Join Up – get your horse to catch you!
Have you ever gone into the paddock to catch your horse and your horse keeps running away from you?
Do you ever head to the paddock wondering if you’ve brought enough grain to bribe your horse to come to you?
Does your horse try to pull away from you when you’re leading him, tries to eat grass when you don’t want him to, or just in general doesn’t seem to be bonded with you?
Getting your horse to catch you can make a world of difference. Just imagine if your horse chooses to come up to you instead of you capturing him. How could that change your partnership and your time together if it was your horse’s choice? The answer is well… drastically.
Teach your horse to choose you through the game ‘join up’ and experience the joys of a horse that easily comes to you, wants to be with you, and develops more trust with you. To learn Join Up with Colour Photos, take a look at my book ‘Natural Horsemanship: Answering the What, Why, and How for ALL Disciplines’.
However, after you use this tool of success, make sure you know what to do next – learn how to teach your horse their A, B, C’s that will make up your language and continue to show your leadership. If you are unsure how to do this I recommend ‘Natural Horsemanship: Answering the What, Why, and How for ALL Disciplines’ which has step by step instructions and colour photographs to help you learn these cues and get started.
To get your horse to like you, you must first make the commitment to put your relationship and partnership first, and your personal needs second.
That means you aren’t going to try and trick your horse into join up, you aren’t going to play join up and then snatch the horse and continue with whatever it was you were doing anyway, etc.
You can’t let your want to ride, to practice cantering, etc take priority over the need of your partnership. If your horse does not trust you, or your horse needs to build a better bond with you, then you make the commitment to put that need first, and post pone your want to ride, jump, etc to a later date. This means get things right on the ground before you think about introducing the saddle.
You have to commit to the time it takes. If you are going to start join up or another game, then you need to make sure you have allotted enough time to spend with your horse to take the time it takes to complete it right. You can’t have a 30 minute window to play join up or teach a new skill – you have to make sure your horse understands what you are asking and ends on a positive note… you can’t just end a training session because you budgeted your time poorly.
Before you start playing with the horse make sure you have enough time. If you know you only have 30 minutes with the horse then spend non-demanding time with the horse instead – this way you don’t risk needing to end a session before you are successful. Once you develop your partnership and you and your horse have understanding with each other, 30 minutes might be enough to play join up and ride, but to start with budget extra time – a minimum of 60 minutes to get your horse to catch you.
Join up is the process of getting the horse to catch you.
If the horse can choose to be with you, it sets you up for a much better experience then if you are always going out and trapping your horse. Remember we want a partnership and that means letting our horse make some decisions… to make a decision we need to give our horse choices.
We give our horse the choice of being with us and the alternate choice of not being with us. We can influence our horse’s choice by making it comfortable to be with us, and making it uncomfortable to not be with us. This helps the horse to choose what we want (to be with us).
We do this with join up. When you are going to play join up it is best in a fenced area (with safe fencing – such as wooden fencing).
The space needs to be large enough that the horse won’t feel claustrophobic and want to jump out and yet not too big that the horse can get too far away from you.
To start join up you need the horse in the smaller fenced in area – if your horse is easy to catch then simply catch the horse and then release him in the smaller paddock. If your horse is difficult to catch or lead you can try different things like:
- Feed the horses their regular meal in the smaller paddock. Then when the horses are done eating, only let the other horses out and keep the horse you want to work with in the paddock.
- Lead your horse’s friend into the smaller paddock (or maybe even the whole herd) into the smaller paddock – your horse is likely to follow and then you can get the rest of the horses to leave.
- Set up a chute (aisle way) for the horse to follow into the smaller paddock and simply ‘shoo’ the horse along into the smaller paddock – be careful not to chase the horse… just simply apply pressure behind the horse (air pressure) until the horse is going forward. Leave the horse alone when he is walking down the chute or inspecting the chute (he is thinking about going forward) – don’t rush the horse.
Keep in mind that these are tactics to help you get the horse to a space that is safe and set up for success to play join up – people who are really good at the game don’t need a smaller fenced area because they are hyper aware of their body language and energy…. but for most folks we need a smaller fenced area so we can set it up for success.
Once your horse is in the smaller paddock/round pen follow these easy steps:
- Follow behind the horse: You are following the horse’s tracks (follow the path the horse is walking on) – staying out of the kick zone (10 feet behind the horse). Be careful not to walk at the side of the horse; the goal is to follow behind the horse, so that you are looking directly at the tail of the horse. The horse doesn’t like being followed so this should cause the horse to want to look at you.
- Reward two eyes: As soon as the horse looks at you with two eyes (the horse faces you) back up away from the horse a few steps. This rewards the horse for looking at you – you took away the pressure of being followed and instead backed up. Make sure after you back up a few steps that you stand still and turn your belly button away from the horse. Your belly button is a lot of pressure so when you turn your belly button away from the horse it helps to take away that feeling of a predator staring down his prey (not a good feeling if you are a horse!). This will make you appear more inviting to the horse. It’s also important to breathe and think about things that relax and calm you so that your energy is relaxed and calm.
- Pay attention to your horse and react appropriately: Watch your horse – if your horse looks away from you, starts eating grass, etc then start walking in behind the horse again. If the horse starts to walk towards you then take a couple steps away from the horse. Timing is everything! As soon as the horse starts to look at you with two eyes you need to back up immediately and turn your belly button away from the horse. This is so the horse feels the reward and comfort for looking at you. Be very quick to start following the horse again if the horse starts to look away – try really hard not to let the horse eat any grass (otherwise the horse could think that eating grass is a reward for ignoring you) – you may have to stomp on the ground or twirl your lead rope to get your horse’s attention/stop him from eating.
The idea is that the horse will be moving forward (preferably in trot or canter – but don’t chase your horse and make him scared) which is hard work, but when the horse looks at you with both eyes the horse gets to stand still and not work.
You are NOT forcing or bribing the horse to be with you – the horse can choose to not be with you all day so long as he keeps moving forward, but when he looks at you he is rewarded and can be still. This helps the horse to find comfort with you.
Join up becomes a dance – your horse looks at you, you back up, the horse looks away you start walking forward, the horse looks at you, you back up… this goes on and on for several minutes, sometimes up to an hour if its the first time. Eventually your horse will decide that it would just be easier to go stand by your side.
When your horse approaches you do NOT walk toward your horse and do NOT rub your horse. Allow the horse to approach you (you can even back up a few more steps to give more of a reward). Then:
- Offer a hand for your horse to touch.
- If your horse touches you, then take your hand away – do NOT rub his face. Remember the right thing needs to be comfortable… so why would you ‘reward’ the horse for coming to you by rubbing him all over his sensitive face? Take your hand away and just stand there neutral, calm, and relaxed or you could even offer a treat. If the horse does not touch your hand, then try backing up a step to try and draw the horse towards you. Be patient. The horse will eventually offer to touch you and then immediately take your hand away.
* Make sure when you offer your hand that you keep your hand fairly low and inviting with your palm down. If your hand is too high or your palm is up, it could look like you are trying to quickly grab the horse or you may bring the hand down to hit the horse. To prevent any apprehension from the horse, just keep the hand low and palm down.
After the horse has stood with you for a bit, then you can scratch him in his favourite place, probably near the withers or along his crest (near the mane). If the horse can stand with you relaxed, without walking away, then go ahead and put the lead rope/halter on.
If the horse was particularly difficult to catch, then you may just rub the horse and then walk away and leave the horse loose in the paddock again. You could also just take the horse for a short walk around the paddock, some grazing and/or give him some treats.
If the horse can anticipate really positive experiences with you, then the horse will look forward to choosing you.
As your trust and language build, you can start to do more with your horse and expect more from your horse… in the beginning keep it short, positive, and rewarding.
Once your horse is quite good at playing join up in the smaller paddock/round pen, you should be able to play join up in bigger spaces – just be careful not to send the horse in a canter away from you!
Remember – the right thing has to be comfortable and the wrong thing uncomfortable (but not painful or scary)… be patiently persistent!
Sometimes it can be challenging to learn your timing of when to walk forward and when to back up – having an experienced natural horseman help you can be a great asset!
If you are interested in a clinic to learn about join up and improving your bond with your horse, check out our clinics page.
To watch a video about catching difficult to catch horses, check out: