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You arrive at the barn, call your horse by name, and he ignores you; in fact, he does not so much as flick an ear in your direction. It is hard not to have your feelings hurt. Initially, when you got your horse home and arrived at the barn, he would come trotting to you. He wore a happy expression on his face, his ears forward, and sometimes he'd even nicker.  
Or maybe your horse has always been blasé about your presence. You may even be one of the lucky people whose horse runs away when he sees you. Or perhaps your horse turns his hindquarters to you when approached. That makes us feel loved, right? These scenarios are beyond frustrating, and figuring out how to gain his affection occupies your mind until you wonder if you should even bother. 
You interpret that his reluctance to greet you means he doesn't love you, or worse, he doesn't even like you. Your thoughts wander toward the possibility of selling him and getting a happier horse that will come to you when you call him. After all, you can't make anyone like you. 
But wait! Let's think about it another way for just a moment because it may not have anything to do with you at all. 
Suppose your horse has a history of damaging or harmful beginnings. In that case, he may not know any other way to act around humans. Not just you, either; this includes all humans who had nothing to do with his unfortunate start. Before dumping your horse and looking for Mr. Perfect, evaluate the entire situation. Suppose he is stellar in all areas except being caught or appearing happy to see you. In that case, there is hope for changing his reluctant demeanor. 
Horses love to have places they can't reach scratched, such as the tail head, inner thighs, hocks, withers, crests, and chests. Those are the places I touch first. I also hand-feed them but do not reach out to them. The first touch for some horses is with my forehead or cheek. Every horse needs to feel safe before I can do anything close to training them. 
The drill remains the same as always: change his mind, and you will change his feet. 
There are many ways to accomplish that task, but the ones that are usually most successful are the methods that allow the horse a voice. Traditional pressure and release training may worsen the matter of the uncatchable horse. But that method translates to an intimidating human chasing a reluctant horse. Better to get the horse to want to come to you. How?
  • Enter the paddock with low energy and even breaths.
  • Be non-threatening in your demeanor by looking away from the horse and softening your focus.
  • If the horse looks at you, step back or turn sideways away from him.
  • Get his attention by singing, whistling, walking in a Z-pattern, squeezing a dog toy, or whatever you think will garner attention.
  • Keep your shoulder towards the horse, not your eyes.
  • When the horse looks at you, stop. Step back.
  • Wait and repeat.
  • When the horse finally steps toward you, step away. (I sometimes end the session at this point by setting out a bucket with a bit of grain before leaving. Once the horse is finished and has left the now-empty bucket, I return.)
  • Repeat the first steps until the horse comes toward you, and step back.
  • As you step away and the horse begins to follow you, listen to his footfalls, matching them until you stop. He will also stop.
  • Now, do not reach for the horse. Just wait.
  • Finally, move, so you're standing perpendicular to the horse at the shoulder and pause.
  • Walk off at an angle, matching your steps to his while keeping your focus soft.
  • Stop. Wait. Listen. Breathe.
  • Read his anxiety level. If calm, scratch his neck or withers. If he looks toward you, continue petting him. If he tenses, slow your hand, breath deeply, and exhale, eyes downward.
  • If you are haltering the horse, stand shoulder to shoulder with him, facing forward.
  • Bring your rope under his neck, and reach over the crest to get it, but do so softly, slowly, and gently. 
Once you have haltered the horse, doing something rewarding can make all the difference for future sessions. I usually remove the halter, or at least the lead rope. The best way to get him to do what you want is to remember to break each goal into as many tiny pieces as possible so that you can set him up to succeed. The horse gets rewarded more often.  
Play with your horse by matching steps—you’ll follow his exact footfalls by watching his front feet. You can do this while the horse is on a lead rope while he’s grazing, and while he’s walking. It’s a way to tune in to each other and to focus your attention on your horse only. 
Where and when you work with your horse counts, too. You must begin in a small area such as a stall or paddock for hard-to-catch horses. A round pen is not the best place for this lesson as it encourages the horse to follow the never-ending fence line in a circle. A small paddock is best. If your horse lives in a stall part-time, begin there by teaching him to look for you. 
Since we change the horse's mind to change the feet, do not barge in trying to catch him. Your first goal should be to get him to feel safe. To look at you when you give a cue that can be verbal, visual, or both. Be sure it is something you will use each and every time you approach him. A specific whistle or calling his name can work very well. A whistle is the most effective for a horse that lives in a larger area, such as a pasture. 
When training a horse to look to you, you must first teach him to look for you. A positive stimulus that will encourage him to look for you is essential. For most horses, this may be a special treat or a scratch in just the right place. This method is simple to employ, and food is usually your best friend when enticing him to respond quickest.  
A visual cue such as arms above your head before dropping them and repeating (think jumping jacks) will allow him to see you even if he is far away. The sound of a whistle can be an excellent auditory cue. Even a loud whip-crack can work if your horse is not afraid of the sound. 
To begin with, you will want to teach him to look at you on command. Standing outside his immediate and personal space can help him feel safe - an absolute must for a shy or fearful horse. Using your chosen cue, call him, and if he looks at you, offer him a reward. 
 Rattling a bucket or banging the bail can become his cue to approach you. At first, you will reward him extravagantly for any small sign that he acknowledges your presence. Once he understands that he gets a treat for doing practically nothing, he will begin to offer you more of the desired behavior. You will be able to build upon that new willingness to strengthen your relationship and train with less stress. 
Once your horse looks for you, he will begin coming to you. Even though it appears that he is only hoping for food, once he finds that the payoff is consistent, he will search for any cue you have taught him. Before you know it, he will come to you each time he sees you or even when he hears your vehicle approaching. Help him change his mind, and his feet move toward you. 
Over time, I reduce the number of treats rewarded until they are not needed, though I still periodically give them.
Horses are motivated by two things; things they want to move towards and things they want to avoid. Be what they want! 
Remember to let the horse “catch” you by allowing him the time and space to feel safe and inquisitive. Make it fun for both you and your horse, Happily Ever After!


Tanya Buck
Published on 28-09-2022
Tanya Buck is an equine advocate, an author (101 Ways to Die with a Horse or Live Happily Ever After and White Horse, A Novel), horse trainer, coach and riding instructor. And if that list isn't long enough, she is also a member of the Front Range Animal Evacuation Team in Colorado and founder of the Horses Happily Ever After Project. Tanya believes that a holistic approach incorporating the horse's physical, mental and emotional state combined with reciprocal communication is most beneficial in creating the bond of champions. Her ongoing work to better the world for the horse drives her to keep doing what she does!