A Pleasure to Lead

You don't want to drag your horse around, or be dragged in return, so it's time to polish his come-along skills.

Your new horse is gorgeous. you proudly start to bring her out of the stall for your friends to admire, but she takes one look at the great, wide world through the stall door and refuses to budge. First you tug. Then you lean hard on the lead rope, your body making a 45-degree angle to the ground like Captain Jack Sparrow trying to drag the black pearl through an ocean of sand. “Ima Diva” cooperatively stretches her neck to the fullest possible reach without budging her feet. Come to think of it, the trainer you bought her from always presented her ready to ride.

Or maybe you’re helping a bunch of 4-H kids. Little Joey’s family doesn’t have much money, but they managed to get him a horse at a good price that’s said to be bombproof. And he certainly seems to be that. The poor kid doesn’t so much lead “Ol’ Molasses” around the pattern as drag him. Oh, and he takes about half an hour to get into a trailer.

Or maybe you’re helping out at a barn, just getting to know the horses. That sharp little “Sparky” seems a trifle eager as you bring him in from the field. As you approach the gate, whomp! He charges past and slams his shoulder into you, knocking you into the fence. That hurt… and Sparky shows a clean pair of heels as he disappears down the road.

Follow the Leader

  • Poor leading behavior isn’t a respect issue; it’s the result of insufficient training.
  • Solid leading manners are essential for safety.
  • When you lead, your horse should match your speed on a slack line.
  • By being consistent, your horse will learn to pick up on your body language.
  • It’s easiest to start with the horse bridled, but good manners soon transfer to a halter and lead rope.

None of these horses is a pleasure to handle on the ground. Perhaps whoever did their initial training was rushed. Or maybe the horses were raised by owners who just didn’t know there is more to teaching a horse to lead than dragging him along or holding him back. But the fact is, none of these horses knows how to lead properly-and they are a long road from being unique. In fact, so many horses do not lead well, that a lot of people have never handled a horse that really does “know the ropes.” This is not good. And while Ima Diva and Ol’ Molasses are frustrating, Sparky is dangerous.

You Ride the Horse You Lead
Some people don’t think getting leading right is as important as getting the right lead. They seem to think that it’s okay for their horse to have lousy ground manners because he’s “fine” when they’re in the saddle. These are the folks who tell a prospective buyer, “Well, yeah, he’s a bit touchy on the ground, but wait until you see him over fences!” Or heading a cow! Or rounding a barrel!

Leading, however, is the basis for nearly all horse training. We teach it for our safety, for the horse’s safety, and for control. If there are holes in a horse’s leading manners, there are holes in his training. Period. And “touchy” on the ground usually translates into at least unpleasant and often downright unsafe behavior. Your goal is to have a safe, wonderful experience when you are riding. There is no reason to expect anything less on the ground.

You may have heard people say that a horse who does not lead well has a “respect” issue. Generally it’s not so much a matter of disrespect as it is a matter of ignorance. A horse will respond in a way that is natural for him unless he has been taught otherwise. If a horse charges ahead, it is because he has not been taught to follow politely. If he lags behind, it is because he has not been taught to go forward. If something to his right startles him and he slams into you, it is because he has not been taught to overcome that instinct when he is being led.

If a horse has just begun his training under saddle, we do not say the horse does not respect us because he picks up the wrong lead. We understand that this is a matter of training and balance. We train him to connect a certain set of cues with a given performance. The same is true of teaching him how closely to follow, how much space to leave between the two of you, and how quickly to respond to your directions.

True respect comes as a result of correct, consistent, humane training. You can teach a horse to move to the right, for instance, using a non-threatening manner so that he still wants to be with you, or you can teach a horse to move to the right because he’s afraid of you. Both methods will get a result, but a horse grants respect when he learns we can make him do what we want without hurting or frightening him.

So What Exactly Do We Want the Horse to Do?

It is possible to teach a horse to lead in any position in relation to his handler. Some people like to have their horse’s head at their own shoulder; others prefer to be farther back, by their horse’s neck. Or you might be more comfortable in the classic 4-H or showmanship position, where you position yourself even with the horse’s throatlatch. In any case, our horses should match our speed and follow our direction with a slack lead line, without having to be tugged forward, pulled back, or hauled around.

We’re going to work through our lessons from the left side of the horse. However, once he’s responsive to cues from that side, you’ll want to practice leading from the right as well. There will be situations where that becomes necessary, and your horse needs to be familiar with the same requests even when you’re on his right.

Cues Without Words or Touching
Remember that horses are attuned to body language. From his earliest hours, a foal will follow his mother as if the umbilical cord were still attached. Grown members of a herd in motion show extreme awareness of each others’ placement, speed, and silently telegraphed intent.

Horses read your body motion just as clearly as they do that of another horse. They just have to be taught what the movement means and how exactly they are expected to follow it.

As in all training, any change we want to achieve in the horse starts with us. It is our responsibility to teach our horses clear, consistent cues for specific actions we want them to perform. If you don’t have a cue to let your horse know what you want him to do, you don’t have a plan, so you don’t get a result-or at least not the result you want.

Whether in the saddle or on the ground, our cues are simple: Go forward. Back up. Go right. Go left. Stop. We use these to place the horse where we want him, at the speed we want him to go, and, when we are working with him on the ground, at the distance we want him to be from us. As an additional benefit, these are the same cues we use when we ride, so making sure they are solid on the ground is not only a significant safety issue, it is also a great time saver in our under-saddle training.

Your horse should end up leading with equal perfection in a halter or bridle, or free in the round pen. John uses ground training in a bridle as a significant key to having the horse attuned to cues when he’s in the saddle. If your horse is well attuned to you in the bridle, but is less responsive when in a halter, use the bridle to teach him the basic lessons, then repeat those lessons over and over in the halter until he gives you the same sensitive response. A dressage whip can be useful to reinforce your “go forward” cue.

Heads Up
Part of being a smart trainer is to arrange things so that the natural response of the horse is to do what you want him to do. Remember, you shouldn’t get hurt, the horse shouldn’t get hurt, and the lesson should end with the horse calmer than when he started.

If, like Sparky, your horse tends to lead too closely to you, or forges ahead, or bumps into you, practice these exercises in the round pen while you stand a safe distance away. Make sure he responds to your cues from a distance before you get close to him.

If, like Ima Diva or Ol’ Molasses, your horse is sluggish or gets plugged up in doorways, start the work in a stall or pen, or anywhere he is likely to do what you want him to do. You want to avoid frustration, so don’t set the stage for a confrontation where you already know you have a problem. Once the correct response is established, you can work on it in as many other places as you like, but start by setting yourself up for success.

Remember that at first your horse may not understand what you are asking him to do. Be patient and give him a chance to acknowledge the cue and to respond to it. Look for small improvements in all the following exercises. Do not demand too much too quickly. And praise your horse for any correct effort!

Backing Up
Odd as it may seem, sometimes it is easier to teach a horse to go forward by teaching him to back up. It can be useful for this lesson to use a fence for a barrier on the other side of the horse to help keep him straight.

Take your leading position. The horse should be standing quietly and the lead rope should be slack, but not dragging or sloppy. Take a step back. Do not tug on the lead rope. If the horse takes a step back as well, that’s great. If not, add a bit of noise to your cue with a “kiss” or a foot stomp, or by smacking the ground lightly in front of him with the whip.

If he so much as leans backward, praise him. If he does not, increase the noise or ground smacking until he does. If he still doesn’t get it, you may need to turn toward the horse’s shoulder and apply some pressure to the lead rope or rein to get him to take those first backward steps. You need to help him make the connection. Correct him if he gets his nose too far ahead of you, then praise him when he is in the right position.

Practice this exercise a lot, praising him each time he begins to step backward, reducing the amount of cue each time until he responds to just the backward movement of your shoulder.

He has now learned to watch your body for cues.

Go Forward
Your horse should go forward as you move forward, wherever you want him to go and at whatever speed you choose, whether it is to the barn or into a trailer. You should not have to tug on the halter or bridle to get him to walk or trot with you.

Stand again in your ideal position. Take a step forward without taking the slack out of the lead. If he steps forward with you, that’s great. If not, give your go forward cue (a “kiss,” for instance). If nothing happens, reach back with your dressage whip or the end of your lead rope, and reinforce the cue with a light tap on the hip. Remember this tap is not a punishment. The rope or whip is just an extension of your arm so you don’t have to leave your position to give the cue.

Do not let him circle around you. Any time he gets ahead of you, lean your shoulder back to slow his pace, or turn toward his shoulder and ask him to back up a step or two. If necessary, disengage his hips. You’re going to have to finesse this a bit, because you don’t want to discourage the forward motion you need for leading, but you don’t want the horse rushing ahead either.

Practice changing from walk to trot to walk to stop to walk. Repeat, repeat, and then repeat again, praising him every time he does something well.

Turning Toward the Right
A right-hand turn is the same as an outside turn in the round pen.

When you ask your horse to move to the right, you will put pressure-that is, almost a cushion of air-on his shoulder by moving your body in that direction.

Cue the nose for an outside turn, then cue the shoulder for a sidestep. Now, cue the hip to go forward. You want the horse to move to the right almost as if he were sidepassing. If he so much as leans or takes a single step to the side with a front foot, praise him. Practice this many times. As the horse learns to cross over, the left front foot passing in front of his right foot, begin to ask for two steps, then three, then a full circle. Ask for a go forward when you lead him out of the circle into a straight line.

This is an especially important lesson because it teaches your horse to move out of your space and to avoid crowding into you or running you over. By moving your horse’s shoulders away from you, you’ll be able to establish a safe, comfortable boundary for better control as you lead him.

Teaching a Left Turn
A left-hand turn is the same as an inside turn in the round pen.

Use your rein or the lead rope to cue the shoulder so the horse takes one step away from you. The instant he takes that sideways step, move your body down his side, with your body facing the horse’s hip.

As you move toward the hip, make a kissing sound. He should turn and look at you.

Practice this over and over again. When the horse is consistently turning and facing you, step backward in small circles. Keep his feet moving and be consistent with your body position. Praise him often.

Once you have your horse turning reliably to the left, you’ll add the go forward cue to get him to step ahead when you do, remaining alongside.

The Payoff
Remember that all these exercises carry over into every part of your horsekeeping routine, from leading out of the pen to loading onto a trailer, to time in the saddle. The better your horse becomes at “Follow the Leader” on the ground, the more perfect your working relationship, safety, and enjoyment will be. Ima Diva will soon be a beautiful dance partner. Sparky will be a candle rather than a rocket, developing patience with whoever is handling him. And Ol’ Molasses? Well, he’ll be flowing alongside his young owner like it’s July, not January. If you do your ground work, every horse can become a pleasure to lead.

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