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This is a continuation of a series of Articles. 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

Horse Training - Communication 101
Part  Four
By Beverly Whittington

Who’s the Leader?

This is a rhetorical question, but one you should actually put some thought into.
First lets address HOW your horse leads. Whenever you are leading a horse, his body should maintain a position that is not encroaching on your space, with his ears about even with your shoulder. Communication begins with groundwork. How you let the horse behave on the lead will carry across any dealings he has with you.

Groundwork with horse has a basic “Golden Rule” a horse is not allowed to encroach on your space EVER. It really does not matter who’s method of training you subscribe to, the “horse whispers” out on their circuit or the lady next door who is helping you out, this is a FIRM rule that you should establish from the onset of your relationship with your horse. It is never TOO late to start, if you have been lapse in this previously, start now!

This all goes back to the herd hierarchy. Space in a horse’s language equates to a zone, if he enters your zone and you have not requested that he do so, you loose position in his eyes if you do not rebuke or correct him. It can also be dangerous; a thousand pound animal barging into you or stepping on your foot can cause considerable damage! In most cases it is easier to think of it this way, HE never enters your zone instead YOU enter his. 

Now we need to establish what YOUR zone is! In leading a horse, my zone is the length of my forearm. I want the horse to maintain a position that is the distance from my shoulder to my elbow (IF I have my arm extended straight out towards the horse). We are talking about 13 to 15 inches. That may be too close for comfort for some. YOU pick the distance, but not less than a forearm’s length, then enforce it.

In teaching a horse to lead properly it helps if you have trained a dog to heel. The same rules apply, just a bigger animal learning them! You have to have the horse’s undivided attention; it is almost impossible to teach a horse anything if you are not the center of his universe at that moment.

It may help if you try an experiment to see how good your horse really is at leading correctly. Snap the lead shank to the bottom ring of a well-fitted halter. Extend your arm away from your side about 15 inches and start walking. Do not tug on the lead, just do not GIVE with your hand, you walk looking where you are going, the horse should follow. Move about 15 feet in a straight line, then stop abruptly, again not pulling on the lead, but not giving into the pressure if the horse tries to plow past your hand. Stand for a moment and then walk off again, this time “drifting” to the right, towards the horse. He SHOULD give way, maintaining his distance. Now without pausing, make a 90-degree left turn. Did he keep up? Or did you have to pull him into place? Repeat to the right, did he yield and turn easily or did you have to PUSH him around?

The point is that the horse SHOULD lead by paying attention to and maintaining the location that you have placed him in. NOT by tugs or pulls from a lead rope.  Don’t feel bad if he doesn’t at first, 9 out of 10 of the horses I have dealt with will not, until they are REQUIRED TO!

So how do you achieve this?

After you have completed the above experiment, FROM THIS POINT ON, your horse is NEVER allowed to be out of position. There are no excuses. NONE. No “ He didn’t want to walk through the mud.” Or “She was afraid to go that close to the dog.” Do you think the boss mare would allow the subordinate horse to EVER crowd her without an INSTANT response from her?

The Basics

  • Place the horse in the correct position prior to starting out.
  • ALWAYS communicate with TUGS not PULLS.
  • DO NOT look at the horse; instead watch his position out of your peripheral vision. 
  • IMEDIATELY correct the horse EVERYTIME he is not in the proper position.

OK lets start out defining a few things. What is a TUG, PULL and JERK?

Get an assistant; have them stand facing you with the clip to the lead rope in their left hand. You want them to firmly grasp the snap, but to have their arm from the wrist up relaxed. You hold the end of the lead in your right hand at a distance that allows a slight amount of slack in the lead between you.

  • Now TUG on the lead, the assistant should have their arm raise up ABRUPTLY about 4 inches towards you. If it wasn’t a quick motion, or if the arm raised too high, you did not do it right.
  • PULL, this will cause the arm to raise in a steady fashion, tell your assistant not to resist, just to allow their own inertia to determine when they have to move forward. That is about the degree of pressure that determines a steady pull.
  • JERK, the assistant’s arm should fly forward to its full extent without displacing them.

In most horse training you want to use the TUG, a horse cannot easily set against a tug. The PULL and JERK are only used selectively.

Whenever you are teaching something to a horse, you have to exaggerate your aids. Start off with the horse in the correct position and simultaneously TUG on the lead and step forward briskly. Exaggerate your step, lift your knees higher than usual and lean forward about 6 inches abruptly just prior to stepping forward. If the horse does not move off immediately, you need to repeat the tugs until he falls into step in the correct place. Get his attention, and correct for too forward a placement with a tug towards his chest. Stop frequently and once again exaggerate the stop, STOMP you feet as you bring them together, and chase the horse back into position with the end of the lead in your left hand if he does not stop with his ears level to your shoulder.  Praise profusely when he gets it right, reserve anything above a mild reprimand for when he tries to barge too far forward. If this happens give him a jerk on the halter and then place him back where he belongs. Remember ASK, TELL, DEMAND! The correction should escalate, but not to the point of abuse. 

Add turns, toward the horse and away from the horse, as he begins to get the idea. Keep the sessions to about 15 min in length. You need to work on this EVERYTIME you handle your horse until he gets it right, several times a day is good, just allow him to do something else in-between. It is important that you REQUIRE him to maintain position WHENEVER you lead him, so until he gets it right do not lead him around excessively unless you are in a session. You Train, or UN-Train, every time you handle him. Once you start this, you cannot allow him to be sloppy about position, just because you are only leading him in from the pasture. He has to pay attention and respect your space AT ALL TIMES! You have to be firm, consistant and fair. 

The progression of this is a horse that can be lead WITHOUT a lead line attached. Do this only in a safe enclosure, in case he decides NOT to follow! Start with the horse on the lead, walk around for about 5 minutes refreshing his memory as to where he belongs, without you having to put leadline pressure on to require it. Then stop the horse, unsnap the lead and reach up to the halter, give him a gentle tug and step out briskly. He should “HEEL”. I love to play with this, do abrupt turns both directions, even stopping then BACKING UP to see if they stay in the right spot. It actually becomes something that some horses enjoy doing! You can refine this to very subtle and easy stops.

The other benefit to correct leading is that there is no DOUBT in the horse’s mind who is the leader. After all it is not YOU who is reacting to the subtle movements, it is the HORSE. Just like the boss mares movements are taken seriously, so are yours. You have established in a VERY simple manner WHO IS THE LEADER!



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