Does Your Horse Play 'Catch Me If You Can'?

Does Your Horse Play 'Catch Me If You Can'?

Horses run away for many reasons, and understanding the reasons why is the first step toward resolving the issue.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. Why does my horse run when I try to catch her?

A. Running away can become a persistent (and tiring!) problem because it delays, and sometimes prevents, the horse from being caught. Some horses stay just out of reach, others become aggressive and show dramatic displays of displeasure, and—in rare instances—horses might make a game of it. Horses run away for many reasons, and understanding the reasons why is the first step toward resolving the issue. To get to the cause, it’s important to look at what happens before, during, and after you catch your horse.

What happens while you try to catch your horse?

How you react when your horse runs away will affect her future behavior.  Some trainers recommend “making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy,” but this approach can, in this scenario, backfire and make things worse. If you chase or punish your horse when she runs away, her obvious advantage in speed and stamina can draw out and intensify the situation. Your horse will also be more likely to run in the future, because chasing and punishment are stressful. There is an added risk that your horse will associate the negative experience with you. 

A more effective strategy is to remain calm and unthreatening as you approach. Typically, the horse will watch as you advance; as soon as she shows the slightest intention of turning to walk away, stop and wait. As you wait, your horse will relax and then you can move closer.

Does your horse always run away from you, or only in certain situations?

Whether your horse runs away or not might depending on the time of day, where she is turned out, and who she’s turned out with. For example, if you arrive at feeding time, she might be more or less motivated to run away, depending on whether she eats outside or inside. If she’s in a large pasture, she will have more opportunity to run away.  If she is turned out with other horses, she might prefer their companionship over yours.

Changing the environment or routine can often prevent the problem. For example, if your arrival coincides with feeding time and your horse eats in her paddock, change your schedule or bring along a flake of hay so that your horse has a bite to eat first. 

What happens after you catch your horse?

Horses often run away to avoid an unpleasant experience. Veterinary procedures, hard workouts, and farrier visits can be particularly stressful, but some horses even find routine grooming, tacking up, and riding unpleasant. It’s important to rule out or minimize any pain or emotional distress associated with these activities.

Horses might appear apprehensive about leaving the safety of a familiar paddock or the security of the herd, especially when adjusting to a new stable. For horses living in an enriched environment, anything that happens outside the pasture might simply be less attractive by comparison. The challenge is to create an experience that is valuable and interesting to your horse relative to the situation you are removing her from. 

Take-Home Message

Understanding why your horse runs away is the key to changing the behavior. Is she avoiding discomfort caused by a poorly fitting saddle?  Does she have a strong attachment to her equine companions? Or has the process of catching her become a distressing experience itself?

Once you identify the cause, how long it takes before your horse stops running away depends on the severity of the problem and how long it has been going on.  Some cases can be quickly resolved, but others require more time, patience, and changes in routine.

About the Author

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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