Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Loon on Lake; Leading Work

This morning as I was walking to the barn I heard a Common Loon calling - they're not common around here and this one was on our large lake, visiting briefly on its way north.  It was a truly wild sound.

This morning we started our second week of grazing by switching pastures.  We do intensive rotational grazing with two herds using 10 pastures, each of which is about an acre plus.  Moving to new pastures is always exciting for the horses, and especially so when they are going for the first time to pastures they haven't seen for almost 6 months.  One of the pastures was also the one farthest (by a long way) from the barn - well over a quarter mile each way.  On an average day, making 6 trips, I do about 3 miles of pretty brisk walking, half of this leading horses.  Our pastures are not configured for easy access from the barn, and we don't have the horses run out both because the configuration doesn't easily lend itself to this and because it can lead to problems for the owners handling their own horses on owner days.  One thing we try to do is avoid practices that make it difficult for owners to handle their horses.

Whenever I'm around the horses, I try to keep in mind that everything I do when I interact with a horse, picking feet, worming, grooming, leading or just entering a stall, is training the horse to do something - maybe not on purpose or not what I intended the horse to learn, but something nonetheless.  It's always amazed me how many owners get angry or frustrated with their horses for doing exactly what they in fact have trained the horse to do!  In order to train a horse to do something, you have to know exactly what behavior you want, so you can reward and shape positive responses on the part of the horse to reach that goal.  Just fighting with the horse or punishing them when they do what you don't want doesn't tell them very much, in my opinion - it doesn't tell them what to do.  I get to do a lot of leading work with the horses, and a lot of that can carry over to other things.  When the horses are "up" as they were this morning, these lessons become even more important.

First a word on "equipment".  Most of our horses lead out in web (breakaway) or leather halters.  We have three horses (Lily, Sugar and Fred) who lead out in rope or nylon natural horsemanship halters because of how they have been trained and because I don't have to get "big" with them to keep their attention.  I don't use chains - not because they aren't effective (pain or the fear of pain is an effective control device) and not because I wasn't trained to lead horses that way - but because I believe training a horse to lead that way doesn't teach them much that usefully carries over to other things and also because if I had to let a horse go for safety reasons the horse could be seriously injured if there was a chain.  This is not to say that I will never under any circumstances use a chain when leading or handling a horse.  Since all our boarders also handle the horses on occasion, that means I need to work with the horses so they will lead as consistently as possible.

I don't care what sort of lead rope the boarders use, but when I lead my strong preference is for a 10' soft cotton lead with a soft woven-in (not tied) bulge at the end - no sharp edges - and a large, lightweight brass clip at the end - not one of those heavy bull-nosed things, the only purpose of which that I can see is to painfully whack horses in the jaw, which is not something I am interested in doing.  These leads are dirt cheap as well.  The cotton leads have a good "feel" - I can often tell how a horse is feeling and what they are doing without even looking just by the feel of the rope, I can't get rope burn if I need to play the lead out, there's a soft and effective stopper at the end if I let the lead play through my hands all the way to the end, if I swing a rope at a horse the end cannot hurt them if I connect on purpose or by accident, and the rope is long enough to allow me a lot of flexibility as circumstances arise - "mini-lungeing" is even a possibility.

Our horses lead in pairs.  When I open the stall door, I expect the horses to come to the front of the stall and present their head for the halter - this is easy to teach:  all I have to do is wait and they quickly figure it out! (With my own horses, I also expect them to come to the front of the stall to greet me even if they are eating hay.)  I expect them to stay in the stall until I ask them to step out, which means I can open the stall doors all the way as I halter.  One of the first things I train each horse to do is to move out of my space when I ask them to, and not to run me over or move too close to me.  I also work with all the horses on giving to pressure on the halter, both by head lowering and backing.  Most of the horses also are trained to give to the pressure of a "hiss", or even a glance back over my shoulder.  I'm not interesting in leading as a body-building exercise - my objective is for the horses to lead quietly at my shoulder or slightly behind (when I lead a single horse I want them to lead behind me by an arm's length and to stop when I stop).  I use pressure on the halter, but expect the horse to respond and then I give a release as soon as the response is given.

While I am haltering the second horse in the pair, I expect the first horse to stand quietly in the aisle, either on a loose lead or ground tied, without "snooping", visiting with other horses, or visiting the horse I am haltering.  No socializing on the lead - that's for turnout.  Horses that are closer to being babies particularly need to learn this - Scout now stands quietly and waits, which is wonderful.

Then we lead out.  The leading part is generally uneventful, although this morning I had to remind almost everyone of the rules, since they were all excited.  We did what I call the "funeral march" - walking more slowly that usual, with frequent pauses.  I find that if the horses are excited, allowing them to build up momentum is usually a bad idea - they get more excited the faster they go.  Even Blackjack and Noble, whose combined age is probably over 60 years, were eager to go!  I also lowered my energy as much as possible so the horses would feel that, and worked on keeping my body relaxed and breathing even and slow - it's amazing how much of that carries over to the horse you are with!

Once we get to the pasture, getting the horses through the gate and released (we remove halters for turnout for safety reasons) can sometimes be a bit trickier.  I usually let one horse in at a time, having the second horse wait outside the gate.  Sometimes I can leave the gate open to do this, and stand in the entrance while I let the first horse go (and no, I don't get run over!) but if the horses are particularly excited I will hold the second horse outside the closed gate while I release the first horse.  All  horses are required to walk through gates - no trotting or darting through.  My second objective is for all horses to walk from the gate - this doesn't always happen for obvious reasons - but short of this to have the horse wait for me to release them to run off - I've had a rotator cuff injury before and I don't want to repeat the experience.  That said, safety (mine) comes first, followed by safety of the horses.  I have gotten into situations where I've had to let a horse go with rope attached for my own safety or the safety of the horse - this rarely happens and when it does I retrieve the horse (usually from the very back of the pasture), lead it back to the gate and repeat leading in and releasing until we get it right - I don't punish the horse, rather we just calmly work on creating and rewarding the correct behavior.  I also do my pairings so that my more excitable horses are pairing with a horse I can tie or ground tie if need be.

This morning Sugar did a big bolt from the gate.  More on Sugar in a moment.  Dawn was also very up and is one of the horses most likely to want to bolt from the gate.  So with her I did a little work on changing her expectations (what I had trained her to do).  What she had learned was - walk through the gate, wait for halter to come off, bolt - all associated with the sequence of events near the gate.  So I changed things.  When I led her in, she was quivering with anticipation.  So I stood outside the gate, with the lead draped loosely over the top, while she was on the inside, and waited for her to calm herself down.  That took a moment.  Then I went in the pasture and slowly led her down towards the other horses, who were at the far end.  She led well, we got to the middle of the pasture, and I slipped her halter off.  Because she wasn't expecting to bolt at that point, she actually took several quiet walk steps before trotting off.  Mission accomplished!  For the next several days, with both her and Sugar, I will lead them into the pasture and let them go at a different location each time.  

Sorry for the unusually long post - there's a lot to leading!


  1. Your horses are lucky to have such a patient teacher. One of my horses has perfect ground manners, I have had her for ten years. The other is three and still learning, but tries to be good most of the time.

    Very good point that each interaction we have is a training session.

  2. Fantastic post. These are all the "little things" that can make such a huge difference in the long run. Ground manners lead to better manners under saddle as well.

    I love the cotton lead ropes, but my favorites are the cotton neck ropes that have a metal loop/link thing on them. In case of emergency you can fashion a makeshift halter from just the rope or simply make a loop and lead the horse just by the neck rope.

  3. There is a lot to leading and haltering and manners etc... Great post. It's a shame more people don't really know how to handle their own horses properly. Everyone should learn this and minimize the danger to themselves or the horses.

  4. Leading is quite complicated. I write a lot about it too. Pretty much everything we do with horses is complicated and requires our full attention. I hope that someday it can all be second nature for me. I like to read about other people's routines with their horses.

  5. My kids think the Loon is the coolest bird! When we went to the Museum of Natural History, of all the things they could choose in the gift shop, they picked the little stuffed Loons with a sound chip inside that would make the Loon call. They both try to copy the call themselves. We laugh that we have a house full of loons!

  6. This is a really helpful post. I am now leading and hand walking my mare due to an injury from which she is recovering. She can be quite pushy and has run into me from behind once when she spooked. As she is quite large I am keen to get a handle on this! If there is anything else you can add to how exactly train a horse to focus on you and not walk into you or move so close that would be great. i often find myself pushing her away at the shoulder so she won't be in stepping on my toes distance.

  7. Shinyfluff - if you got to the sidebar under "Working Towards Softness" there are several posts on leading - nos. 5 and 6 have lots of different leading/attention exercises. Good luck!


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