It’s every horse owner’s worst nightmare: You’re out riding when suddenly your horse gets loose and bolts. Even the most well-trained horse has the potential to wander off. But what do you do when a horse decides to make a break for it? In recent months I witnessed two runaway horses. Before we share some tips on how to capture a loose horse, let me share with you the details of the incidents I encountered.

Situation 1

In October, I saw a frantic post on Facebook from a woman who lost her horse in the hills near my house. According to her post, she had just finished up a solo trail ride and returned to the trailer to untack. She did not tie her horse up and while she was distracted the horse ran off back into the hills.

The woman immediately called several friends and posted a call for help on Facebook. She spent hours searching the area by car and with friends on horseback, but had no luck spotting the horse. It was as if he had vanished. By dark, the search had to halt for the night.
Early the next morning, I trailered my horse over to the area where the horse had run off. The horse owner was already there continuing the search by truck. I got some basic information about the horse from her, saddled up and headed out.

Searching from above.

I decided to get a birds-eye view from the hilltops in hopes of spotting the horse on one of the many trails below. I rode to the top of the nearest hills and traveled along the ridgelines. I stopped periodically to scan with binoculars. After several hours of riding, I decided to drop down to a trail and begin a loop back to my trailer.

The trails in the area where the horse disappeared are sandy and well-ridden so it was impossible to track the horse by his hoof prints or manure piles. Nonetheless, I continued to scan for any signs. Suddenly, I heard an engine sound from above. A man on an ATV appeared at the top of a nearby hill. He yelled down and asked if I was looking for a horse. When I said yes, he pointed ahead and said that he spotted one.

I rode in the direction he indicated, turned a corner, and saw the horse standing in a rocky canyon. He eyed me nervously as I slowly rode toward him. As I neared, the horse stepped away from us, so I stopped my horse, stood still, and just waited.

When the horse visibly calmed I continued toward him. I didn’t ride directly at him. Instead, I slowly zig-zagged back and forth and stopped occasionally to just stand. When we were about 30 feet from the horse, I stopped and dismounted. I had found the horse but now had to get ahold of him.

Fortunately, I had come prepared. I pulled a little bag of horse treats out of my saddle bag along with a spare halter and lead rope. The sound of the bag immediately got the horse’s interest and he walked toward us. (Thank goodness for spoiled horses!)

The escape artist is caught!

I reached out and the horse took some treats from my hand. I gave him a few pats, slipped the lead rope over his neck, and then put the halter on. I gave him a quick look over for injuries but saw nothing obvious. Once secure, I ponied the horse back to the trailer where his very relieved owner was waiting.

In the end, the horse was loose for nearly 24 hours in rugged country with no food or water. He was found about four miles from where he ran off. Miraculously, he suffered no injuries. In fact, just 10 days after he was found, the horse placed 4th in a 30-mile endurance ride.

As for what she learned from the experience, the horse’s owner says she will no longer ride alone and she will load her horse as soon as she gets back to the trailer. 

Situation 2

In November, I went horse camping with a friend to a very remote part of the state. Neither of us had been to the area before. Once settled in camp, we saddled up and headed out to explore. We rode for about five miles and stopped to take a break. We dismounted and began rummaging through our saddlebags for snacks. Suddenly, my friend’s horse started slowly walking away back the way we came.

I stood still with my horse. My friend slowly followed her horse asking him to whoa. She got close enough to just reach out and grab a bit of tail, but he slipped through her hands as he picked up his pace. I got back in the saddle and rode out, perpendicular from the direction he was headed. I hoped that if the loose horse saw us he would follow.

My horse gave a little whinny at his friend. The fugitive horse stopped, turned his head to look at us, and then took off in a full run in the opposite direction! My jaw dropped as he disappeared over the hill.
I rode back over to my friend and we began to brainstorm.

Hoof prints visible in the dirt.

Given the direction he was headed, we assumed the horse was going back to camp. We began to walk back in that direction following his hoofprints. The dirt on the trail was soft enough to easily see his shod prints in the direction we were headed. A good sign. But, after a few miles, the hoofprints veered off the road and into the brush. We tracked them toward a rocky outcropping and a canyon.

We agreed it was possible he had simply gone cross-country to get back to camp so we decided to split up. My friend would continue trying to track the hoofprints and I would ride ahead back to camp to see if her horse was there. If he was not, then I was to come back with supplies and help continue the search on horseback.

I rode fast back to camp, but there was no sign of the horse there or along the trail. I re-packed my saddlebags with supplies including flashlights, walkie-talkies, and a spare halter and lead rope. Just as I headed back out, my friend appeared on the trail. She had hiked around the rock outcroppings but spotted nothing.

We needed a new plan. We agreed we could move faster with a vehicle so we unhooked the camper and horse trailer, left my horse in camp, and headed back out in the truck. We drove to where the hoofprints went off-road and started tracking again. It was slow going because of the thick brush, but one by one we spotted the horseshoe prints. We realized the horse had veered off course and headed down the rocky canyon.

We hiked into the canyon hoping to spot him, but there was no sign. After several hours we headed back to the truck to look at the maps. Sunset was not far off. Even with flashlights, it would not be safe to hike around at night. We decided to drive out and explore some of the main roads in the area where the canyon let out. If we didn’t spot the horse we planned to head for the nearest ranger station (approx. 20 miles away).

It was truly a miracle of timing that as we drove out to the main road and prepared to head east, we spotted the horse way off in the distance on a road heading north. We drove toward him and, though he was walking, he was moving with a purpose. My friend attempted to call him, but the horse didn’t even slow down. It seemed nothing could break his forward momentum.

Bring binoculars! Even in open country, it can be hard to spot a horse. We could have easily missed this loose horse, under the arrow.

We needed to cut him off and get him out of the trance he seemed to be in. My friend hopped in the bed of the truck, while I drove us off-road into the brush to make a big, wide arch out and back in front of the horse. I pulled back on the road and stopped. The horse marched toward us with a determined look in his eye. I think he would have just kept on going had my friend not reached out and grabbed the reins at just the right moment. We got him.

In the end, the horse was loose for about six hours. He was found approximately seven miles from where he ran off, but he had traveled through a steep and rocky mountain canyon to get there. He had a wound to the heel on a front leg and his saddlebags were missing. Once we got home a vet patched the horse up and he was back on the trail in just a couple weeks.

As an epilogue, my friend did return to the scene and somehow managed to find her missing saddlebags which had torn off in some tall, thick brush. The lesson she learned? Don’t let go of your horse to get something out of your bags when you’re on the trail.

6 Tips for Catching a Loose Horse

Even the best-trained horse can wander off. If you find yourself suddenly staring at the back end of your horse as he runs for the hills, here are a few tips to remember.

  • Don’t chase. Your instinct is to go after the horse, but if you chase him, the horse will most likely just move out faster. You will not win that race. Instead, try making a big wide arch, out and away that keeps you alongside, not behind the horse. If you have a cue that you use to stop your horse on the ground – a simple whoa, a bow, or hand gesture – try it as you walk.
  • Stay calm. Getting worked up will only escalate the situation, especially with a nervous horse. Keep your energy low and remember to breathe. Patience is the only way to win this game. Advance and retreat slowly. Back off if the horse bristles and shies away. Move in only when he relaxes and softens.
  • Use another horse. Most horses instinctively will not go too far from their friends. If you have another horse in the group, try staying in place first. The escaped horse may come back when he realizes his buddy isn’t with him. If he doesn’t take the bait, move the other horse out and away slowly. That might be enough to lure the loose horse to rejoin the herd.
  • When the rogue horse is settled down, get hands on. Once you’re close enough, bribe him with treats if you have some and then get something around his neck. If you don’t have a spare halter or lead rope, get creative. Use a belt, baling twine, camera strap, or even a bra to regain control.
  • Narrow the search area. If you lose sight of the horse, try tracking his hoofprints if the terrain allows it. It will greatly help searchers if you can determine the direction of travel. Look at maps to see if there are roads in the region that the horse might pick up. In general, most horses – even ones running wild – will choose the path of least resistance. They’ll stay low, not climb high. They’ll veer toward established routes – game trails and roads.
  • Get help. If you lose sight, it’s best to call for backup. Notify law enforcement, especially if there is a chance the horse could get onto a busy road with traffic. Get friends to come out to help search on horseback and ATVs. An ATV will cover ground faster, but if they spot the horse they should notify someone on foot or on horseback. If they get too close, they may spook the horse.

Samantha Szesciorka is the founder of Sagebrush Rider. She is a former U.S. Army journalist and former television news producer. She also created the Nevada Discovery Ride and is a member of the Long Riders' Guild.