To start building your confidence, let’s make your horse safe by teaching him some basic voice commands. You need a halter, a lead line with a chain, and a long whip about 44 inches long. Put the halter on him so its noseband is about 2 inches below his cheekbones, and attach the lead line as follows, starting on the left side of the head:
1. Thread the snap on the chain downward through the lower-left ring of the halter.
2. Lift the chain up so it crosses over the noseband of the halter but doesn’t directly press on the horse’s face.
3. Feed the chain out and up through the lower-right halter ring.
4. Attach the snap of the chain to the upper-right ring of the halter.
5. Make sure the snap is away from your horse’s face. If it rubs, it can come undone.
You will need 4 to 6 inches of chain on the left side to work with. If you are left with more (the chain is too long), pull the snap through the upper-right ring and attach it back on the chain.
6. Hold the lead line with your right hand about 8 to 10 inches from the halter. Layer the excess lead line in your left hand. Never wind the excess lead around your hand, because you could be injured if your horse startles and suddenly pulls away.
Before you start these leading lessons, take some time to get your horse used to the whip. Quietly rub it all over his body until he stands quietly when he feels it. Once he is comfortable with the whip, you’ll be able to use it as an aid. Carry the whip in your left hand along with the excess lead line.
When leading your horse, the correct position for your body is just in front of his shoulder. He should neither be walking too far in front of you nor dragging behind you. Your goal with this groundwork is to train your horse to react immediately to simple voice commands to stop, go, and slow down. Horses learn by association — so in the beginning, combine a voice command with three additional cues.
The first cue is the movement of your body. When you want him to go forward, you start walking. When you want him to slow down, you slow down. When you want him to stop, you stop.
The other two cues are use of the lead line and the whip. Use the lead line to help stop him. Depending on where you use it on his body, you can use the whip to tell him to stop or to move forward.
Begin by going from the halt to the walk: From your position at his shoulder, take a step forward, reach behind your waist, and touch him with the whip on his barrel where your leg would rest. As you take a step and touch him, say, “Walk on,” in an energetic voice. As soon as he walks forward, reward him by praising him with your voice, or patting him.
Walk forward a few steps and then say, “Whoa,” or “Ho,” in a slow, soothing voice. As you give the verbal cue, stop walking. If he continues to walk forward, lift the whip in front of his face. If he still doesn’t stop, touch him on the chest with the top of the whip and apply a take-and-give pressure on his nose with the chain. If he still walks forward, give a couple of sharp tugs on the chain. As soon as he stops, praise him with your voice, or pat him. The next stage is to get a prompt reaction to your voice without the extra cues. Eliminate the movement of your body as an extra cue first. Try just saying “Walk on” and “Whoa”; use the whip and the lead rope to help only if necessary. Don’t move or stop until your horse does. When he does this easily, eliminate the lead and the whip as aids. Ask him to walk forward and to “whoa” solely from your voice command. When he does, make a huge fuss over him: Pat him, praise him, and give him a treat.
If he stops reacting promptly to your voice, add one of your additional cues back in until you get a response. Then go back to just using your voice again.
Go through these same steps with transitions from walk to trot and back to walk, as well as halt to trot and back to halt. Your verbal cue for trotting can be a brisk “Terrrot.” Use the added cues of your body movement, whip, and lead line as needed, but remember that your ultimate goal is to get your horse to halt, walk, and trot solely from your voice.
Once your horse can halt, walk, and trot on the lead like this, teach him to slow down within his gait. The same rules apply: Start by combining a voice command such as “Slow” or “Steady” with your body movement, the lead line, and the whip.
For example, start with an animated walk. Say “Slow” as you apply a bit of pressure on his nose and slow down your own walk. If he doesn’t react to these aids, give some sharp tugs on the lead. Once he slows down, praise him.
To return to the animated walk, say “Walk on” as you touch him on his barrel with the whip and speed up your own walk.
Chapter 21 of It’s Not Just About the Ribbons, from which this excerpt was taken, goes on to teach voice commands on a longe line and when riding, “steering” (from the ground and from the saddle), and preparation for dealing with such scary possibilities as rearing, bucking, shying, and bolting. For more from Jane Savoie’s book, see the November 2003 Practical Horseman magazine