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…
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.
However, after you use this tool of success, make sure you know what to do next – learn how to teach your horse the basic cues 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. (visit
http://www.lfequestrian.com/shop.php to order online).
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 must 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 even think about introducing the saddle.
You can teach your horse join up – but once your horse has chosen you, if you betray that trust in the saddle or online by not using consistent natural horsemanship principals, then
your horse will become untrusting of you again and will continue to be hard to
You also 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 should. 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 some other games, but to start with you need to make sure you
budget extra time – a minimum of 60 minutes.
Join up is the process of getting the horse to catch you instead of you catching the horse. 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 you need a fenced
in area (with safe fencing - such as wooden fencing). The area should be
approximately 60ft in diameter. 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. Set up fencing that is tall enough
that the horse will be discouraged from jumping out. You can even just set up
temporary fencing within your horse's paddock.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 or direct
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.
Once your horse is in the smaller paddock/round pen follow these easy steps:
The idea is that the horse will be moving forward (preferably in trot or canter – but don’t chase your horse to make him move faster) 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 choose to be with you.
Join up becomes a dance – your horse looks at your, you back up, the horse looks away you starting walking forward, the horse looks at you, you back up… this goes on and on for
several minutes, sometimes up to an hour. 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:
1) Offer a hand for your horse to touch.
2) 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, this is the greater reward. 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
* 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 for a minute or so without walking away then go ahead and put the lead
rope/halter on and continue with online work.
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. Wait a few minutes and
then try playing the game again. If the horse continues to be difficult to
catch then try join up, then once the horse chooses you, just take him for a
short walk around the paddock, some grazing and/or give him some treats, and
then just release the horse again.
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 the horse’s regular field – 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… 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!
By Lindsey Forkun
Lindsey is dedicated to promoting positive partnerships through humane natural horsemanship for all equine disciplines. Lindsey has started many horses, worked with ‘problem’
horses, and has competed in the show ring in many disciplines including
English, Western, Hunter, Jumper, Dressage, Trail, and Speed Events. Lindsey
specializes in retraining ex-race horses, and training/showing both hunters and
jumpers. Free online advice and videos are available – visit her website at