Don't Chase Your Loose Horse

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She was riding with friends out of state, enjoying the scenery, when they stopped to eat a snack, rest their horses and take photos of the group. A moment of inattention to the reins, or possibly he was spooked by the paper bag, and her horse was suddenly loose out on the trail. Tail high, snorting excitedly, he trotted a big circle around the other horses, then with a kick of his heels that allowed the loosened saddle to flip toward his belly, he flew down a new trail at a full gallop.

Ponying a young, inexperienced horse to get him used to trail obstacles, the trainer was proud that his effort at groundwork was paying off. But when the colt shied at a water crossing and jerked the rope from his glove, the horse fell backward into a tumbled heap, leaped to his feet and ran blindly into the woods of the mountains, 10 miles from the nearest road.

Boldly leading a large field of riders and hounds hot after a scent drag, the huntsman's horse stumbled and threw her rider. This Thoroughbred, familiar with the layout of the drag route, turned for the trailer. But she would have to cross a four-lane highway on her merry gallop home.

When a Horse Gets Loose

• Form a group of the other riders and horses to encourage the horse to return to the herd.
• Have one rider dismount and lead his horse slowly toward the loose horse so that the loose horse can buddy up.
• If the horse wants to leave the group anyway, turn and leave him. He might just follow.
• When approaching a loose horse, try to get him to look at you with both eyes before you come close to him.
• Carry a 20-foot piece of rope that can be used to make a rope halter.

How would you react to these real-life situations? Having a plan and taking precautions can help keep horses and riders safe.

Your first thought should be to encourage everyone in your group to remain calm so that you can develop a strategy to recover the horse. Perhaps give the horse a few minutes to realize he is alone and come back to your group. Have someone get off and lead his or her horse while shaking grain in a bag or bucket. Certainly, the group should stay together, preventing other horses from getting excited and dumping their riders. If the horse is truly gone and does not return within three to five minutes, call the ranger station or 911 for assistance.

Horses are easily spooked. Their herd mentality can cause one loose horse to excite other horses - multiple horses running loose is a terrifying scenario. If other horses in the group get excited, have their riders get off and give their horse a ground-manners lesson to focus their minds on the riders. Their strong tendency to herd can be used to advantage in attempting to catch loose horses, as well as keeping the herd together on overnight horse camping trips.

Prevention Pays
You can take some measures before setting out on a trail ride that will help avoid horses getting loose or, if they do, help minimize the damage.

• Make sure all horses are under physical control at all times (haltered, with a good quality lead rope), especially for ponying and packing. Use strong overhead tie lines when you camp.
• Teach your horse to be willingly tied, unflappably led or ponied, and accustomed to trail conditions. Spend a lot of time sacking out your horse.
• Teach your horse to come to you and readily be caught.
• Use identification on the horse (brand, microchip, ID dog tag on halter or bridle).
• Carry a fanny pack on your body with a minimum equipment of a cell phone (with GPS locator), map, 20' length of small rope to use as an emergency rope halter and horse treats.
• In backcountry situations where grazing is allowed, use bells and hobbles on all stock to prevent them getting very far if they become frightened, and to make it easier for you to find them if they do.

If It Happens Anyway
If, despite your best precautions, a horse gets loose close to roads or civilization, immediately call 911 and report the incident and your location. Emergency responders can at least warn traffic, but remind them not to chase the animal - instead try to contain him in a smaller area like someone's backyard, fenced area or soccer field. If the animal is hit by a car or causes an accident, the owner will be held responsible. You can help prevent this situation by telling emergency responders the location of the loose horse.

If the horse is hindered by the reins or a tipped saddle, or is dragging an object he pulled loose (limb, fencepost), he may panic and seriously injure himself. His fear might make him injure any person who gets close to him. Choose caution when approaching a horse shaking with fear. First try to loosen or cut away the offending object before actually trying to catch the horse.

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A horse does not have to be running to be a runaway - he just has to be out of our control or influence. If a horse gets away with a rider aboard, the worst thing anyone can do is chase the horse. It will become a race, and the terrified rider is at risk of being rubbed or bucked off at even greater speed.

Instead of chasing the horse, everyone else in the group should stop and form a small group. One person can get off his horse and lead it, following the loose horse slowly. If the loose horse stops or turns toward that person, he should stop and let the loose horse come to his own horse.

You can also try calling the horse's name and shaking something in your hand as though it were grain or a treat. Your small group of riders and other horses may encourage the loose one to come close to his buddies.

If the horse is hovering about 20 to 50 feet away, it helps to approach him with a quiet, led horse and using a soothing voice. Avoid looking the loose horse in the eye. Walk up to his shoulder and groom the neck to build his confidence in being with you. At this point an emergency rope halter or belt may be used to restrain the horse temporarily.

Sometimes a horse will be so distracted, injured or close enough to familiar territory that he leaves other horses in the group anyway. Though you'll be tempted to follow him, instead, try turning around and leaving the horse. This may cause him to come running after you. You can guess that the loose horse will go toward familiar surroundings (the trailhead, the trailer or the barn). Do not chase the horse on another horse. You could be injured racing down the trail.

Is there a shortcut trail that you can use to cut the horse off? If not, move slowly down the trail in the direction the horse went. Then get off and walk toward the horse when you get close… the runaway may come to the horse you're leading.

How do you know when the horse is relaxed enough to approach? Even from 200 feet away, if the animal stops or turns and is looking at you with both eyes, try backing up and calling the horse's name. If he takes even one step toward you, he is trying to be with you. Keep backing away with your led horse beside you, encouraging the loose horse to come to you.

If the horse is nervously pacing back and forth or in circles around you, stay relaxed and allow him to keep moving his feet and approach your horse and you as he feels more comfortable. Eventually, he will turn to look at you with both eyes. Once he does, you can try the backing process.

Lost Horse
If the horse gets truly lost, follow the horse's tracks a reasonable distance, to where the horse goes off the trail. Mark this point on both the ground and your map. Do not get lost yourself.

Horses tend to stay on a trail and go uphill. They prefer open areas with grass or forage, where they feel safer. A loose horse is less likely to go downhill into deep woods or brush unless that's the only place he can reach water to drink.

From here, you will need backup - fellow riders and people on foot to track the animal. Fan out over all the trails in the area first. It is rare for a horse to cut cross-country unless there are wide-open areas of desert, pastures or fields.

Should you not be able to locate the horse within hours, put up posters at the trailheads, announcements in the newspaper and postings on Internet boards with pictures and information in case the horse finds its way to other horsepeople. Call and e-mail your local saddle club for assistance in finding the horse.

Teamwork with your fellow riders and close attention to horse-herding behavior will give you safe tactics to confront this dangerous scenario of a loose horse out on the trail, or at other events. While it may seem an impossible task out in the wild, good preparation and effective employment of a strategy will increase your chances of catching the horse safely.