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Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

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Catching the uncatchable horse.

Dear Franklin,

I have just been reading your archived letters and see that you have had many similar to my problem, but none that quite help solve my problem.

I have recently bought a 9 year old Miniature pony stallion who had been badly handled and abused in the first four years of his life, and then left completely unhandled for the last five years. I do not know what they have done to him as a young horse, but I know this much, he has absolutely no trust in humans at all.

I currently have him in a very small yard with a lead rope attached to his headstall, but even then I cannot get close enough to catch him.

I sit in his yard every evening with his bucket of food and make him come to me if he wants it. At first he would come to me, grab a mouthful and back away three steps, but now sometimes he will stand with his head in the bucket for several minutes before panicking and backing away. I have tried speaking softly and reassuringly to him, but if I even make the slightest noise, even clearing my throat or whispering to him, he throws his head up and runs to the furthest point away from me in fright. The same goes for making any movements. My dog can stand under his feet and eat the food he drops, all the time with her tail wagging wildly and then she can run off chasing a rabbit and he won't so much as flinch at her, but if I make even the slightest movement such as shift a finger or turn my head slowly, he panics and runs away. I have to sit there dead still and dead silent or he won't even come to me. Every time he panics, it takes a few minutes before he will come back to me to eat his food.

I can coax him to me with treats such as bits of bread or fruit, but he will just snatch it and retreat. If I try and reach to to touch his nose or neck, or to pick up the lead, again he will panic and run to the furthest point possible. If I follow him, he will swing his hind quarters to me, kick out and run wildly around the yard.

I have used the "approach and retreat" method with him once, which allowed me to get close enough to pick up the end of his lead rope, but as soon as I did and he felt the tension on the lead, again he panicked, reared up, swung his hind quarters towards me and tried to kick me. Knowing I would only be dragged if I hung on, and not wanting to make any sudden movements to frighten him more, I let go.

I am sure he wants to be loved, because whenever I come to the paddock and all my other horses come running up and whinnying, he will come towards me and whinny too, but as soon as I get too close, he is off again. It is hard to explain, but it isn't like he is just misbehaving and doesn't want to be caught, he is genuinely frightened that I am going to hurt him.

I just am at wits end as to what the next step is. I can't even catch or touch him to scratch his "melting spots", and I can't even talk to him reassuringly because he just panics every time.

What can I do to regain his trust?
Kind regards, Kayleen, Australia

Hi Kayleen,

First off, stop trying to catch him and stop trying to bribe or coerce him. Begin to lead the 'dance.' To become the leader of the dance first thing to do is merely go (in a small paddock) to where he is standing and simply stand there (called occupying territory) quietly. The horse will move off and go stand somewhere else. Wait a COUPLE OF MINUTES and then go stand on the territory he is occupying again. You keep repeating that same process. Never chasing or doing anything directed towards the horse. Simply occupy the territory where he is standing. You could ignore him (don't really look at or talk to him) as you do this. This way you begin to become his peaceful leader. Do this (even if it takes a day or two) until the horse turns and looks at you, which he will eventually. When he does praise him with a "Good Boy!" and leave the paddock (this is the biggest reward you can give this horse at this time, leaving him alone). Repeat this process until he faces you most everytime. He may even come to you at some point. Do not touch him. Stand with arms down and praise him. Then leave paddock for the day.

Once he begins to look at you and/or face you regularly, begin to gently haze him around the paddock. Merely walk calmly towards his butt, do not scare him, passively walk towards his butt and keep moving. He will move ahead of you. He may move off quickly at first, like he is afraid. No worries, you simply stay calm, quiet and move forward. You want the horse to settle down and calmly walk in front of you. If you stay calm from the beginnning the horse will quickly reflect your calm demeanor. Eventually you stop walking and quietly say WHOA! Just stand a minute or two. If the horse faces you say "Good Boy!" Repeat this process for while, changing directions occasionally merely by hazing the horse in the opposite direction. You are now leading the dance.

At some point, when you intuitively know the horse and you are ready (calm and settled and the horse faces you when you both stop) ask the horse to move away from you a little faster (a slow trot). Ask him to keep moving around the paddock (or round pen) at a calm trot. Then ask for a WHOA! and you stop moving completely. Occasionally change directions. Give a Good Boy and a one minute rest for good compliance. Keep repeating the process perhaps a hour or so now.

At some appropriate point in time the horse will probably come over to you. If he does, keep your hands down and allow him to sniff you. At some point you can gently scratch or rub his shoulder. Generally stand by his shoulder not his head and do not reach into his head as yet. Rather begin to gently rub and little higher and a little higher up his neck towards his head as he allows it. GRADUALLY. He may allow you to walk up to his head from straight in front now. Quietly walk to his head and gently touch his nose, turn and walk away. If you can get this together, repeat this several times and you will find the horse beginning to follow you around. By gently rubbing his neck or withers and then walking away, he will eventually begin to follow you as well. Once you can rub him and he follows you, etc. begin to rub him all over with your hands, then with a rope held in your hands, then with the halter and rope held in your hands. Then gently slip the rope around his neck. Say Good Boy and bring it down. Repeat this a while and eventually hold both ends of rope under his neck and gently bring the rope towards you and thus the horse's head towards you. Say Good Boy. Remove the rope and end the session. Next time you will probably be able to put the halter on the horse.

I have given you the basic process for your particular situation. Describing this in an email is like trying to teach ballroom dancing through writing a book. It really helps to be able to see it. So, change your paradigm and attitude a bit. The horse is afraid and the more benign leadership you can bring forward, the better and faster he will trust you. I have written about gaining a horse's trust a lot. There are many Q & A's in the help center archives and articles I have written on the topic. Please have a look they are all free. The purchase of a training dvd would really open your eyes to the mind of a horse (if you get the right ones). But there are many good ones in the backs of all horse magazines. I have several based on my techniques and philosophies in the shopping corral of my website that would prove very helpful to you. No matter whose you get, get some and watch them a lot. You will learn a lot quickly. Keep me posted as to how it goes. I shall be teaching in the Melbourne area the first week in March. I am ccing this email to my Aussie coordinator and good friend, Michal. You can get her email off the cc line above. If you would like specific dates and location for my visit there, she can provide it. Thanks for your question and the best of luck to you.

Sincerely yours, Franklin

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