Leading Like a Pro

Leading your horse is a major part of perfecting ground manners. Obedient and willing horses will lead as such and make a horse owner's job much more fun. John Lyons teaches several horse training tips to get your horse leading right.

Ever had a horse go too fast while you’re leading him? You hang on for dear life, hoping that he won’t pull away from you or mow you down before you get him under control. The opposite problem-trying to drag your old slowpoke-can be just as frustrating, though less life-threatening. If you’ve encountered either problem, no doubt you’ve fixed it by now. (If not, you’ll be able to fix it with this lesson.)

Leading isn’t considered an extreme sport or a test of endurance. We generally put up with less-than-perfect manners, figuring that we can live with the occasional “invasion of our space.”

More Than the Minimun
However, we’re going to challenge you to raise the bar because improving your horse’s ground manners is worth the effort. Marginal leading manners are more dangerous than you might think. The horse who hangs back, making you nearly drag him everywhere, isn’t listening to you. By allowing him to tune you out when you lead him, you’re teaching him to tune you out when you ride him. He’s learning that it’s okay to pull-or get pulled-by the lead rope, which is equivalent to hanging on the bridle, ignoring your rein cues.

The horse who hasn’t learned to walk in place beside you will likely step on you, crash into you, or jerk your arm nearly out of the socket-or you’ll find yourself continually jerking on him. Aside from the dangers to you, the horse is in danger because if you can’t control him, you can’t keep him safe.

You may be strong or agile enough that you can “just live with” those problems. The difficulty comes when someone else has to handle your horse or when the horse gets excited or scared.

Synchronize Your Steps
• Good manners happen when the horse is secure in knowing what you want and has practiced doing it.

• Use the “go forward,” “shoulders over,” “hips over,” and “head down” cues to communicate your requests.

• Use rein cues. Don’t rely on body language.

• Teach the behavior you want, and the behavior you don’t want will evaporate.

• Remember to practice in exciting situations and make the lessons fun.

When the horse turns his head to the right to call to his buddies or look at something that worries him, he’ll likely step to his left, onto you-know-who’s foot. If he gets startled, he’s likely to jump forward or onto you. And, because he hasn’t learned a real “go forward” cue when you need him to step forward, such as away from his buddies or into a trailer, you’re out of luck. You can solve most on-the-ground problems by improving your horse’s leading manners.

Visualize a horse with perfect leading manners. He steps forward when you ask him to-the first time. He walks beside you, and when you speed up, he does too. When you stop, he stops, unless you ask him to walk past you, such as to step up into a wash rack. When you turn to the right, he turns right, and when you turn to the left, he turns without crashing into you.

You don’t have to fight with him. His neck is relaxed, and his head is at a normal elevation. That helps him to have an easygoing stride and makes working together fun.

If that’s your goal, you have to put it firmly in your mind. Said another way, ignore the problems and focus on teaching the lessons. We don’t have one solution for the horse who is too slow and a different one for the horse who is too fast. Instead, we merely train the horse and the behavior we don’t want will just go away.

Fortunately, we have a simple way to explain to the horse what we want. Our cues are tools to help us. Once we’ve taught a cue, the horse knows what to do when we cue him, and we don’t have to depend on obscure things like “his attitude” or “my space.”

We merely tell him to go forward, move his hip over, move his shoulder, or drop his head. With those simple commands, we can control his speed and head elevation and have him walking beside us like we’re two peas in a pod.

Tools of the Trade
Longtime readers of Perfect Horse will recognize these cues, but we’ll give the short version of training them for folks who are tackling this for the first time. You can teach all these cues in one training session, but you’ll have to practice until the horse knows them well enough to respond automatically.

You could think of the “go forward” cue as putting a quarter in the horse’s rump to get him to go forward. When teaching the cue, hold the lead rope in your left hand, face the horse’s left shoulder, and hold a whip in your right hand.

Tap the top of his left hip with short quick taps to “bug” him. When he takes a step forward, stop tapping him to reward him for doing the right thing. If he moves to the left or right, or tries to back up, keep tapping, stopping the taps the moment he begins to take a forward step. Eventually, you’ll be able to look to his hip and the horse will step forward.

Once you’ve taught the cue, the trick is to remember to tell the hindquarters to step forward. When the horse knows the cue well, you can lightly pull the rein forward to indicate that you want him to step forward at the same time as you cue his hip. After a few times, you’ll have two ways to ask him to step forward-the hip and the rein.

Resist the temptation to drag him forward, essentially pulling him off balance so he has to move. That teaches him to wait to be pulled on rather than responding to a cue and moving himself. If he doesn’t move forward within two seconds, tap the hip. It won’t take many times for him to make the connection.

Next, we teach him to give to the bit and move his hips or shoulders in response to a rein cue. To do that, face the horse’s left shoulder and tell him to walk. Pick up the left rein and think about the horse’s left hip moving away from you. Pull the rein steadily toward his left hip.

The horse will eventually step his left hind foot in front of the right hind, and his left front foot will stop momentarily. Release the rein. We call that the “hips over” movement or “disengaging the hip.”

It will take a few repetitions to get the timing down. Initially, you may have to release the rein as soon as the horse begins to move his hind end away from you to give him the idea.

Once you’ve practiced the hips over movement about 75 times on each side (switching sides every few times), teaching the “head down” cue will be easy. By now, the horse’s head is probably already at a good elevation. Depending on his build, we’d like his face or his ears about level with his withers.

To teach him to drop his head on cue, get him walking and pick up the rein. Look at the tip of his left ear. As he prepares to move his hip, he’ll turn his nose slightly toward you and drop his head slightly. Release the rein. Then pick up the rein and move the hip to end the exercise. Pet him. Teach the same lesson from the right side.

If the horse has a tendency to get excited or to raise his head often, then it’s worthwhile teaching him to drop his head all the way down by his knees. You’re never going to ride or lead him with it that low, but it’s a good exercise to improve his responsiveness to the rein.

With the horse walking, pick up the rein, asking him to drop his head. When he does, release the rein, but immediately pick it up again and again ask for another head drop. Continue working with that cue until you can get the horse’s head quite low, but in little movements.

If the horse carries his head too low, then teach him to raise it the same way. Get him walking, perhaps energetically, and hold light tension on the rein until he begins to raise his head. Then release the rein to reward him for moving his head in the correct position. Amazingly, the horse will be able to figure out what you want, though it seems like the same cue to us.

Next, we’ll teach the horse to move his shoulders away from us. This is probably the most helpful part in leading a horse who has a tendency to bump into us when he’s excited. It’s easier to teach if you’ve done the hips over and the head down cues first.

You should still be facing the horse’s shoulder. Ask the horse to walk forward again. After about six steps, look at the horse’s shoulder, pick up the rein, and pull it toward the shoulder. He’ll turn his nose toward you as he prepares to move his hip because that’s what you’ve been asking him.

Keep him stepping forward and continue to keep light tension on the rein, bringing it toward his shoulder. He’ll shift his weight to the right shoulder, and the left shoulder will sort of melt away from you as he walks. Release the rein and keep him walking. Now ask for a hips over to end the exercise. Switch sides.

You’re probably wondering how the horse knows whether you want him to move his shoulder or his hip. He won’t at first. But as you keep him walking forward, he’ll know you don’t want hips over. When you release as he softens his shoulder, he’ll figure it out. Horses are better at recognizing subtle differences than people are.

Graduate to Leading in a Halter
Our goal is to have a horse who leads well with a halter (or, in a perfect world, perhaps even without a halter). But that isn’t the best starting point because it takes the horse longer to get the idea of what we want if we train using a halter rather than a bridle.

Halter cues are less specific than the same cues used with a bridle, so we end up muscling a horse around when we train using a halter. Halter pressure is also easier for the horse to ignore, so if we train with a halter, the horse learns to live with the pressure rather than being motivated to find a release.

We train using a plain snaffle bridle, not a curb bit or a snaffle with sharp edges. A smooth, full-cheek or D-ring is ideal because it puts pressure on the far side of the horse’s lips and won’t easily get pulled into the horse’s mouth.

Our goal is to get a good response from the horse on an increasingly lighter cue. At first, the horse pulls and we pull occasionally. Once the horse gets the idea, we try to see if we can get the same response, but on a lighter feel.

When the horse is responding 100 percent in the bridle, it’s time to graduate to working in a halter, which gives him an even lighter cue. If you find that the horse isn’t responding well to the halter, either getting sluggish in his responses or pulling on the halter, go back to using the bridle.

Put the Tools to Work
Ask the horse to go forward (get the hindquarters energized), and march along beside him. After about 20 feet, slow down, pick up the rein, and ask him for a hips over. Release the rein the moment that he stops. Pet him, and begin again.

If the horse stops when you pick up the rein and stop, then pet him. No need to do a hips over. But if he doesn’t respond within two seconds of your having picked up the rein, then ask for a hips over. After a few times, he’ll realize that it’s easier to stop than to have to do a hips over and stop.

The horse will naturally cue off your body language, and you’ll be tempted not to use the rein. At this stage, though, it’s important to use the rein because when he’s excited and not wanting to stop, your body language alone won’t be a strong enough cue. We need a reliable cue if we’re going to stay safe in all situations.

Next, get the horse walking alongside you. Pick up the rein and ask the horse to move his shoulder, as you did before. The moment he eases his shoulders to the right, release the rein and keep walking. After about 20 feet, stop as you did above. Pet him and make a big fuss.

Practice asking him to move his shoulder away from you as you walk beside him, each time releasing the rein when the shoulder moves.

Raising the Bar
Cues taught and basic leading happening, we’re now ready to fine-tune your horse’s leading manners. Think in terms of making small improvements.

For instance, perhaps he’s happy walking two steps behind you, but you want his head even with your elbow. Tell him to speed up. Avoid the temptation to swing your left arm around to whack him with the tail of the lead rope. That will cause him to swing his hindquarters away from you, which won’t speed him up. Stick to the cues that you’ve taught.

Is his walk a little faster than you’d like? Use the shoulder over cue to slow him down. If that doesn’t do it, use hips over to stop him momentarily.

The same cues will work great if he tends to lead too close to you, as many young horses do. Move his shoulder away, and don’t let him move you away from his shoulder.

Extra Credit
Like any subject, the classroom work is one aspect, the pop quiz another. Once your horse knows his stuff, up the ante. If your horse scores 100% on a test at home, he’ll only score about 70% on the same test when he’s away. So find a way to increase the excitement level at home, to help him learn to respond to your cues even when he’d rather not.

You can do that by speeding him up, trying the same things at a trot, or with other riders nearby. You can introduce some obstacles, such as a tarp on the ground. (Hold it down with rocks so it doesn’t blow up and scare him at first.) Or work with cones so you can test both of you, weaving in and out of the cones or stopping exactly between two of them like you were test-driving a vehicle.

Is his head too high? If so, he’s going to be ignoring your cues pretty soon. Better ask him to drop his head, and perhaps also to move his shoulder so that he relaxes his neck and is more attentive to you.

Want your horse to stand beautifully? Use the cues to position him. When he’s just right, release all pressure on him, pet him and step away from him, so that he learns he doesn’t have to be nearly in your pocket.

Practice these cues from both sides. That will condition him to each rein (which is an enormous help when you ride). It will also become important should you have to lead him from the right side, for instance, if you’re leading two horses at the same time or you’re loading him into a trailer.

Want to turn to the right? With the horse walking, position yourself by his head. Step slightly in front of him, sort of herding his nose to the outside. Continue moving into his space, so to speak, and he’ll figure out how to pivot to make the turn.

Make careful note of the horse’s tendencies, such as to lead too close to you. Those will be accentuated when he gets scared. It’s normal, for instance, for horses to jump onto you when you’re trying to lead them across a stream. That’s when you need that shoulders over cue to say in no uncertain words, “Stay in your own lane.”

When we get to trailer loading (which we’ll do next month), a hole in your horse’s leading manners will cause difficulties because trailer-loading problems are essentially leading problems.

Remember, there are two of you in the equation. You need to train yourself to rely on cues, as well as training your horse so well that he can obey them instinctively.

But getting to that point doesn’t have to be drudgery. In fact, it should be fun. Mix up the lessons, add objects, and take your horse on trail walks. Once you’re sure you have good control, trailer your horse to an old dirt road and practice there, pretending that you’re in the Old West, preparing your horse so people notice his perfect manners when you head into town for supplies next week.

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