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Step 3: Who's Leading Whom?

Leading Your Horse

Back to Step 2: Backing Up    Next to Step 4: Standing Still

Editor's note: This article is part of a multi-lesson training series.

Nothing pleases me more than when a well trained horse walks quietly along by my shoulder, stops when I stop, and stands completely still when I stand still. Ahhhh….the simple things in life.

It amazes me how many horses can't do this, don't do this, and basically take their owners for a walk. I see the same owners put their dogs through obedience training so they don't have to drag them by the leash on walks, yet NOT teach their horse! Ironically, they may have a fighting chance at a tug of war with a 100 pound dog, but they're not likely to win that same battle against a 1,000 pound horse!

How bad your horse is at leading may depend on where you start when it comes to teaching it. I'm going to explain what body parts of the horse you need to control and what cues your horse should understand before you begin leading. If your horse knows this already and is still not leading well, then it's really a disrespect issue and that is what you'll need to address instead.

We've already talked about moving your horse's hip over. Your horse now understands that when you apply pressure to his hip (look at it, point to it, or tap it), you expect him to move it over. Now, let's also apply that technique to his shoulder. A horse must learn to yield his shoulder to your personal space. I really love this cue because it establishes the foundation for many cues that come later in training. Being able to move your horse's shoulder means you're on your way to lunging, neck reining, side passing, roll backs, and even more complicated movements. But for now, let's just learn how to take your horse for a walk (and not the other way around).

You'll need a lead rope, rope halter on your horse, and your shorter dressage whip in-hand. Stand facing your horse so he has his eyes on you, his feet are squarely planted evenly, and he has his back in a straight line to you. Remember this position; it's very important so that when you ask your horse to stop throughout this exercise, you reestablish this position to start again. I usually begin with the lead rope in my left hand and the whip in my right. We pretty much always lead our horses from their near (left) side. I do practice this cue from both sides anyway, but horses seem to feel more comfortable when you start on the near side.

Pick up a little slack in the lead and extend your left arm out so you very slightly point your horse's nose to his right. Take your whip and tap his left shoulder to send it to your left. If your horse comes towards you, that is a big NO! NO! If your horse takes one step towards you, he could very quickly knock you down and run you over, so back him up immediately and try again. Increase the pressure until your horse makes an attempt to move to your left, then reward him verbally.

The specific thing you're looking for is that when you ask to move his shoulder away, his right front hoof takes a step out and away from his body to the right and NOT towards you. As he does this, release some slack in the lead rope and let him continue to walk forward as though going in a circle around you. When you pull on the lead line to stop him, make sure he again faces you completely and then send his hip over. Repeat this process over and over until by pointing at his shoulder, you can send him away safely in a circle around you. You're actually starting to teach your horse to lunge as well, all at the same time.

As your horse starts to understand this cue, try sending him away and then walking shoulder to shoulder with him as he starts in his circle. Just go a few steps, stop yourself, and see if he stops with you. If not, pull his head around and swing his hip over for the same stop you were doing before. You can say the word "Whoa" as you stop to help him learn your voice command as well. Continue doing this exercise, and within a few times, he should begin stopping as you stop rather than waiting for you to tug on his halter. The more work you do like this, the more your horse will learn that YOU'RE really leading HIM, and as his leader, he must respect you and do whatever your body language indicates. Think of this as a game of "Simon Says" for your horse. He only does what you tell him, when you tell him, and nothing more. He should not go grab grass; he should not come toward you; he should not go away; he should not move his feet unless you instruct him to do so. Any time he does something you didn't direct, pull his head around and swing that hip over. Ultimately, he'll learn that it's more work for him to NOT listen than to just stand still and be obedient — and horses HATE work!

As you both progress, you'll have a horse that knows how to "heel" like a dog. And thank goodness for that since 1,000 pounds of mass and raw power can take you skiing down a road or trail at high speed and with no control! Unless, of course, that's the kind of excitement you wanted when getting into horses.

Back to Step 2: Backing Up    Next to Step 4: Standing Still

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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