TRUE TRAINING 5 - Established Evaders
Several blog readers have asked how to catch-train established evaders. The reason I spend so much time teaching young new horses to catch is that established evasion is very difficult to correct. It’s a lot easier to prevent bad habits than to train them away.
The horse brain is set up for fast learning that is more pure—and in some ways more effective—than human learning. Unfortunately, the established evader has learned many undesirable lessons, often with thousands of repetitions over many years:
Catching leads to work.
Catching takes me away from food and friends.
Catching requires me to trust predators.
People in my past have caused me confusion or pain.
People are easy to evade; they’re slow.
Evading a catch means I can play, rest, eat, and hang with my buddies.
That’s a whole lotta negative learning to overcome! If you hope to change the established evader, set yourself up for the best chance of success. If possible, move the horse into a small private area for a few weeks. Set aside lots of time. Minimize distractions like hay, grass, noise, or other horses. Make catching pleasant for the horse.
The techniques in “Teaching the Catch” and “The Harder Catch” will help. But here’s the hitch—an established evader is unlikely to approach you for that initial super-surprising food reward. So your biggest job is to get the evader to take that first step. Only then can you begin to link his approach with the release of dopamine in his brain.
Start by taking a camp chair into the horse’s area and leaving the halter behind. Get as close to the horse as you can without causing him to move away. Now sit down where the horse can see you, facing away from him. Get comfy because you might be there for a while. Take a book or some other silent means of occupying yourself. By nature, horses have curious brains. They want to know what you are doing, especially if there is no hay, grass, or buddy to fill their minds at that moment. Be prepared to wait two hours before giving up for the day.
It might take ten seconds or ten weeks for the evader to approach you. But when he does, pull out the very best finger-lickin’ treat a horse could ever want. If he stays near, stroke and praise him; give him another bite of ecstasy. If he moves away after his treat, that’s fine. You’ve started the process and can continue catch training tomorrow.
If he stays close, continue to stroke him then slowly walk away. If he follows, use the edible reward again and more stroking. Do not halter or ride the evader yet. For now, we have to establish firmly in his mind that catching is connected only to pleasant results. Later, you will add greater distances, haltering, and working -- one step at a time.
Why do I insist on the horse approaching you, rather than you approaching him? Three reasons: First, horses are prey animals. Their brains know that being chased is dangerous; approaching is not. Second, we want the horse’s brain to overlearn catch behavior, not by drilling, but by acquiring the difficult move so that the easier move will come more naturally. A horse who’s taught to come will not always come. But under normal conditions, he will allow you to approach and halter him. Third, equine and human brains function more effectively when motivated than required—that’s why motivation is one of the keys to brain-based horsemanship. Motivate the horse to produce a behavior because he wants to, not because you demand it.