Suddenly you’re here and your horse is there. Whether you’ve fallen off or he’s pulled away, being unintentionally separated from your horse can bring on a sudden sinking feeling, followed by the panicked realization that you need to get him back under your control, and quickly.
The best-case scenario is that your horse stands quietly as you walk over and take the lead or reins again. But even the best-trained horse may not allow that to happen, especially if there is loud or frightening activity nearby. Some will need to be pursued and caught, and others may disappear from sight entirely, posing another set of challenges. Once your horse gets away, there is no telling what you’ll be up against, so it’s a good idea to be well versed in strategies for handling various situations before the need arises.
When he stays nearby: Approach with caution
When approaching a loose horse, remember the two things that are likely to motivate his actions: his herd instinct and his natural fear of predatory behaviors. And that means overriding your own first instinct: “Don’t chase the horse,” emphasizes Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue in Georgia. If you move toward him quickly, wave your arms or lunge toward him, he will move away. If he runs and you chase him, he will only run faster. “Understand that humans cannot outrun, outmaneuver, outdistance or out-manhandle the sheer size, weight and speed of a horse. Instead, you need to use your cunning, predatory brain to outsmart him.”
Since any move toward a frightened horse could send him running, it’s smart to wait for a moment to see if he will come back to you on his own. Treats or feed will help bring him back; if you don’t have any, even a handful of grass might entice him. If you’re out on the trail with a group, have other riders sit quietly with their horses or even move away---chances are a horse who is hovering nearby, slightly nervous in a strange place, will want to rejoin the others.
If the horse will not come to you, then you will have to go get him. But first read his body language, which will help you determine the best strategy for approaching and getting your hands on him. The behavior of loose horses tends to fall into one of three categories.
• A red zone horse is highly reactive and may snort, rear or display menacing behavior. Do not chase or approach a horse in this state. Not only might he hurt you, the slightest provocation could cause him to bolt. Instead, stand back and talk to him quietly, or make some other noise, such as rattling the wrapper on a treat, that might capture his attention, and wait until he calms down.
If a red zone horse is near traffic or another hazard, however, you cannot wait to take action. Call 911 for traffic assistance. Position yourself so that, if the horse retreats from you, he’ll move away from the danger. Shout or slap your leg to divert him if he heads the wrong way. Ideally, you’d “herd” the horse toward a corral or riding ring where he can be safely contained. If you’re not near a fenced area, think about how to use the materials at hand, especially if other people are around to help you pull together some barriers. “Portable fencing or cattle panels can be used to entrap a horse,” says Gimenez. “In a pinch, a corral can be made out of horse trailers and trucks parked nose to tail.” Once the horse is in a relatively safe area, stand back and watch him until he settles down.
• A yellow zone horse is worried, hesitant and fearful. He could still flee, but you stand a better chance of influencing his behavior. Approach him not with the goal of capturing him but of “joining up,” in the sense that natural horsemanship proponents describe---using your body language to encourage the horse to accept you as his herd leader. “Try to get the horse to look at you with both eyes, and approach at his shoulder,” says Gimenez. “Be patient, move slowly and offer treats if available.” If the horse moves away, do not follow; you do not want to trigger a panic. Wait for him to lower his head, soften his eyes and focus his attention on you.
• A green zone horse is generally relaxed and may even be grazing. You can approach him as you would any horse in a pasture. Advance and retreat until he responds to your cues to come. When you’re close enough, extend your arm in a greeting gesture. After he snuffs your hand, give him a reassuring scratch on his neck and a treat, if you have one. Use an emergency rope halter or your belt or even a bra to slip around his neck.
When he starts to flee: Bide your time
The urgency you feel when you need to catch a loose horse is nothing compared to the panic that can arise when you see his hindquarters disappearing around a bend in the trail. Your first instinct, of course, is to sprint after him, to try to catch him before he gets too far. Don’t. You may only frighten him into an even faster flight.
Keep in mind that a loose horse who loses sight of his group will not likely go far and may even return on his own. “Horses’ instincts tell them to stay with the herd,” says Gimenez. Chances are good that he will stop as soon as his initial fright subsides, probably within a quarter mile or so. Then, he is likely to either settle down and graze, or maybe even turn and walk back toward you. “Most horses will run to the end of their flight distance---the limit of what makes them feel safe,” says Gimenez. “When they realize that their ‘herd’ is not with them, they will try to return to a safety zone closer to animals of their own species.”
If you can see the horse ahead of you on the trail, and he’s still running away, stop and stand still, and see if he stops. “If a horse is out of your control, he is running away even if he is walking,” says Gimenez. “Don’t turn it into a race you can only lose.”
If you’re riding with others, check on how the other horses are doing before you take action. “The really dangerous thing for riders is that the other horses in a group may be extremely excited by the horse leaving and/or returning---and they begin to jig and even buck or bolt to join the loose one,” says Gimenez. “In the worst-case scenario, ask other riders to dismount and have them stand in a group.”
Then, ask the person with the calmest horse in the group to dismount and walk with you in the direction your horse went. The presence of the other horse will likely make it easier to catch yours if he’s still nearby. “Approach slowly and let the runaway come to [the other] horse,” says Gimenez. “Choose a quiet, broke horse for this task if possible. It’s a good idea to have practiced this in the past at home so that you understand where to be and how much pressure to use as you approach.” Once your horse has stopped, use treats or another horse to catch his attention, and approach him only when he’s no longer inclined to move away.
Of course, if you are close to home and you last saw your horse headed in that direction, that’s where he is probably going, and he isn’t likely to stop until he gets there. Horses have a very good sense of direction and can get themselves back to their home turf---be it the barn or a trailer parked by the trailhead---on their own. “Several times I have arrived at a trailhead to find a loose horse with saddle and bridle attached, and then I had to start a search for the lost rider,” says Gimenez. If your horse encounters other riders and buddies up with their horses, he is also likely to follow them to the trailhead.
If you’re near your barn, call to see if your horse has returned on his own. If he hasn’t yet, ask someone there to be on the lookout around the perimeter. They may even want to ride out on a second, calm horse to look for him. If you shipped in for a trail ride, start walking back toward your trailer. Chances are you’ll find him waiting there for you with a “Where have you been?” look on his face. Be thankful, give him a pat and resist any urge to punish him---he won’t associate it with what happened, and it will only make him difficult to catch in the future.
When he gallops out of sight: Notify the authorities
If your loose horse is out of your sight and he’s not back at the barn or trailer, your problem just got much more complicated and serious. Take a deep breath and try to stay calm.
First---and most important---if there is any chance your horse could have reached a busy roadway, call 911 immediately, to inform local authorities of the potential hazard. “Explain to the dispatcher that this is a grave danger to motorists, and that it is a human emergency as well as an animal one,” says Gimenez. “People can easily get killed if a car strikes a horse.” You’ll need to give the dispatcher your current location and a description of the direction your horse was headed.
Next, try to predict where he might have gone based on what you know of the area and the surrounding terrain. “Have a map of the trails with you before you head out on the ride---in your pocket,” says Gimenez. “This will allow you to guess which way the horse is heading and locate important intersections with roads, spot nearby open fields with forage, and even find local farms where the horse may go to buddy up with others. Phones with satellite access to Google maps are even better---you can pinpoint your location, that of important terrain features, and the trailhead.”
Tracking your horse by following his footprints is likely to be difficult, especially over grass or on a busy public trail. But you might have some luck, especially if he has a distinctive hoof print or if it has rained or snowed recently.
Not surprising, loose horses often head toward the nearest open field, according to Gimenez: “Rarely will they remain in the trees. They tend to go uphill and will follow a path or trail. They rarely will go cross-country in thickly vegetated areas, but in open areas they can.”
Using your maps, look for likely routes a horse might take and follow as best as you can; don’t forget to stop and listen occasionally. If a large animal is moving in the woods nearby, you will be able to hear it. “I have often done my searches for people’s horses on foot---so I can hear what is going on in the woods,” says Gimenez.
Remember, though: Your own safety is more important than your horse’s. If you’re not sure of where you’re going, stay on trails you know will get you back. It’s not unusual for riders to get lost while searching for a horse. “They either don’t have a map, they don’t know how to read it, they don’t know where they are on the map, or they are so distracted and upset that they get lost,” says Gimenez. “Now the emergency responders have to spend precious time rescuing the rider that they could have spent looking for the horse.”
If there’s still no sign of your horse, widen your search. “Call the police, sheriff and emergency services to file a police report and to give your contact information in case the horse shows up,” says Gimenez. Also notify park management, if you haven’t already, as well as animal shelters in the area.
Then you need to begin a more coordinated search effort. Either organize some friends, or contact a mounted posse/search-and-rescue group if there’s one that operates in your area. Law enforcement may provide a tracking dog, but you can also hire your own. Services that offer dogs trained to track missing pets are becoming common in many parts of the country.
If you participate in the search effort yourself, says Gimenez, “check obvious entrapment areas such as ponds, mud or embankments, ditches or ravines where the horse might have fallen off the trail, especially when running or going to water. Another effective method is to ride a buddy horse into the area and watch for his reactions, especially if he calls for his lost friend.”
Often, a runaway horse will show up at another farm with horses. Contact any within range of the trails and ask them to look out for your horse. “One mistake people make is that they underestimate how far a horse can wander on his own,” says Gimenez. “In the wild, horses cover 20 to 50 miles per day. Although it is uncommon for a domesticated horse to make it that far without being seen, in some backcountry scenarios, that is still possible.”
The majority of at-large horses will be found and reunited with their owners that same day. If, however, your search turns up nothing in the first 24 hours, put up posters, with a photo of your horse and a contact number, where local residents are most likely to see them. Don’t skimp on the locations---tack and feed shops are obvious choices, but convenience stores, grocery stores, pet shops, coffee shops and many other businesses keep bulletin boards that are seen by large numbers of people. Contact local hunters, gun clubs, hikers, snowmobilers, mountain bikers and other recreational groups who go into the woods, both for keeping an eye out and volunteering for search parties. The local media and Internet message boards can also be very helpful in getting the word out.
Although most horses who get loose are brought back under control swiftly and without incident, it’s still a heart-stopping moment when you realize your horse is going his own way. But if you keep your cool, remember your horse’s main motivations and select the best method for approaching him, you will likely bring him back to safety in no time.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #433, October 2013.