strong negative "eh!" sound if they start to walk off, followed by praise when they stop. If the horse is trained to the verbal "whoa" (recommended!) I’ll sometimes use that command firmly if he looks like he’s about to stop, or thinking about moving on again. Picking the right moment would also reinforce the "whoa".
Another key is that when walking down a horse, I do not start immediately moving when the horse does. If I remain standing still, sometimes that horse will take a few steps, then stop. When he stops and turns back to face me, he has finally admitted that the game will be played by my rules. I never move faster than a casual walk when remotely close to the loose horse, because human speed simply encourages the horse to move. Any indication of tension and urgency will just convince the horse to move faster. With some horses it helps to have body language where you’re almost slouching along, watching the ground (no eye contact). This human posture is not screaming "I’m gonna kill you when I finally catch you!", indicates a lack of urgency or tension, and will be far less threatening to the horse. Sometimes the casually strolling human can also influence a horse to slow down, particularly if you’ve been timing your stride with the horse’s hind feet. Some will even slow down to match your decreasing pace, then will stop when you do.
The hardest part is reading the horse’s body language – this comes with practice – and figuring out how that horse will respond to which of your own moves. Be calmly relentless – you can not let the horse win! – but also know when to switch into a different mode, or even back off to make the horse more comfortable / release the pressure. Also, as you read the horse better, you can anticipate! It’ll save a bunch of hiking if you stop your approach just before that horse is going to move away again. Once he is stopped, take it slow and easy so he doesn’t have another excuse to start off again. Remember that in the herd, when an alpha horse moves with more aggressive body language, the rest of the herd just tries to stay out of the way.
But if this method doesn’t work, try taking a book into the pasture. Have a seat – by his water or feed adds additional incentive for him to approach – and ignore him. Most horses will get curious enough to wander over and see why you’re not playing their fun game of keep-away … if you have the patience to wait long enough. 😉
Contributed By: CEOates Ranch