A while back, I attended Cavalia Odysseo when it came to Salt Lake City. It is the most amazing equine experience ever. It involves a combination of approximately 65 exceedingly well-trained horses and a troupe of unbelievable acrobats.

Keyes jim
Range and Livestock Scientist / Utah State University

The trainers and the horses communicated through eye contact and voice commands, completing some very difficult maneuvers. Watching those horses and their human partners work in absolute unity was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Most of us do not have the ability to teach horses to perform astonishing feats but have a great admiration for the folks who assume the role of “horse trainer.”

Little do we realize that, every time we come in contact with our horses, we are literally doing some type of training. Most times this training goes uncomprehended by the human – but not by the equine.

A couple of these unconscious training methods illustrate how we should constantly be aware of what we are teaching when we are oblivious to our actions. Some of the most experienced ranch people I know are guilty of these practices.


1. Walking off when mounting

The first example is not only very annoying but also incredibly dangerous. It involves a rider allowing a horse to walk off before the rider is seated firmly in the saddle.

Last winter, I was visiting a ranch and witnessed an individual mount a horse that had begun walking away. Because of the forward movement of the horse, the rider missed the seat of the saddle and came down behind the cantle. The frightened animal began to run and planted the cowboy on the packed ice in front of the saddle shed. Fortunately, he was not hurt – but it could have been bad.

This horse, over time, had been trained to do exactly what it did. Every time the horse was mounted, it was allowed to walk away before the rider was settled. Harmless now, dangerous later.

Horses should be made to stand still and not move until asked by the rider. This is not done by jerking on the reins to stop the horse from moving. It’s accomplished by putting a foot in the stirrup, standing up as if to mount – but not swinging a leg over until the animal stands still. It may take many tries and encouragement before the horse stands. It requires patience, but it can mean the difference between a good experience and a serious injury.

2. The hard-to-catch horse

The second situation, arising from an unwitting training technique, is the horse that becomes impossible to catch. Horses are very smart and learn quickly about the connection of being caught and having to go to work.

If the situation is considered from the equine point of view, it becomes understandable. Why would you want to submit yourself to physical labor if you didn’t have to? If the opportunity presents itself to just turn and run away, why not take it?

The hard-to-catch horse can cause even the most patient of individuals to use “cow words” in expressing utter frustration. People have been known to do stupid things in this situation, such as suddenly believing they can chase down a galloping horse on foot or thinking that a fleeing equine can be brought to the ground by using a halter and lead rope like a set of gaucho bolas. I have tried both, and neither work.

The question becomes: Is it possible to reverse this situation?

The answer is: yes – but like most problems, it would be better if it had been avoided in the first place. A possible solution requires a change in the thought process of both horse and rider. The detaining and restraining process should be a positive experience for both partners.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Always give the horse a reason to come to the human. If catching horses in a pasture, use a bucket of grain to attract the horse. One of the most famous equine clinicians of today said he never goes out to the pasture without a bucket of grain hooked over his arm.

  • Make sure you let the animal have a few bites of grain. Don’t just offer the grain, catch the horse, and renege on your promise. A few bites of oats is not going to make the horse wild and buck you off. They will stop coming if they are cheated.

  • Taking some time to offer the horse a little grain, even if you are not asking the animal to go work, will add to the desire to come in. A few mouthfuls of grain and some petting will go a long way.

  • A child or inexperienced person should not be sent out with a grain bucket if there are several horses in the pasture. By nature, horses have a clear line of seniority within the group, and there can be some pushing, shoving and good-natured biting when a bucket of grain is present. An experienced horse person can monitor the situation and be able to stay out of the way.

  • Catching the horse in a corral or enclosure is another situation where training takes place.

  • The horse, if possible, should not be allowed to run from the person.

  • Use the corner of the pen as a “trap,” not allowing the horse to leave.

  • It should only take minutes for the horse to submit.

  • Do not allow the horse to turn its hind end to you. Facing away from a menace and exposing its hind feet is a natural defense mechanism for the animal, but you are not a predator.

  • Without letting the horse leave the corner, apply pressure to get it to turn and face you. This pressure can come from as little as making a clicking noise to using the end of the rope on the horse’s rear to ask the animal to turn.

    Only use as much pressure as necessary. Approach the horse and reward it for submitting. Stroke the animal on the neck and shoulder as you put the halter on, and let it know you two are a team.

Do not leave a halter on a horse in the pasture or even in the corral. I really should not have to explain why to any horse person. It is a dangerous thing to do. It does not make them easier to catch.

These two brief examples of walking off when mounting and being hard to catch should help us be aware of our teaching opportunities. Be aware and make sure your interactions with your horses result in positive outcomes.

We are all horse trainers.  end mark

PHOTO: A horse should always stand quietly while being caught. Photo courtesy of Jim Keyes.

Jim Keyes is a range and livestock scientist at Utah State University. Email Jim Keyes.