Sunday, January 30, 2011

Working Towards Softness 6 - Leading Exercises

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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Also, in the case of this post, be sure to first read post 5 in this series - "Basic Leading".  A horse needs to lead well, first, before the exercises in this post will be of much use.

The bridal march.  This one's fun, and you can do it anytime you're leading the horse.  The horse should be leading well on a loose rein.  Now take four regular steps and then two short steps, and then four regular steps, then two short steps.  The objective is for the horse to pay attention to you and not intrude into your personal space when you slow down and to keep up when you speed up.  Vary the numbers and combinations of steps.

Crazy walking.  The purpose of this exercise is to further develop the horse's leading skills, while also developing the handler's and horse's attention to each other.  It's fun, too!  Although I call it "crazy walking", it doesn't have to all be done at a walk - changes of pace can be part of the picture as well.  What I do is to lead my horses in complicated patterns, sometimes using cones as reference points.  These patterns can include turns to the left and right, halts, backing, halt/walk/halt, walk/trot/walk and halt/trot/halt transitions, u-turns and figures of all shapes and sizes.  The horse is supposed to move with me and pay close attention to follow my directions, on a loose lead and without intruding into my personal space.

Here are Dawn and I trotting together, about to make a turn to the right.  Dawn is wearing her fuzzy nose halter, which I use for most of my groundwork exercises.

One step back.  No, I don't mean the two steps forward, one step back sort of thing - although that's a frequent occurrence, at least for me. I mean the one step back, when you're on the ground and ask the horse to take a step away from you, either by gentle pressure on the lead or with another cue (I also use a raised hand with palm out). If you think about it, this is the fundamental thing - asking the horse to slightly move the feet - just one step - at our request. If the horse can learn to do this, consistently and as a matter of course, it is the foundation for all our directing the feet of the horse and allows us to create safe boundaries for our personal space on the ground. That's really all there is to it - it's so small and yet so fundamental.

And, if you do this exercise carefully and attentively, it's great practice in developing your own feel - if you can signal the horse with the softest possible cue to take one step back, and then give a release as the horse is thinking about taking the one step, you'll get a single step back and no more.  If your release is late - if you wait until the horse has taken the step - you'll likely get more than one step back.

One step at a time.  Again, this one's about developing your own feel and timing, so your cues can be as soft as possible and your releases as early as possible.  Ask the horse with the lead to take one step and one step only, as softly as you can.  If your ask is too big or your release too late, the horse will take more than one step.  Eventually, you should be able to ask for shifts of weight with no step occurring - your ask will be almost as soft as a whisper.  To vary this, ask for one step over a pole.  (In any exercise where the horse is being asked to step over a pole, I prefer to use heavier wood poles rather than the light PVC ones which can roll if touched or stepped on.) Then focus on asking different feet to move - ask in a way that your release occurs as soon as the right hind, say, is about to leave the ground so that's the last foot to move.  This exercise comes in handy for trailer loading and also any time you want the horse to move its feet carefully and precisely.

The maze.  This exercise further refines the precision of the horse's and your leading together.  Here's what it looks like - that's Lily's nose on the right side of the picture:

The exercise is easier when the poles are set more widely, and more difficult if they're set close together - start with them wide to set the horse up for success, and move the poles closer as the horse and you learn the exercise.  The objective is for you to lead the horse into the maze and carefully direct the horse around the tight turns - it's a more complicated version of the one step at a time exercise, involving steps to the side as well to make the turns.  Take it very slowly - the objective is quiet, calm and precision.  Many horses will find a turn in one direction more difficult than in the other direction.  This exercise can also be done ridden, but your horse will find it easier to do if the horse knows how to soften under saddle, and you know how to use the softest possible cues.  If you overdo it, or are late with  your releases, the horse will not be able to stay within the boundaries.

The keyhole.  This is similar to the maze - you lead the horse into the keyhole and carefully and slowly turn the horse and exit the keyhole - again, quiet, calm and precision are the objectives.  As with the maze, this one can be done ridden.

Backing between two poles.  Set two poles parallel to one another - again, start with them fairly wide and narrow them as you and horse learn how to do the exercise.  Ask the horse softly to back between the poles - start with only one step back at a time and add steps as the horse gains confidence that you will direct him safely through the obstacle.  Make sure your horse already knows how to back softly in hand before you attempt this exercise - see post 3 in this series on simple in-hand exercises.

You can probably think of other exercises of this type - use your imagination!


  1. Another good post Kate. We do very similar things with Sugar and Morgunn. While I'm recovering from my surgery, the two kids who are helping Betty with the manure have become students and we're working with them on these very things. Not only is it good for their learning, it works the horses at a time when I can't do that much.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Great series. I think I said that already. :) Okay, saying it again!

    I have a horse who is already terrific at this, but it's fun to practice the pole walking exercises on board. It's a way to focus, get very quiet and clear, and give his brain something to do. I've had a lot of fun walking through pole mazes, backing, side passing, etc.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I like to use the palm of my hand as a reminder to move away from me. Mostly I prefer my horses soft enough that me just moving into their space elicits the response of them moving away. It's really important to have that kind of response with colts so they have the basis to be well behaved stallions. That giving of their space and moving feet upon direction are so important in building that.

  4. Really great list of leading exercises.

    How do you, personally, work with horses who won't lead at a trot? This is one skill that I find many horses lack!


  5. I tried to post a comment, but got an error, so I'm not sure if it went through. (We've been having internet issues!)

    Anyways, I really enjoyed the post.

    Some of these I have heard of before, others are completely new to me. I'm looking forward to playing with them with some of our horses.

    Especially the bridal march. I have a few horses who I think could really benefit from this!

    I think leading exercises are a great way to work toward more subtle communication with a horse. Thanks for compiling all of these good exercises into a post!


  6. Excellent post, again. I like the way you are breaking things down into easy to follow steps towards making the horse soft and responsive in hand. This is so often neglected by owners.

  7. This is really good. I like to do walking exercises with Dee when we are returning to the barn to tack up after longeing, and when taking her back to her stall at the end of the day. I like that it keeps her from wanting to rush out of the arena or rush back to her stall. She needs to keep thinking about me and not about if her dinner is waiting for her. Thanks for the new ideas to incorporate into the routine.

  8. Good post. I like all the exercises to teach the horse how to lead and most importantly to stay out of your personal space. Good breakdown.

  9. Ha ha - I saw that picture with the nose in the corner and thought "that looks like Lily's nose" and then I saw that indeed it was Lily's nose!

    These are all excellent exercises and when I'm leading a horse that I know likes to run over me I try to do crazy walking as we go to/from the barn to keep their brain occupied and focused. It helps a lot.

  10. Mary - leading up at the trot isn't something I've had to work much on before - my horses have all been much more prone to go than to whoa. Pie doesn't lead up well (yet) so I'll be working on it. I expect it'll consist of keeping the feet moving and some mixing in of lunging in a small circle, but I don't know yet. I'll get back to you on that one once we've tried some different things.

  11. Excellent post. The pole exercises are great! Those were some great things to do with my little up-down students, they could practice lots of steering and it really gave them something to concentrate on. One can make two exercises in one by making the maze sections wide enough for trot poles ;)

  12. I have only just recently been directed to your site and I am LOVING it! Like you, I am mostly on my own at the barn and work hard to keep things interesting for both me and my horse. He is a 4 y.o. OTTB. I'm looking for ideas of things I can do on the ground during these snowy / icy days. This is perfect. As a fellow blogger, I know how hard it is to put all of this stuff together when you want to share with other in a manner that is useful and makes sense. You're doing a great job and your sharing is appreciated.

  13. Jana - thanks! You had some questions on clicker, both about treat taking/nipping behaviors and also about training a horse to have its feet handled and to deal with the farrier.

    I'm a real novice at clicker - I've only scratched the surface with it and have a lot to learn yet. There's a really good clicker blog - in fact there are several - but here's one you should look up:

    If you search her blog (her name is Mary), there are lots of good tips/instructions on teaching horses to have their feet handled using clicker - I'm going to be using some of that with Drifter when he comes. She's also got good stuff on getting started (as does the Kurland book), and her 10 tips post has some good info to - how to improve your timing and treat delivery, for example.

    Mary - if you read this comment, please chime in with some suggestions if you'd like.

  14. Kate, hope you don't mind but the Chronicle Forums have a thread for Blog recommednations and yours was definitely on my list of must reads! Just in case you see an increase in traffic ;)

  15. Side comment, but what do you have under your helmet to keep your ears warm, Kate?

  16. Story - in the header photo, that's just the hood of a polarfleece hoodie. In the winter, I have a balaclava and/or polarfleece ear warmer bands - makes the helmet a bit tight sometimes!

  17. Very simple solution to the cold ears problem! Just getting ready to venture out into the arctic weather now. The hoodie sounds like a good plan.

  18. Hi Jana--

    Kate told me you had some questions about clicker training. You are welcome to check out my blog and/or to e-mail me if you have specific questions. (
    If I don't have an answer, I'll try and help you find another clicker trainer who does!

    I have several posts about foot handling here:
    Clicker training is a nice, stress free way to work on picking up feet.

    I think the two important things to focus on at the beginning of clicker training with horses who are potentially pushy/nippy are:
    --behaviors that emphasize safety/manners and
    --consistent treat delivery on the part of the trainer.

    Good behaviors to focus on at the beginning that are ones that are incompatible with being nipping/being pushy:
    --head lowering
    --having the horse turn his head away from you.
    If the horse is especially pushy/nippy, start behind a stall door so you can walk away, if need be.

    My friend Amanda Martin has two good blog posts about treat delivery.
    About halfway through this post:
    And a nice video clip here:

    In general--
    -extend your arm and feed AWAY from your body
    -feed with the hand on the outside of the horse, but pivot toward the horse (try it both ways--this is usually much smoother/more fluid)
    -if horse is pushing into your space, make him take a step back to get the treat.

    sorry for writing such a long comment! I hope Jana sees it. I tried finding contact info for her, but her blogger profile was unavailable.

    I'd love to hear how you go about teaching Pie to lead up at the trot, once you guys get there.


  19. I just did the maze exercise with my horse and she was fantastic! I think I will try it again and make the maze smaller.


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