Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Working Towards Softness 5 - Basic Leading

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  There is no one right way to work with horses (although in my opinion there are wrong ways) and this is just how I go about it.  I think of these exercises as progressive, although after you have begun to get the feeling of softness in your own mind and body, the later exercises don't necessarily have to be done in order - it may depend on what the particular horse needs to work on.

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I think a lot of people have trouble leading their horses and handling them on the ground.  To me, good leading and good ground manners are essential building blocks, both for safety, and also to develop attention in both the horse and handler.  If a horse leads badly, it's because the horse has never had clear, consistent direction as to how to lead - not because the horse is "disrespectful" or bad.  Because of that, if I can provide that direction, many if not most leading issues pretty quickly go away.  I have a whole set of leading exercises I do to develop the horse's (and my) attentiveness and relationship, but those exercises can't be done unless the horse knows how to lead well.

I use a web halter and a 10' cotton lead - with a plain brass snap, not one of those bull-headed snaps, which tend to bang the horse in the chin.  I also don't use chains - those are control/pain devices that can keep you safe if you're leading an untrained horse, but they're not training devices.   I will on occasion use a rope halter, particularly if a horse has had serious (i.e. dangerous) leading issues in the past, in order to be able to firmly remind the horse if necessary that staying out of my space is not negotiable.  (We have one horse at our barn, Sugar, who came to us with a extremely dangerous leading problem - she could not be led at all and would do anything to get away from you on the lead, including directly and deliberately running into you with her body - and if you applied any pressure at all she would quickly escalate the behavior and completely panic, putting any handler at serious risk.  It was like playing football with a 1,200 pound linebacker. This was a learned behavior and was not aggression but rather fear related, likely from prior mishandling.  We told the owner that she had to seek professional assistance as we could not safely handle the horse.  The problem was solved by sending the horse to a good trainer for several months of training.  She leads well now, but we lead her in a rope halter.  This is an unusual case in my experience.)

First, to lead a horse you must have defined for yourself the boundaries of your personal space.  This has to be definite and clearly and consistently communicated to the horse.  Every interaction you have with the horse is a continuous series of asks and answers on both your parts - a conversation - and if you miss the horse asking if it can do something ("can I stick my head into your space?"; "can I head butt you?"; "can I graze on the lead?"; "can I bump my body into you?") and don't give the horse an answer, the horse will make its own decisions and the results may be ones you don't like and then try to correct.  A lot of people also get in the habit of "nagging at" their horses - be direct and clear and, as you're establishing your boundaries for the horse, get as big (making noises, waving your hands, whatever is needed to get the horse's attention) as you need to.  Pretty soon, once the horse (finally) has a clear idea of what you want and can do it, things will go along pretty well.

So, what are the boundaries of your personal space?  In my case, it's an arm's length - the horse is supposed to stay outside this bubble at all times - when calm, when excited, when startled.  If a horse is seriously startled and needs to move its feet, that's OK provided the horse stays outside my bubble.  I can approach closer to the horse than this, but the horse cannot approach me.  If the horse does, I get as big as I need to to remove the horse from my "bubble".  My usual ways of doing this are to hiss (facing the horse helps too) and sometimes to wave an arm or swing the end of the rope to get the horse to back off.  Pretty soon the horse gets it, but only if I'm consistent - if the horse is outside my bubble nothing's going on, if the horse comes inside the bubble, I say something.  I want the horse to stay outside my bubble on its own, so I don't move the horse by pushing/touching with my hands, by using a whip or by pressure/wiggling/jerking on the lead.

Once the horse understands your bubble, you can work on leading - this tends to happen all at once in practice, but I've broken it down because the personal space issue is so important.  The next thing you have to decide is where you want the horse to lead - next to your shoulder or behind you.  I lead with the horse behind me (except when leading two horses at once who might cause trouble if led together behind me - but that's a special case) rather than at my shoulder.  There's no right and wrong on this - I lead with the horse behind me for some specific reasons.  I like the way it allows the horse to follow me - to follow my leadership - I think this is easier for the horse and allows the horse to pay better attention to me when it's literally following me. I've found that it's a lot easier for the horse to get ahead of me - to lead me - if the horse starts at my shoulder, and that people are more likely to nag at the horse or keep pressure on the lead if the horse is next to them.  Turns are easier if the horse is behind you and the horse is less likely to get inside my bubble on turns.  Some people are worried that they can't see what the horse is up to behind them, and that the horse may run them over if it spooks.  I think it's just as likely that a horse next to you could spook sideways into you, and in fact it may be more likely if the horse is leading (ahead of) you.  I actually like having the horse behind me - I have to pay closer attention to where I'm going, the horse has to decide to do what I've defined on a loose lead and I can hear and sense the horse behind me just fine by just slightly turning my head and also listening to the footfalls.  Not that it's never going to happen, but I've never been run over by a horse on the lead behind me because my bubble is established - I keep a close eye on horses that are still learning to be sure they stay outside my bubble, and frequent stopping (described below) may be necessary in the learning phase.  I have horses get scared or spooked on the lead, but they don't run into me - they may run past me and turn to face the monster but they don't run me over.

As I'm working with the horse on defining my bubble, I frequently stop and approach the horse and praise it - this reinforces that I can enter the horse's bubble and also helps the horse know it is doing the right thing.  But how do you have the horse stop without intruding into your bubble, and without having to ask the horse to do so?

So, now you've got your horse leading in whatever position you've decided, on a loose lead and staying out of your personal space.  Practicing stopping, starting and turning is a good exercise.  When I stop, the horse is supposed to stop before it gets inside my bubble, even if my back is turned (although I face the horse as we're training this).  When I go or turn, the horse is supposed to follow.  For stopping, as I train it I focus on the feet, not the head - this tends to take the emotion out of things and is more precise.  I'm leading the horse and want to stop.  To train this, I stop and turn partly or completely to face the horse.  My objective is for the front foot that is in motion to plant and stop and for the other front foot to not travel closer to me than the first front foot - that is, the horse is to halt but without that second front foot passing the first one.  There's no magic to this - it's just an easy and precise way to define "stopping".  If that second front foot passes the first one, I say something to the horse - moving it backwards with my voice (hissing) or by waving an arm and taking a step towards the horse.  You might have to get bigger the first couple of times until the horse gets the idea.  Then we do this over again as many times as are necessary to get consistency - but the consistency has to come from me.

On turns, if you're turning the horse towards you, be careful that the horse still stays outside the bubble and doesn't get ahead of you or anticipate and drop its shoulder towards you.  The horse should follow your lead and only move when asked to - this is one of the reasons I like the horse to lead behind me as it makes turns in any direction much easier.

When leading in a straight line or turning, I want to be able to slow the horse's pace by just slightly turning my head over my shoulder - if I look towards them they should slow.  If I go slower or faster, they should do the same without my having to do anything else.  Eventually, I don't have to look towards or at the horse for it to slow or stop - it just happens automatically.

With a horse that balks or won't lead up - I want my horses to follow on a loose lead rather than having to be towed - I don't stand there pulling on the lead.  That would just be participating in the brace. Instead I almost instantly get the horse's feet moving.  A moving horse is more likely to keep moving.  Taking the horse a step or two to the side is often enough to get things moving again.  If that doesn't work, I immediately back the horse in hand - not as a punishment but to unstick the feet moving and usually when I ask for forward it's right there.

Also, when my horses have their halters on, we're working, even if we're just leading to turnout.  Therefore, I'm responsible to pay attention at all times to the horse, and the horse to me.  And my horses don't graze if they're wearing a halter and I'm holding a lead - this eliminates those struggles where the horse wants to dive for grass - but only if you're completely consistent about it.  Letting the horse graze sometimes and getting mad at them other times doesn't make any sense to the horse.  I realize some people are in situations where the only grazing their horse can get is hand grazing.  In that case it may be a good idea to teach the horse a "graze now" cue.  I don't need to do that because my horses have daily turnout with either grass or free choice hay.

I have found that this basic leading work can be great for improving the attention the horse and handler pay to each other - to do it correctly both have to pay close attention.  And the handler has to provide clear, consistent leadership - this is necessary for effective work with the horse in all sorts of situations.  And the result is a horse that has learned what you want and can be confident that it is doing the right thing.  And once my horse knows how to lead well, there are lots of interesting exercises we can do together to develop our mutual attention and relationship.


  1. I'm with you. The more work you put in on the ground, the better connection and responsiveness you are going to have on top.

    Great post!

  2. Another great post Kate! After reading it, I feel like we're on the right track - thanks.

    We have combined working on leading with working outside the arena, which often provides opportunities to deal with scary things at the same time lol :)

    My goal is for Val to match my pace and energy all of the time. When issues arise, I back him up a few steps, and that is usually enough.

  3. Great post, again. Kenny Harlow considers trailer loading problems to be leading problems and whenever he trains a horse to load the first priority is teaching the horse to lead correctly.

  4. Such a wonderful post again, it sounds like your horses know their place, but in a good way.

    I'll definitely be practising this at the stable.


  5. I agree with you that all horses need ground manners. They are just too big not to pay attention while you are interacting with them.

  6. Exactly. Bad behavior on the ground is just as bad as bad behavior under saddle. Horses should respect space and obey both verbal and physical cues, no matter what.

  7. Good post . Horses are big quite simpley and they can hurt you even , or sesp on the ground.Good ground manners and safe leading are my first goal with any horse I handle

  8. So very true...Ray Hunt once at a clinic was asked the question, "when do you leave square one and move on?" - he took a full minute or more to answer, and then said..."Never. You take square one with you." I've never forgotten that and keep it close. We keep building from square one, and if ground manners aren't respectful, however could you expect more? Thank you so much for your comments on my blog...I'm feeling much better after my vigouous walk and some chicken noodle soup. :)

  9. Good post. That's pretty much what we do with our horses. The only difference is we chose to lead with the horses at our shoulder - just our preference, neither better nor worse. When I get past my surgery recovery in a month or so the first thing we'll do is start with this and work on the ground for at least a week before considering getting back into the saddle.

    I like the Ray Hunt comment and I'll remember that.


  10. I completly agree with you on all points. Although I do want my horse to walk at my shoulder on occasion (showing or preparing to show as well as some other times) I do rather that they walk behind me wiht some slack in the lead. Ive never been spooked into when the horse is behind me, but I have gotten bumped into when they are at my shoulder when they have spooked.

  11. Great post Kate !! I LOVE how you broke it down to the simple steps that build upon themselves.

    Can you come help me with Rosie ???? She's not scared of my BIG .. she actually steps INTO me the bigger I get... I don't want to resort to the chain.. but it's really that bad =( I do use a rope halter, extra still with extra knots

  12. Jeni - wish I could, but I'm no horse trainer. A couple of things - first, keep yourself safe - if you have to use a chain to lead for now, use one - safety first. Second - why does she come into your space? Is she not paying attention, or does she ignore your attempts to keep her out of your space? Whatever you're doing to get big with her, if it's not working, do something else - if you've been waving your arms, make noise instead (a popping noise with your mouth can be very effective) - change things up and try something else. With a horse that's very resistant, it may be necessary to do something like carry a dressage whip and make a swishing noise with it - that can get their attention. And then praise her when she does what you want - that positive reinforcement is really valuable because they know then what you do want.

    Good luck, and wish I could do more to help.

  13. Great info. I am a groundwork fan, not only for getting a pre ride connection with your horse, but to check for soundness before hitting the trails.

  14. Thanks Kate I appreciate the help. I am going to go to the chain... safe is safe I agree. I'll keep you posted =)

  15. Excellent post and you are so right that ground work is the foundation for everything else!

    I lead shoulder to shoulder in part due to shows. One thing that I cannot stand is when people are asked to trot up after the under saddle class and the horse is dragging behind them. It's a much nicer picture of partnership and good training when the horse trots up, shoulder to shoulder, on a loose rein. Even better when the handler doesn't have to pull on the rein to come back to the walk. Panache and I have spent quite a bit of time on these traits, and when she starts to get pushy on the ground we go right back to really working. Start, stop, turn, back, etc... all on a loose lead. When leading shoulder to shoulder and needing a right turn I lift my left hand just before I start to step over and use this as the cue to the horse that we're turning, stay out of my bubble. Anyway, I've rambled on enough. Thanks for another great post Kate :)

  16. Absolutely agree with you, focus and consistency go a very long way.

    I prefer to be shoulder to shoulder with my horses, especially with my mare. It's easier for me to throw up a wall and deflect from that position.

    I also found that how I hold the lead makes a huge difference. They are much happier when I hold the rope in one hand with a great big loop in it, if I hold the rope under the snap they don't like it at all.

  17. I like the way you break it down so much, it is quite similar to how my horses are handled, I just never think about it that much. Kinda neat to hear it all and it is very important they lead well, thats one of the first ways I tell how a horse is feeling that day.

  18. John Lyons also considers loading problems to be leading problems. I remember learning that from him many years ago and I've found that proper leading has never failed me when I've gone to teach a horse to load.

    Good post.

  19. Living in the high desert of New Mexico means that hand grazing is the only way a horse will get the opportunity to eat any grass, because most horses here are kept on dry lots or sparsely vegetated pastures. So I do hand graze Apache during our monsoon season, which is the only time we get any grass growth. But my cue to allow her to eat while on lead is simply "Eat". She will stand and wait until I give her the cue.

    I've had a few leading issues with Apache in that when we go to competitions where all the noise, smells and sights excitement of the different horses and heightened energy cause her to get excited, too.
    She has tried to trot circles around me a few times. This is not unusual, though, because I've seen many other owners trying to deal with their own excited horses at these competition rides.
    But it's obviously not safe.

    I've had so many people recommend I use a crop or whip, but it causes her to spook and rear from terror. Her previous owner told me she used a crop to continually beat Apache to make her gallop and canter.

    So the problem I want to solve is how to get her to first of all , have some self control where she doesn't try to trot circles around me, but also the quickest and safest things to do once she does lose her mind and has already moved from leading beside me.

    I'm guessing that you have many of these same kinds of issues with Dawn, as you've discussed how unsafe you feel with her when out on a trail and she gets excited and seems to forget you are even there.

    Good post.


  20. I do use a chain lead rope when necessary. When my only option is be run over/drug around or use a chain I am going to use a chain just for safety. Ground manners are so important, most of the time when I've been injured around horses I've been on the ground, not riding.

  21. I am late getting to this post, but I have had it on my "to read" list because this is my weak link in horsemanship, I think. I am not strong on the ground, and yet, I do not think I am horrible altogether. I like how you have broken it all down in small steps. I believe that I am getting better with maintaining my bubble, but I still have problems with that during a spook or high energy day from Pie.
    I like to hand graze and in fact stroll like I am walking a dog. I believe in this whole-heartedly, but then, I have to indicate to the horse when that part is over and we are moving. I think that I had problems at first with that, but we are very good now.
    I love leading 95% of the time. I feel like I am loose and calm and it is almost like we are riding or in a relaxed dance - each walking together but not on top of each other. The other 5% is not good. I have to work on those times. Mostly, in a crisis or when a horse is "up" - I am less confident and my horse knows it. Pie brings out the "head butt" and Sovey tries the "trample". We are improving and it is rare, but those habits are still there. I know for sure, in both cases, they do it when they are insecure because I am missing to them. More work!
    Thanks for this post - I will refer back again many times!

  22. This post is very timely!

    I've been reviewing basic leading with one of our geldings, as he had started surging ahead and then moving in front of whoever was leading him.

    I think most of this was frustration/confusion on his part about not knowing what distance to keep or what we wanted him to do.

    I've been doing a lot of wandering around the yard with him, lots of turns, lots of starting and stopping.

    I wave my arms around a bit loosely to maintain my bubble. I don't direct it at him, but just in general.

    If he gets too far ahead, I send him back around to the other side.

    If he gets too far to the side, I turn in his direction--he can choose to stop/slow down/move out of the way and back behind me to let me pass, or I'll send him around in front of me. Yesterday (the second day reviewing leading), if he moved out to the side and I made a sharp turn in front of him he was stopping calmly and waiting to see what direction I would head in next, instead of surging forward. So, we're making progress.

    He's almost always staying behind me now and is stopping when I stop. Of course, when he's doing good he gets treats and praise.


  23. The more posts I read of yours, the more confidence I have in myself that I am doing the right thing with my horse! While I am a beginner, I think that my thoughts align with yours. Too many people want me to jump right on my horse and ride her, but since she came from an abusive situation, I feel that I need to establish trust and confidence through ground work and positive experiences with me.

  24. What you had to say about horses constantly asking questions with their behavior ("can bump you with my shoulder?" "can I eat your shirt?"), and the need to have an answer for them really sticks in my mind.

    While I've come across that concept before, I've never heard it worded so well. I find it really helpful for my own horse work and plan to put it into action.

    Thank you for this post, and for your blog. I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot!


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