First, a basic principle: If you want your horse to make a change, you have to give him a reason to do so. The hard-to-catch horse is happy being away from you. To change that, you need to convince him that it’s better to be with you. The round pen is a great place to do this because, in order to stay away from you, the horse has to keep moving, and eventually he looks for an alternative to wasting all of that precious energy.
So here’s the basic technique. With the horse loose in the round pen, bring up your energy and focus it on the horse’s hindquarters. Mentally push on them, move toward them, throw a rope at them, whatever you need to do to be sure the horse feels that energy pushing on his hind end. One of two things will happen. Either the horse will squirt away from you and exercise his flight response or he will disengage his hindquarters, which is a fancy way of saying he will swing his rear end away from you and face up. If the horse runs away, keep the pressure up until you see that he wants to slow down. Let him stop and begin the session again.
The facing up is what you want from the horse because that is an act of submission, an offering of sorts. What you do when he begins to face you is critical. You instantly turn off the pressure and start backing away him. Remember, you began this session by pushing energy toward the horse’s hind end; now you’re pulling energy from his front end. Pushing energy has a driving effect and pulling energy has a drawing effect. You want the horse to continue this change he has made in turning toward you by actually taking a step toward you, then another, then another. It’s easy for him to do this as long as you are backing away. When you begin to see other signs of submission such as licking and chewing or lowering the head, you can stop moving backward and let the two of you rest in that position.
So where are we now? The horse has decided that, at least for the moment, it is better to be with you than away from you. The pressure to move his hindquarters is gone and he’s felt this urge to move toward you. This is an important mental shift and the moment it occurs is called joining up or hooking on. It’s a fragile moment and getting greedy can undo what you’ve accomplished, so go slowly. If you are still getting these offerings of submission, such as lowering the head, licking and chewing, softening the eye, or blinking, it is a good time to give your horse a gentle scratch on the forehead. Don’t dwell there; just get in, scratch, and get out. Turn and walk slowly away from the horse. Feel the invisible connection between you. The horse should follow. Turn and scratch him while he’s still mentally connected to you . When you’ve both gotten comfortable with this little dance, you are done for the day.
Whaaaa? That’s right. You are not going to do anything further with the horse on that day. This is called ending on a good note and it may be the hardest part of training a horse. Think of it as an investment in the future, a way of patching up the foundation of your relationship. To continue that metaphor, the mortar needs time to set. You are going to leave your horse on a good note in order for things to firm up in his mind. Remember, you’ve rocked his world a bit. You are not the same person he thought you were. He needs time to process that. The idea beginning to form in his mind is that being with you could be his first choice rather than his last resort.
Tomorrow, you can repeat he whole thing again, paying special attention to how you use your energy and how he responds to it. You’ll be better and he will probably respond more readily. But maybe not. Horses always test us and progress isn’t perfectly linear. Don’t let that upset you because that negative energy will also be felt by the horse and will interfere with the other signals he’s picking up from you. The time will come, maybe on that second day or maybe later, when you can put his halter on him and walk him around a bit. As before, don’t get greedy about this. Surprise him by ending on a good note, when he’s relaxed and willing to do more. In the future, mix it up like that. Some days, you’ll catch him to go do something. Other days, you’ll catch him just to give him a good scratch or a carrot. You will keep your horse engaged and interested in you – and easier to catch – if you are just a little unpredictable in your daily activities with him.