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Leading and Boundaries

Now that you’ve caught your horse, how does he lead?  Are you leading him, or is he leading you?  Does he pull you in his chosen direction, to his buddies or that yummy grass over there?  Does he halt and stand when you ask him to?  Does he barge into you as if you weren’t even there?  Stand on your toes??!

Again, none of this behaviour is necessarily ‘disrespectful’; rather it’s what this horse has learned is okay, since presumably no one has ever clearly conveyed to him that it isn’t, or he wouldn’t be doing it!  Just yelling ‘Oi! Whoa! Get off my toe!’ and assuming he’s deliberately being naughty isn’t going to work here!

Make sure you have a long leadrope to work on this problem, as we are going to start by teaching the horse to please stay out of our space.  Imagine you have a bubble around you that he mustn’t come into.  With your horse standing still, see if you can take a couple of steps backwards away from him, establishing the amount of space you want between you.  Does he stay put, or just follow you?  If he follows you, ask him to back away from you again.  During this exercise, pay particular attention to who is moving whose feet…  Are you moving his, or is he moving yours??  Who is in charge here??!  If it is continually you that moves away from him, you are putting him in charge!  Ask him to move his feet, instead. 

When it comes to asking a horse to back up, my preference is to use as little direct pressure as possible.  If you putting a little backwards pressure on the leadrope and saying ‘Back’ is having no effect, don’t be tempted to lean on him and try to force him backwards – he’ll always be stronger than you, and you’ll just get into a pushing contest.  I’d rather he responded to my body language, so, standing at least a couple of feet in front of his nose I would say ‘Back’ and keep saying it while my body language gets bigger and bigger.  Imagine you are turning into the Incredible Hulk, and let your arms flap up and down slapping on your legs as you start walking into his space.  You could also use your leadrope, wiggling it towards him or spinning the long loose end at the ground in front of him.  Your aim is to claim the space that he is standing on, sending him backwards off of it.  Where you are looking is also important.  If you are looking him in the eye whilst doing this you are setting up a confrontation, so instead try focusing on his front legs and hooves; you’ll also notice quicker then when he does actually move them at which point you can stop asking for the backup.

Once again, consistency is hugely important here.  You need to be very aware of how much space is between you and your horse, and absolutely black and white about maintaining it.  If he as much as leans into your space, ask him to back out of it again.  Make sure you reward him with a stroke when he is doing what you’re asking, as he may start to get worried if you aren’t usually this strict with him. 

Often this ‘space’ issue develops because we get into our horse’s space too much… we want to be close to them, pet them etc.  Inadvertently we create a horse that thinks it’s ok to be that close to us, and often feels insecure when we are further away.  Help him to understand that, hypocritical as it sounds, it’s ok for you to go into his space, eg to stroke him or whatever, but it’s absolutely not ok for him to come into your space, unless invited.  Practice going in and out of his space, until he can stand still unless he’s specifically been asked to move.

Once you’ve got the space issue sorted, you can move onto leading, where the same principles apply, namely that the horse keeps his distance and pays attention.  You are going to lead him from way out in front, with slack in the leadrope, and use large body language signals to communicate to him speed, direction etc.  By leading from in front he will be able to see you clearly and will therefore be more likely to keep his attention on you than if you were at his head or shoulder.  Start walking, at normal speed, and expect him to follow.  After a few steps, turn towards and slightly into him, make yourself bigger, add some sort of noise, and surprise him into stopping.  It’s important to get as big as you need to, to really keep his attention.  If he creeps forwards, ask him to back, as before.  Turn and walk straight off again, just a few steps, then repeat.  When you turn into him for the halt, make sure once again that you are looking at his front feet so that you see when they stop, rather than at his face.  You’d be surprised how putting all your attention on his front feet draws his there too, til you see him start to think ‘Hmm.  It’s something to do with these…’  If you are consistent about getting a sharp halt, and backing him up if he is even a centimetre closer to you than he should be, the stops will get better and better.

If your leading problem is that your horse seizes up and refuses to come with you, make sure you let the leadrope slide through your hand a little as you ask him to walk on; no pulling.  If he still doesn’t come, start angling yourself out to one side, as that will usually cause the horse to move at least one foot.  Reward any movement by asking for a halt again and letting him stand.  The backing exercise will also help.  Also, at this stage use anything that will help to your advantage; for instance if he’ll walk better going towards his buddies than away then I’d go towards them a few times until he is listening and responding correctly before I do it the more challenging way.

Now you can lengthen or vary the distance between stops, and even start working on speed.  Because your horse will now be paying more attention to you and your body language, he should speed up if you speed up, and slow down if you do. 

If your horse is one that tows you to grass or feed, make sure you keep paying attention to where his attention is.  As soon as – preferably before – his attention wanders, you need to be giving him something else to think about, changing direction or whatever.  Keep him guessing, and stay safe!

Once you have got him leading nicely this way, you should have no problem leading him other ways too, eg at the shoulder for showing etc.



Trisha Wren can teach you how to really connect with your horse, on the ground and in the saddle, taking your horsemanship and performance to new levels. For information on clinics and lessons click here

©Trisha Wren ~ June 2007


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