I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: It is incredibly important to have your horse come to you all of the time. You should never have to chase after your horse in a paddock, in an arena, or his stall. Ever.
The great thing about training your horse to always come up to you is that horses are already programmed to want to come to you- they are herd bound animals who biologically do not want to be alone, and who are preconditioned to follow the leader of the herd. I have seen a number of people use abusive training methods when their horse does not come up- this includes: chasing, hitting or roping the horse. This not only is counterintuitive, as your horse is not going to trust you at all, much less see you as a trustworthy leader, it also creates a situation where your horse feels he must escape, potentially putting you in a dangerous situation.
Asking him to come to you
The first thing you need to do when approaching your horse is to let your horse know you’re there. Say hello, say his name, ask him how his day is, whatever. Essentially, make sure he is paying attention to you.
Secondly, you should ask your horse to come to you. Turn your shoulder at about a 45 degree angle so you are not facing your horse head-on. Facing your horse directly is communicating to him that you DO NOT want him to move forward. Think about if a horse is facing off another horse- he is definitely not asking the other horse to move forward, but warning him to back off. Therefore, angle your shoulder so you have a more inviting stance.
If your horse refuses, this can be for a number of different reasons, so you need to evaluate why your horse is refusing to come. Ask a few questions:
Is there something going on to scare your horse?
This is the easiest thing to determine- is there something in the environment that might make your horse afraid to leave his stall? It may be something as simple as his buddy leaving, or a loud tractor going by. Look around and see how the other horses are acting- are they fearful or nervous? If so, try to calm your horse down by talking in a reassuring and assertive manner or wait for the scary monster thing (a plastic bag, maybe?) to go away.
Is your horse well?
Horses try to hide the fact that they are not feeling well because they do not want to be a target for predators. If your horse is not feeling well, he will often move to the back of his stall or to a far corner of the paddock or pasture in order to “hide.” If your horse is standing in the corner, especially if his head is down, make sure he is not colliccing or has some other physical issue.
What is happening when you take your horse out of his stall?
Your horse has a limited way of communicating his needs or wants to you. You may need to look at his exercise routine or what is going on OUTSIDE of his stall to evaluate how he is acting INSIDE of it. I have known horses who have physical issues who refused to enter arenas because they know that they are going to be asked to do work that hurts them. There is nothing about the arena per say that they don’t like, save the fact that the lesson or work involved is painful.
Is your horse bonded to another horse?
It’s difficult to take a horse away from his friends, especially if he is bonded to him. He will want to stay with his pasture mates or his stall buddy because he knows his horse friend will take care of him. Some horses get more bonded to a buddy than others- some are just naturally co-dependent.
If you have a horse who doesn’t want to leave his buddy, what you need to do is to spend more time establishing the relationship with your horse so he knows that YOU are a trustworthy leader, and that he can trust YOU as well as his buddy. Never get upset with him for needing a friend- we all need friends. Instead, spend more time establishing the relationship by spending more time with him and making sure that he knows he can trust and respect you. This means that you need to reinforce all of the rules that you’ve set with him, and make sure that you are consistent with that reinforcement. You should be kind but consistent, letting him know he is safe with you as well as his buddy.
Is your horse working through abuse or trust issues?
If you have a horse who has experienced abuse or has a history of trust issues, it may take a long time before your horse will come up to you. Establishing a relationship with your horse is essential, and until that happens, you should acknowledge that it will take some time before your horse will come up to you. You should always ask your horse, however, to come to you, as he may surprise you.
Teaching your horse to come to you
I just want to reiterate that if your horse has trust issues, you do not want to push him too quickly. Be very careful and go slowly before you attempt the following training exercise, as you can inadvertently scare your horse, which you definitely do not want to do.
If your horse is in his stall and there is no apparent reason why he isn’t coming up other than he just doesn’t feel like it, what I do is treat the stall like a mini round pen. You are going to invade his space and make him move to the other side of the stall. I will say this is not something you should do in a box stall, and you should be very careful in any sized stall, as you do not have much room to maneuver if your horse tries to kick out.
If I am in a 12×24 stall, I will ask the horse to move to the other side of the stall. He may be confused at first, but try not to scare him- you may have to push his shoulder if his head is in the corner as well. Push him over and use your voice to ask him to move.
Once he is on the other side of the stall, calmly walk over to that side of the stall, and ask him to move back to the other side. He will be confused, but keep your energy calm but assertive, and ask him to move. What you are doing is asserting your dominance in a relatively passive way. In a herd, the horse who is moving is the horse lower on the proverbial totem pole. The leader just has to flick an ear or tail or stomp, and the other horses will move away. What you are doing is making the horse move- yes, you are moving as well, but all your horse understands is that you are making him move.
So now your horse is back where he was originally in the stall. Ask him again to come up to you- you may be surprised that he just walks right up. Be patient, and give him a minute to work through what has just happened in his mind. If he still refuses, ask him to move a few times again, and then ask again.
Depending upon the horse, my relationship with him, and how long I’ve been working with him, if after about five minutes he still won’t come up, I will stop and just walk up to him and put the halter on. The goal is not to create a negative situation or upset him, and it may take a few sessions before your horse walks up.
If I am in a 24×24 or larger stall, I will treat the stall like a mini round pen, and stand in the middle and ask the horse to move around me. I have the halter and lead rope, and just swing the rope around a little- this can be a trigger for horses who have been roped and/or charroed, however, so be very careful and do not swing the rope if this is the case.
I will ask the horse to move one way (usually the direction he is facing), at a walk, around his stall, I usually have him walk around three or four times. Your horse may be scared and trot at first because he is not used to you asking him to move like this in his space. Just be calm and ask your horse to walk. If he runs into the corner, make sure it isn’t your fault by confusing him with your body language. Otherwise, just ask him to move away, and tell him he is good when he starts circling the stall.
After three or four times around, ask your horse to stop and to come in to you in the middle. If he comes in, great. Otherwise, you can continue around in that same direction, or ask him to turn around and have him move around the stall three or more times in the other direction. Then, ask him to stop and to come in to you in the middle.
You can do this for about five minutes tops- if your horse absolutely refuses to come in, you will have to take comfort in the idea that he at least is listening to you when you ask him to stop, turn around, or move. It may just take a few days or weeks before your horse comes in.
The round pen is the first place to start when asking a horse to come in from a larger area. You need to make sure you have a good relationship and have established a sense of trust before expecting your horse to come to you in a larger area.
If your horse consistently comes to you in a round pen, next work on asking him to come to you in an arena. If he refuses to come in, then ask him to move around the arena, just like you would in a round pen. I usually move him one way about two or three times, then I will ask him to change directions, and move him the other way two or three times. At that point, I will ask him to come in to me.
If he refuses, and just stands there, I will repeat this, sometimes asking the horse to go around five or six times before changing directions and then having him go around five or six more times, and then asking him to come in. Again, the goal is not to impress your will on the horse, but to get him to listen to you.
If your horse is just full of energy and needs exercise, and that is why he is not coming in, you may need to ask him to work for about 10-15 minutes, then ask him to come in. Some horses just need to play and exercise before they are ready to come to you.
Just like in the stall, if you have worked your horse, and he still refuses to come to you, make him stop in an area relatively close to the gate, and walk up to him at the shoulder- don’t walk behind him or in front of him. If you walk behind him, he may think you want him to move forward. If you walk in front of him and he bolts, you can get run over. If you walk towards his shoulder/wither area, you are not asking him to move.
Eventually, your horse will learn to come in to you in the arena the same way he does the round pen, for the most part because he is lazy and doesn’t want to have to run around, and he should translate the idea that he should come to you in a larger area like a paddock/pasture just as he does in the arena.