The Importance Of Leading Well

How do you know if your horse leads well? It might surprise you to know that it is not as simple or obvious as you think.

I can’t over emphasize the importance of having a horse lead well. The way your relationship starts, begins with the way you teach your horse to lead. If a horse does not lead well, things are not okay no matter what advanced movements it is capable of in the arena.

In all the years I have been training for people, I have never once had a horse come to me for any type of training that l believe led well enough. I find that surprising. It emphasizes the lack of importance people place on the quality of leading. A lot of people feel that as long as they can get their horse from the paddock to the saddling area without too much trouble, things are okay. But then they wonder why their horse won’t pay attention to them when they ride. It begins with your relationship on the ground and for most of us that means how our horses lead.

I want to stress that the test for leading well is not that a horse does not drag on the end of the lead rope, or that it follows you around with very little pressure on the headstall. That by itself is not an indicator of a horse leading well, because any horse can be taught to do those things on autopilot. Leading well also includes being able to direct a horse anywhere you like without stirring emotional trouble in a horse.

The ability to direct a horse with softness is a much more important indicator than a horse that can follow you around. You should be able to ask a horse to wait for you to go through a gate first, or you should be able to send it first and have it wait for you on the other side. You should be able to adjust a horse’s position at any time with no feelings of trouble. You should be able lead from in front, from the tail, from either side with no trouble. The list goes on and on.

The important thing is that your horse maintains focus and it causes it no emotional worry however you ask it to lead. These things are fundamental to getting the same feeling from a horse when you ride.

Many years ago I was trekking through the bush with a couple of my horses. I had an accident and suffered temporary blindness. My horse, China was able to lead me to the creek twice a day for me to wash my eyes. I couldn’t see where he was taking me. I couldn’t negotiate the thick lantana bush or the log in the path – but he could. He led me. I didn’t lead him. I didn’t teach him to do this. It was possible because he had learned how to feel of me when were together. I could not have relied on China if he didn’t lead brilliantly.

People will come to clinics with a horse that is bouncing around on the end of the lead rope like a helium balloon on a windy day. When I ask them what they’d like to work on they inevitably say something like the canter or sidepassing or shying or whatever – totally unaware that their problem begins with what is happening on the end of the lead rope while they are talking to me.

How a horse responds and feels on the lead rope tells a person a lot about the relationship they have with that horse. In my view it’s not possible for a horse to be the best it can be to ride and still be mediocre on the lead rope. Some horses are better to ride than they are to handle on the ground, but I am certain that if they were better on the lead rope, they would also be even better to ride. In a horse’s mind, leading and riding are the same thing.

donkey leading

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Funny Race Call

This is a very funny race call.

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Why Would It?

I got into a conversation a while ago with a lady who was saying that she teaches her horses to never turn their bum towards her. I asked her why and she said because he can’t kick at her if he can’t have his rear end facing her.

I said that it didn't bother me if my horse’s bum was facing me. She fired back, “But what if he tries to kick you?”

“But why would he,” I responded?

“But what if he did,” she asked?

“But why would he?”

“But what if he did?”

Clearly she was not getting the answer she wanted.

I may have given her an unsatisfactory answer, but it was a legitimate answer. I was trying to get the woman to ask herself about her own horse, “Why would he?”

At a clinic awhile back a lady was about to mount her horse. Before putting her foot in the stirrup she took a hold of the reins and tightened them up so the bit was pulling her horse in the mouth. I asked her why she shortened the reins and she said, “So he wont walk away while I get on.”

I said, “But why would he?”

“But he might and I need to be stop him before he does it?”

“But why would he?”

I asked her to let the reins hang loose and the horse stood quietly while she mounted.

If people asked themselves, why would he? They might get an insight into how things are between them and their horse.

When it comes to my own horses I have not taught them to stand still when I mount, they just do. I have not put any time into training them to tie up or load onto a float, they just do. Likewise, I do not get concerned if my horse’s rear end is facing me. Kicking at me doesn't even cross their minds or mine.

Horses do things for a reason. They walk away for a reason when a person mounts. They pull back for a reason when tied up. They turn their bum to kick at things for a reason. All these things are based on what a horse believes to be good and solid reasons. But he doesn't kick at a person just because that person is in the firing line. And he doesn't walk away when a person puts their foot in the stirrup just because the person has a loose rein.

If the horse feels okay about being mounted or feels safe when person is behind them, they have no reason to act defensively when these things happen. It comes back to how thoroughly we get our horses feeling okay for what is about to happen. Preparation is the key.

If you have a horse that kicks when a person is behind them, then prepare him before it happens. Help him feel there is no need to kick at the person. But don't punish him for turning his rear end towards you. That goes back to what I believe about not punishing a horse for having the feelings he has. It’s not good horsemanship and its not good relationship building. Instead help him replace the poor feelings with good ones and things will be a lot safer.

Likewise, if a horse walks away before the rider is seated in the saddle, then fix the feelings that make the horse want to leave. For instance, getting on a horse that is squirming and fidgeting even before you try to mount is ensuring trouble when you put a foot in the stirrup. Do some ground work first that has the horse feeling soft and mellow. When he feels okay inside, he won’t be in a hurry to walk away before you ask.

It doesn’t matter what the situation maybe. It might be riding along the road and keeping a tight rein n case the horse tried rushing home or perhaps using a twitch in case the horse flung its head when you tried worm paste it. In everything we train it is important to be mindful of the horse’s thoughts and feelings as the root cause of every issue.

The long-term success of training comes from changing the feelings that cause the horse to do stuff we don't want him to do. It doesn't come from creating enough resistance to block a behaviour or troubling him enough for doing the wrong thing. It comes from altering the turmoil that causes the problem. It is amazing how many things just get better because the horse feels better without having to address each individual problem.

I like this photo mainly because of the kelpie finding shade in the shadow of the horse.

Stockman mounting

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Training Police Horses 1967

Hopefully methods have changed in the last 40 years. I think the music is hilarious.

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The Role OF The Prey/Predator Relationship In Training

You have probably heard people talking about the human/horse relationship being based on the predator/prey relationship. This idea has been polluting the thinking of horse people – and particularly natural horse people – for decades. In my opinion it is nonsense and has little merit in affecting how we relate to our horses. Some horse people have taken a small bit of scientific information about prey vs predator behaviour and blown it into a whole philosophical approach to training horses that is based on little more than imagination. It comes from the oversimplified concepts that:

Horses graze and eat vegetation.
Humans hunt and eat meat.
Horses have a natural fear of animals that hunt and eat meat. Therefore the horse must fear humans.

But for this bit of deduction to hold true a horse must be able to recognize a human is a predator that will eat them. So how does a horse identify a predator?

I believe horses recognize predation, not predators. That is, they don’t recognize a species as a predator. But they do recognize a behaviour that is predatory. The body language of an animal that is hunting is what sets off alarm bells in horses. For example, it is well known that zebras do not fear lions that are wandering around the herd. They even tolerate them calmly walking into a herd. But they do fear a lion when it is stalking a zebra. It is a lion assuming the hunting posture that alerts a zebra, not the fact that a predatory species is in the vicinity. So horses don’t categorize the species as friend or foe, but rather they judge the behaviour of another species as friendly or threatening.

It is true that horses with little or no experience of humans are often fearful of people. But they are fearful of narrow spaces too. That does not mean they perceive the narrow space as a predator. Horses are fearful of the unknown. But I don’t believe they view every unknown as a predator either.

The prey/predator model does not contribute anything useful to our understanding of horse behaviour or horse training. The only thing it tells us is that horses do not like it when we act like we want to kill them. We already know not to act aggressively towards a horse, or a dog or a bird or gorilla or a grizzly bear, if we want to get along with it. This model adds nothing to our understanding.

People have taken the prey/predator principle out of context.

We know that when a lion stalks a zebra it stares at it with both eyes. Therefore, many trainers tell people not to look directly at a horse.

Other trainers talk about not presenting your body squarely to a horse and rather we should angle our shoulders when facing a horse. I’ve had students come to clinics who will actually turn away from their horse when asking it to walk up to them. I think these ideas are premised on the notion that only a predator would stand square or face up to a horse and therefore that type of behaviour will worry a horse.

I have discovered that these ideas have no real merit when developing a relationship with horses. My dogs will approach a horse squarely and will look at it with both eyes. Yet I see no concern about that in the horses. In fact I have known a horse or two to chase a dog it didn’t know out of the paddock. Who is the predator in that case?

I believe it is wrong to think that humans are the natural enemy of the horse. Some trainers have espoused that we need to overcome this so-called natural perception of us as predators in our training regime. But I truly believe it is a false premise.

horse chasing dog

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