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!