Come When Called
Do you wish your horses would come running off the pasture to meet you at the barn when it’s time to bring them in for the night? If you’re tired of chasing them and you don’t happen to have a sheep dog to round them up for you, try training them to come when called. Like everything worth doing it requires a little effort at first (not all that much, really), but you will find it effort well spent. Here’s how.
When it is time for your horses to come in off the pasture back to the barn, call them in a loud, clear voice as you walk out to where you want them to meet you. I use exactly the same words and inflection every time. You can use whatever words you like (my phrase is “Come on, boys; come on!”), or you could even use a whistle, a bell, or any other uncommon sound loud enough to carry out to them – the important point is that you should use the same signal consistently. Repeat the signal no more than two or three times, giving them the chance to come on their own. If they don’t come running (and, of course, they won’t when you first start working with them on this), take out your in-hand whip which you have already prepared with a piece of noise-making plastic tied onto the end of the cord (I like a 3 – 4 foot length of caution tape or other plastic flagging), and walk out to them. Stand to their far side (you don’t need to be close), so that they are between you and the barn. Flap the whip vigorously back and forth over your head – the plastic tape makes a wonderfully loud thwacka-thwacka noise that really gets their attention, combined with a great visual cue. You’re not trying to frighten your horses here, and you certainly don’t want them to think you’re about to whip them; you’re just making a somewhat annoying and very insistent noise that they will naturally move away from, and you use it to move them along toward the barn (and to show some hustle while doing so – no sauntering allowed). Stop the noise as soon as they start hustling away from you toward the barn, and start it again as soon as they stop moving, or even just stop hustling. Walk (don’t run) along behind them this way, driving them toward the barn.
Do the same thing the next day (start with just the call, repeated two to three times, and if they ignore you then escalate immediately to the noise whip). Remember that this is not a punishment; don’t show any anger or frustration, don’t appear threatening, just keep your energy calm and assertive – you are simply asserting that if they ignore your call you will move them along with the noise whip, and they will have to hustle.
After a few days of this they’ll probably still ignore your call, but now don’t go out after them immediately. First, just stand at the barn (or the gate, or wherever you want them to come to meet you when you call) and whip the whip repeatedly. The tape’s noise carries a very long distance, so don’t let them tell you they can’t hear it. If they don’t respond pretty quickly, then walk out to them and hustle them back in as before, calmly but assertively. After only a few days of this new routine they will surprise you by coming to meet you at the distant sound of the tape, and very soon thereafter they will come to your call alone. The instant they come to you without making you walk out into the pasture, give them each a small treat. Our guys love peppermints, which we buy by the tub at Costco. A horse doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to quickly learn that if he comes to your call he gets a tasty mint, but if he doesn’t you’ll annoy him all the way back to the barn (and no mint!). Once they’ve mastered this training you don’t have to give them a mint every single time they respond to your call (although we usually do), but if they ignore you then you must consistently go drive them in with the noise whip. They’ll soon be coming to your call reliably, and folks who haven't watched this training unfold will be amazed that your horses come running at your call. Some horses may need a day or two’s refresher course at the start of each grazing season.
If you have really large pastures, or horses who like to play keep-away, a golf cart or an ATV is a handy way to go out to meet them in the earliest days of this training, but don't use it to drive them toward the barn; you’re trying to train them to respond to your call, not to your vehicle.