It can happen at any time, at a show or sale or just out at the barn--suddenly there's a cry of "loose horse!" - Take a moment to size up the situation. Most often, the horse is not panicked or running away in fear, but has simply managed to open his stall door, untie himself or slip away when his handler got distracted and didn't quite remember to hold on.
This fella is having a merry old time running around and letting everybody chase him. He'll touch noses over the fence with his buddies as if inviting them to join in.
The easiest way to catch a horse like this is to walk him down. Enlist as many people as possible to spread out and walk--never run--after the loose horse until he's been maneuvered into a corner. Then one person can approach him from the side, walking towards his shoulder, looking him in the eye and speaking quietly. Make sure you have a halter, a lead rope or a belt already in hand if the horse isn't wearing anything on his head.
The biggest danger with this type of loose horse is that he may catch his tack or his foot in something, frightening or injuring himself, and becoming a panicked runaway.
A panicked horse isn't out for a lark; something has set him off--a strange place, a loud noise, or, as mentioned above, he's gotten caught in something and broken away in panic.
Often this kind will seek out a hiding place with another horse, and if a quiet person walks up to his shoulder he may be glad enough to be caught.
The horse who has panicked while tied up to something, ripped loose and taken off with the "something" still tied to his head is the most dangerous. Never tie a horse to anything that isn't at least three times stronger than he is.
This runaway must be handled in two stages.
Before you even think of catching hold of him, he must be freed of whatever he's dragging.
If you're lucky, the horse will manage this on his own. He may be able to break free of something big and heavy, or hang it up somewhere and be unable to run further, but flimsy boards or pieces of wire fence will continue flailing at him and urging him on.
Most often, this horse, after being walked down, will just suddenly stop--maybe cornered, maybe in the open--and stand, petrified, waiting.
This is an extremely dangerous situation. Whether it's your horse or not, get the most experienced person present to handle it.
By this time, even though the horse wants somebody to help him, he's also a quivering mass of fear and may well be injured, too. The slightest thing can set him off again, with "it" still attached.
If it does fall to you to extricate the horse, examine the situation before you act. Once he's been cornered or has stopped on his own, which way is he likely to go if he charges off again? You must know so that you will not become entangled with the horse and the object if he bolts.
If it's at all possible, the horse will go away from the thing he's tied to. Where is it lying? Which way does the horse seem to be looking or leaning?
You'll be able to tell if he's most apt to run backward, leap forward or whirl to the right or to the left. Determine the spot where you can stand most safely--the spot the horse will be jumping away from should he run again.
Next, decide how you're going to get him free from whatever he's dragging. Is he caught by a bridle that could be instantly slipped over his head, or by a halter that could be undone in one motion?
You may be able to simply unsnap the lead rope and free him that way, but be very careful not to lift or rattle the object or you will set him off again.
You may be tempted to use a pocket knife to cut through the reins or halter or lead rope. That's going to take longer than you think; use a knife only as a last resort.
Under no circumstances should you ever try to pick up the thing the horse is dragging. Don't even get near it.
Just get him unattached and don't worry if he runs off again. The important thing is that he's no longer caught in something. You'll catch him eventually.
Take your time, study the situation and walk--don't run.
Janet DeBoard is a riding instructor turned novelist who trains her own horse in Glendale, Ariz.