Can't Catch My Horse

Q. I am so frustrated with my miniature Shetland Pony gelding, Popcorn. In his pasture, we just can't catch him. It takes me, my parents, and any other people who are around the barn to go out together and corner him. Sometimes we have to chase him for a half-hour if we have to catch him for the vet or the farrier. In his stall, he swings around to get away. Mom and Dad have to corner him.  When he has been in the barn for a while, he gets used to being caught and doesn't even turn when he sees two people coming. Once he is caught, he is really nice.


A. Oh, how well we all know the frustration. But they all can improve with work. There are lots of methods out there for this problem. My favorite method for a pony such as you describe takes a lot of work, but the result tends to last for a long time. It involves teaching the horse or pony that "all good things come from people," and that "people are always good." 

First, at least for a period of training, the pony needs to become dependent on people (and coming to people) for food and water. Start with the pony in his stall where he has no feed or water except what you give him.  You and one or two assistants will hand feed and water him two or three times a day for at least three weeks.  At each feeding place a flake of hay and a bucket of water near the stall door. Open the door, stand there, say his name, and just wait quietly for 10 minutes (use a stop watch; get a stool; read a catalogue). If he doesn't come toward you after 10 minutes, get the bucket of water and the hay and set them down at your feet just inside the stall and wait quietly another 10 minutes. 

You can say his name as if to call him over once in a while. You can trickle the water through your hands, making the sound of running water. Put a handful of sweet feed in the bottom of a small bucket and rattle it around. If he doesn't come, take the hay and grain and water away and close the door. Continue this procedure every couple of hours until he approaches the hay and water. When he does come, just let him eat and drink while you stand there quietly. 

If at the end of the first day he has not come on his own, get your assistant to help you catch him as quietly as possible and lead him to the hay and water.  Just stand there quietly while he eats and drinks.  Take the leftover hay and water out when you leave. Once he starts coming toward you reliably when you open the door or place the hay and water, try calmly reaching out to attach a lead rope. Hold him on a loose lead while he eats and drinks.  Then start catching him in the stall before you bring the hay and water.

Once he gets really easy to catch in the stall, move him out to an open paddock without grass and repeat what you did in the stall.  When you catch him, just give him a nice pat, rub him gently along the neck under the mane, give him a little grain treat from your pocket, give him his hay and water, then let him go.  Whenever you have time when it is not feeding time, try catching him without the food or just with the grain treat. Once he will come to you reliably in the small bare paddock, move on to trying him out in a grass pasture.

Remember that Popcorn also needs to trust that being caught is usually a good thing. It doesn't sound like you punish him, but for sure any punishment will make it worse. So, no matter how mad he makes you, just keep calm and smiling, and don't shout or hit him for being difficult to catch.  Also, once he starts coming to you to be caught, be sure to be really nice to him for the next few minutes. One challenge with ponies is that they seem really smart; they learn to detect when the veterinarian or the farrier is there, or if the only reason they are ever caught is to work. Be sure to go out and catch him frequently when you are just going to give him a treat or a gentle pat on the neck, then let him go.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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