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Horse Handling Basics: How To Approach A Horse

    Approaching a horse can feel intimidating. They are big animals that are able to move quickly and can sometimes be unpredictable. When a horse is loose you may feel nervous from the lack of control and uncertainty of what may happen. 

    I remember at times feeling vulnerable when I was alone walking out in the pasture, approaching the horse I was going to be riding in my lesson.

    However I have found your confidence will build overtime with the right training and knowledge on how to approach and catch a horse. The more you know how to behave around horses and what to expect from them the more comfortable you will feel being around them and handling them. 

    In general when approaching a horse first speak with a normal tone of voice making the horse aware of your presence. Walk calmly and confidently toward the horse’s shoulder, still talking. When you get to the horse you can let them smell your hand and then gently scratch the horse on the shoulder or withers. 

    After approaching if you are going to catch the horse. You can gently put the lead rope around the horse’s neck and halter the horse. 

    This is just a quick look at approaching a horse but in this post I will be going over:

    • The basics of approaching a horse
    • All the scenarios of how you would approach a horse in different situations 
    • How to train a horse to be approached and caught easily
    • What not to do when approaching a horse

    8 Basics Of Approaching A Horse

    I am going to break down that quick look of how to approach a horse, so you better understand what to do.

    1. First your voice.

    You want to speak in a normal voice, not shouting, high pitched, growling, whispering just normal, calm and confident. 

    You can tell the horse about your day, tell the horse how beautiful they are etc. It doesn’t matter all that much what you talk about as long as it’s kind because words have power. 

    This is super interesting and If you haven’t heard about words having actual power you can do the experiment yourself with rice, plants, fruits for example. 

    Check out this Youtube video with someone doing the rice experiment if you are curious. There are tons more people who have done these types of experiments you can watch on YouTube. Words actually can cause physical harm. “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Proverbs 18:21

    2. Next is walking up to the horse’s shoulder.

    You want to walk confidently up to the horse because if you seem nervous and are jumpy at all that will transmit to the horse. They will read your body language and may get nervous as well. 

    Make sure you walk, don’t run and also don’t creep along either. Running might make the horse feel like they are being chased and creeping might make the horse feel like they are being stalked. Horses are prey animals and they are constantly trying to perceive if something is safe or dangerous.

    3. You want to walk to the horse’s shoulder for two main reasons.

    One… the shoulder is the safest place for you to be next to the horse and two… you are in the horse’s field of vision. The horse can strike out with the front legs and kick with the back legs at the shoulder the horse would not as easily be able to reach you. 

    If needed you could also push away from the horse’s shoulder with your hands, to move quickly away and to put pressure on the horse telling them to move away from you. This is not a fail safe method. There is always a chance to get hurt when around horses, if they act aggressively or get spooked. Sometimes as simple as getting bit by a big fly and spinning around to get away could cause you to get hurt. 

    4. Also make sure you walk to the left shoulder if you are going to halter the horse.

    I am all for approaching a horse from both sides and getting the horse even, equal and used to work on both sides. However most halters are done up on the left. So if you are haltering it is going to make your life easier.

    5. Next let the horse sniff your hand.

    You want to do this before you rub the horse. This is a greeting to the horse, similar to shaking hands or saying hi to someone. You may notice that horses do this to each other especially when a horse has been away out of the paddock and then later turned back with the other horses. 

    6. After the horse is done sniffing your hand and saying hi, give a gentle scratch on the shoulder or wither area.

    Horses that like one other often scratch and groom each other. This sort of simulates that and shows the horse you are friendly. This also helps to release feel-good endorphins in the horse.

    Check out this interesting article from on whether horses prefer patting or scratching.

    7. Blind Spots

    Horses have two blind spots that you want to stay out of, especially when approaching the horse. Directly in front of the horses head and directly behind the horse. If you approach a horse from a blind spot you could startle the horse and potentially get hurt. 

    Besides startling the horse if you are standing close to the horse in a blind spot you are in a prime area to get a kick by a hind leg or a strike from a front leg. 

    Not that horses are vicious animals because they are not. But they can be dangerous if they are acting protective, dominant, nervous, or fearful. Typically you can tell what a horse is feeling based on the body language and facial expression they are giving.

    8. Body Language And Expression

    Sometimes I forget that not everyone understands horse body language and what the horse is saying.

    Over many years of learning from different horse trainers, reading many books on horse behavior, working with and caring for many horses it has become almost second nature to read a horse. 

    Now I am not saying I am perfect at picking up all the cues from the horse. I am like someone that learned a new language and has most of it down but still makes mistakes here and there.  

    What I am saying is that you will get it and begin to understand horses better, if you strive to learn the equine language and practice understanding the horse. It will come in time. Most things with horses require patience including being able to read a horse’s body language and facial expressions.This is something every horse person should be working on. 

    When you work with horses you should be trying to understand how the horse is feeling, what the horse is trying to tell you. 

    Is the horse nervous, does the horse trust you, are you making the horse nervous or is there something off in the distance that is making the horse uneasy? 

    Is the horse trying to push you around and be the more dominant partner? 

    Is the horse acting sick? Is the horse depressed? 

    Is the horse having anxiety, misbehaving or in pain? 

    Knowing horses well individually as well as the equine body language can help us figure these types of things out and understand the horses better.

    When approaching a horse you should be paying attention to the horse’s body language. This is vital to keeping yourself safe. 

    • If the horse swings their hindquarters to you they are threatening you to stay away. 
    • If the horse is pinning their ears back that is another warning sign. 
    • Lifting a hind leg is another aggressive behavior, besides just trying to get biting flies off their legs. 
    • If the horse’s head is lifted straight up and is looking off in the distance with ears pricked forward, that is a sign something has the horse’s attention. The horse may shy and bolt away or may stay still but you should be prepared for what could happen. 

    Don’t approach a horse when they are showing these kinds of signals  in order to keep you safe.

    How To Approach A Horse From The Front

    Here is a quick video from my YouTube channel Kacypony demonstrating for you how to approach a horse from the front.

    How To Approach A Horse From The Back

    This is another similar video from my channel but approaching the horse from behind.

    How To Approach A Horse In A Stall

    When you go to approach a horse in a stall it is very similar to approaching a horse outside. They may not be able to see you behind the stall door if their head is not hanging out over the door. They could be eating hay on the ground or grain in their bucket. 

    So like before talk to the horse to let them know that you are there so that you don’t startle them. They may become curious and stick their head out over the door. If the horse is showing that they are friendly and in a good mood, you can let the horse sniff your hand and then give the horse a scratch on the neck. 

    If you are going into the stall then make sure the horse backs up before you open the door so that you don’t bop the door on the horse’s head. 

    Keep paying attention to the horse’s body language. If the horse is showing any signs of defensiveness or aggression you want to be careful and back out of the stall. Spinning the hindquarters around, lifting a hind leg, pinning ears, biting the air are all warning signs to stay away. 

    Some horses have stall aggression, but are fine out of the stall. In those circumstances you should have your instructor or someone that regularly handles and knows the horse well to retrieve the horse. 

    If this is how your horse is and you are afraid, you should seriously consider working with a horse trainer that knows how to help a horse with this kind of problem.

    Scary horse aside, if you are going into the stall to approach and catch the horse and the horse seems content and friendly, make sure you close the door behind you so the horse cannot sneak out behind you. 

    The approach is the same. Talk nicely, walk normally to the shoulder, horsey sniffs your hand and scratch on the shoulder, neck or withers. Then rope around the neck and halter the horse.

    How To Approach A Horse In A Field

    When you approach a horse in a field the horse is more likely to wander away. Especially with all the yummy grass. 

    So make sure when you approach a horse in the field you are not giving off body language that tells the horse to move away from you. Especially if the horse already is enjoying their pasture time. 

    Now there are some horses that are just difficult to catch and then… there are people that go up to a horse in a field unknowingly give off signals that the horse needs to move away.

    The horse may move away thinking you are being dominant wanting them to move away. Often this will mostly just affect the more sensitive horses. There are also horses that are more dull to these types of signals and tune people out. They could also be more trusting and confident with people as well and are willing to let you come over.

    Body language that can sometimes cause horses to move away in the field:

    • Staring at the horses eyes as you walk towards them
    • Walking straight toward the horse with shoulders square
    • Walking fast and abruptly to the horse
    • Looking at the horse’s hind end and walking toward the hind end.
    • Lifting your hands up as you walk toward the horse
    • Leaning forward as you walk.
    • Having a grumpy expression on your face.

    So just follow the basics of how to approach a horse and in most cases you will be good.

    How To Approach A Horse For The First Time

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    There are a couple of things you would want to be more aware of when you are approaching a new horse. The horse doesn’t know you and may be a little more uncertain. You really want to pay even closer attention to how the horse is feeling, the signals the horse is giving to you. With approaching a new horse you don’t know all the horse’s quirks and common behaviors for that specific horse.

    Make sure you let the horse sniff you as a greeting and so that the horse can get your smell. Smell is one way that horses recognize each other, especially with a mare and foal. 

    You also want to be more cautious than with a horse you know well. But you should never let your guard fully down with any horse.

    How To Approach An Injured Horse

    If your horse is injured for example in the paddock and you have to approach and catch the horse to bring them into the barn, you want to be slow and extra cautious in order to keep from startling the horse.You wouldn’t want them to try to move quickly and hurt themselves further. 

    It may be helpful to bring some treats to coax the horse. 

    Keep in mind horses can act more fearful, aggressive and protective when they are injured so really make sure you are reading the horse’s body language. Talk softly and calmly to the horse, walk a little slower than you normally would and stay calm even if the situation doesn’t look good.

    When you get to the horse catch and halter as gently as the situation allows. Reassure the horse and look the horse over. Go slow and make sure the horse is okay to walk. If the horse is not okay to walk, have someone call the vet and ask for the next steps on what to do. If you are alone this is when having a cell phone on hand is important, especially for emergencies. 

    How To Approach A Hard To Catch Horse

    There are some things you can try with a hard to catch horse which may help. But this is a problem that does best with a longer term approach. It is best to work with the horse, get them comfortable and train them to be approached and caught easily. 

    Things you can try for a hard to catch horse which go along with the approaching methods mentioned so far:

    • Look away from the horse when you approach the horse, but still assess the horse’s body language with peripherals or quick glances.
    • Walk towards the horse’s shoulder with your body sideways.  
    • If the horse seems about to take flight, pause and wait for the horse to relax. 
    • If the horse backs away you back away.
    • Walk to the horse with the horse sideways in a zigzag type pattern.
    • Give attention to the horse’s pasture mates and see if you can get the horse curious.
    • Try bringing the horse’s favorite treats.
    • Try bringing a bucket of grain you can rattle.
    • Take your time with the horse, focus on relaxing and your breathing. 
    • Give yourself a lot of time to catch the horse. Prepare yourself for how long it could take.

    How To Approach A Loose Horse

    Approaching a horse that is loose is similar to approaching a difficult to catch horse but the stakes are higher.  The problem is the horse is not contained and has a much high possibility of getting hurt or hurting someone. 

    If there is a loose horse don’t go after the horse alone. You may need several people to help. Most loose horses tend to run away from people coming toward them and they are extremely excitable. If you are able to, gently herd, drive or direct the horse with other people into a paddock or enclosed area, that is your best bet. As quickly as you can and are able block any areas leading off the property.

    If the horse gets off the property and is running around the town. Call your town’s animal control and the police to help block traffic if needed. Try to keep your nerves down best you can because if you are high on adrenaline and acting excitable so will the horse.

    How Not To Approach A Horse

    I briefly mentioned body language you should avoid displaying in the section “how to approach a horse in the field.” These specific postures basically drive the horse away. I am going to explain a little bit about each so you have a better understanding of why you shouldn’t use this body language when approaching a horse. 

    Staring at the horse’s eyes as you walk towards them.

    To a horse this is a threat. This is what a predator does when they are stalking their prey. Horses are prey animals and they flee from predators.

    Walking straight toward the horse with shoulders square.

    When you walk directly to the horse with your shoulders square you may signal the horse to move away. When you lunge a horse your shoulders are square with the horse, or if you are sending a horse off in a round pen, same thing. When you turn sideways you are inviting the horse over not driving away. Your position is not as aggressive. 

    Walking fast and abruptly to the horse.

    This may make the horse startle or feel like you are chasing them.

    Looking at the horse’s hind end and walking toward the hind end.

    This is telling the horse to move and tend to drive the horse. 

    Lifting your hands up as you walk toward the horse.

    You may be trying to fix the lead and halter but to the horse, it may seem you are shooing them away with your hands.

    Leaning forward as you walk.

    This is an aggressive position. A dominant horse may lower their head, pin ears to tell another horse to move away.

    Having a grumpy expression on your face.

    Check out this article about an experiment done with horses recognizing human facial expression. They were wearier of the people that they had previously seen with sad or angry expressions. Compared to the horses that saw a happy face.

    Not every horse will be affected by these things. But if you are having trouble approaching and or catching a horse. Double-check you aren’t unknowingly doing one of these things.

    How To Train A Horse To Be Approached And Caught Easily 

    Here is a video I found on YouTube that shows one way you can train a difficult horse to not only be approached and caught but also come when called. It is with target and clicker training. It is something that takes time and patience not fixed in one day. But definitely worth a shot for those of you who struggle with horse’s like this!



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