Good ground manners are the foundation of all subsequent training with your horse. Most importantly, your horse should know how to be led on a loose line without interfering with you, his guardian and handler. This basic skill sets your horse up for successful tying, trailering, lunging and other in-hand training—and it even improves communication under saddle.
My Horse Follows Me on a Lead—Isn’t That Leading?
Although some horses actually have to be taught the concept of following, most have learned to follow their handlers when they’re attached to a lead rope. What they haven’t learned, however, is to cue their movements off their handler’s body position and to lead without pulling, stepping off to the side, balking or straggling behind. In addition, quite often a horse’s “training” has consisted of sharp yanks on a lead with a chain shank run over or under the nose to teach him to back off. These methods may get the job done when the goal is to get from point A to point B, but they entail excessive force, aren’t safe and don’t help the horse learn to control his body or to go confidently with his handler.
It’s far better to teach your horse what you want him to do and, in the process, teach him how to move his body in response to your cues. Teaching your horse how to respond maximizes both your horse’s comfort and your own safety.
Three Basic Lessons
Teaching a horse to lead involves teaching him three basic skills:
- Give to pressure:
- Drop his head
- Turn his nose toward you
- Back up
- Go and stop:
- Pay attention
- Step over with his hindquarters
- Respect my space:
- Turn toward you
- Turn away from you
Basic Tips and Required Equipment
Make It Rewarding for Your Horse
Effective training always involves rewards. Rewarding the behavior you want is the only way you can tell your horse when he’s done what you want and for him to do it again.
There are two ways you can reward your horse’s behavior: one is to give him something he loves the instant he does what you want, and the second is to relieve pressure the instant he does what you want. Both of these techniques are known as “reinforcement,” and both are scientifically proven to develop new skills. Which technique you use depends on what you are teaching your horse. When you teach your horse to lead, for the most part you’ll use the second technique—you’ll relieve pressure. The pressure you’ll use will sometimes be the feel of the crown strap of the halter against your horse’s poll, and sometimes it will be the very light tap of a dressage whip or stick against his skin.
The Standard Training Tenets
Regardless of what you want to teach your horse, including fundamental leading skills, you should follow five basic principles to help keep you safe, reduce stress, make training enjoyable and help your horse learn quickly. The first rule is to reward the behavior you want. The remaining four are:
- Take it slow.
- Be patient with your horse and yourself.
- Be consistent. Teach one thing at a time, and stay focused on that one thing.
- Let your horse see what you’re doing as much as possible.
- Halter and lead rope Your horse will need to wear either his halter and a lead rope or his bridle with reins. Using a bridle usually makes the process go more quickly. If you use a halter, a rope halter is the best choice. A rope crown strap is narrower than a flat nylon or leather crown strap, so it exerts greater pressure on a smaller area of your horse’s head. (If your horse is reactive to being haltered, please see our article on Horses Who Are Head Shy.) Regardless of the halter type you use, choose a round or braided cotton lead rather than a nylon lead—cotton is more forgiving to your hands.
- Gloves Always wear gloves when working with horses and rope, reins or other straps, or lines. Choose gloves that stay close to your skin and are made of a breathable fabric, such as riding gloves.
- Dressage whip A dressage whip is a semi-rigid staff between 36 inches and 44 inches long. It’s ideal for teaching horses to move properly because it gives—you can’t accidentally poke your horse and hurt him if he shies to the side unexpectedly.
- Treats your horse likes Some of your horse’s training will involve giving him things he wants, so you’ll need a small supply of treats, such as cut-up carrots, apple pieces, grain or horse cookies. Keep the goodies out of your horse’s reach but easily accessible to you, such as in your pocket.
Teaching Your Horse to Lead
Step One: Teaching Your Horse to Give to Pressure
Giving to pressure isn’t something horses do naturally. It’s a skill they must learn, since their natural reaction is to pull against pressure. Teaching your horse to give to pressure is an essential first step in teaching your horse to lead, because it teaches him how to react if he ever gets distracted and the lead tightens between you and him. To see if your horse has already mastered this skill, try this short test.
Bring your horse to a familiar, secure and relatively quiet area, such as an arena. Stand on an angle in line with your horse’s ear but facing his nose. (Do not stand directly in front of him because if he shies he could run over you.) Talk to your horse (tell him anything, such as the weather forecast for the day), take hold of the lead about a foot from his halter and gradually pull down. Pull until you get a reaction out of your horse. If he drops his head rather than jerking or pulling back, he’s been taught to give to pressure. If he doesn’t drop his head, follow these steps to teach him to give when you apply pressure against him:
- In a quiet, familiar and secure area, position yourself on an angle in line with your horse’s ear while facing his nose.
- Hold the lead in your right hand—the hand closest to your horse—about one foot from his halter. Apply gentle but consistent pressure downward on the lead rope.
- If your horse immediately lowers his head—even an inch (many training experts suggest you watch your horse’s ears in relation to a point on the wall to see if his head drops)—say “Yes!” and release the pressure.
- If he doesn’t drop his head immediately, take a treat out of your pocket with your left hand. With the treat on your palm, hold it about a foot below your horse’s nose. (Be sure to keep the pressure on his halter consistent as you get the treat.) The instant your horse drops his head toward the treat, say “Yes,” release the pressure on the lead and bring the treat up to your horse’s mouth.
- Regardless of whether your horse dropped his head immediately or whether you used a treat, repeat the sequence five more times. If you used a treat to get the drop, after the fifth repeat of the sequence, use pressure without presenting your hand with the treat. Hold the pressure consistently until you see your horse’s head move down. If he lifts his head, move with him to keep the pressure consistent. Don’t increase the pressure and don’t decrease it. The instant he lowers his head at all, say “Yes” and release the pressure. Give him a treat. Keep in mind that his head may actually be higher than it was when you started if he pulled back, but that’s fine. He can only raise his head so far. At some point it has to start coming back down, and that’s when you say “Yes!” and release the pressure. Repeat this sequence five times.
- To teach your horse to keep his head down, do a pressure sequence, but when you release and he lifts his head back up, quickly put pressure on again. Always release immediately when he drops his head, but reapply the pressure just as quickly when he raises his head. Don’t jerk him, simply reintroduce the pressure. Keep repeating the pressure sequences until your horse keeps his head down at least for a count of four after you release pressure. Say “Yes” and give him a treat.
- Repeat Step 4 as you gradually increase the amount of time he keeps his head down. Continue, asking for 3-second to 10-second increases until he can hold his head down for a full minute.
- Next teach your horse to give to pressure on both sides by turning his head toward you. Repeat Steps 1 through 4, this time applying pressure to the sides. As you teach this sequence, you don’t want your horse to move yet. So, when working on your horse’s near (left) side, you need to hold the lead in your left hand and place your right hand on his shoulder. When working the off (right) side, hold the lead in your right hand and use your left hand on his shoulder.
- Next teach your horse to back up. Begin by holding the lead toward your horse’s chest. Because of the position you’re pulling his head into, the pressure will be against both his poll and the bridge of his nose. Although it may take him awhile to move, don’t make the mistake of increasing the pressure or jerking on the lead. Instead, patiently wait for any suggestion of backward movement. The instant you feel him move backward, relieve the pressure. Follow the basic ideas in Steps 1 to 4, but use down-and-back pressure until your horse will back up three to four feet for you.
- When your horse has mastered Steps 1 to 7, repeat the steps with distractions present. Distractions should include things such as horses, people or dogs moving past, and car doors shutting and truck engines starting. Avoid things like popping balloons, firecrackers or other sounds that would frighten your horse.
Step Two: Teaching Your Horse to Go and Stop
Now that your horse will give to pressure and back up, even in a distracting environment, it’s time to teach him to move forward. First it’s very important for you to know where and how to hold the lead line:
- Where to walk in relation to your horse You should stand on your horse’s near side in line with his ear, but facing forward in preparation to walk. (Some showing classes require you to stand in other positions, and you should follow their directions. The training outlined here is for general-purpose leading and should not preempt your other training instructions.) Keep at least a foot out from your horse’s shoulder. This position—at your horse’s throatlatch or ear area and a foot out from his shoulder—is safest for you because you’re not in your horse’s path and you are far enough back to see him at all times.
- How to hold the lead Snap the line to the ring that hangs at your horse’s chin—often this is a sliding ring—and hold the lead about a foot below the ring. Unless there’s a reason to do otherwise, hold the lead in your right hand. Take up the slack in your left hand, folding the lead and holding the folds rather than looping the lead. Never wrap the lead around your hand! People have been maimed from wrapping the lead around their hand like a dog leash when their horse spooked and took off running. Keep slack in the lead between your hand and your horse, as a tight lead will confuse a horse who’s been taught to give to pressure and create anxiety in a horse who hasn’t been taught to give.
- The dressage whip Some horses may be frightened by the touch of the dressage whip, so lift the whip toward your horse and see if he responds. Move slowly and stay calm. Next set the whip down and begin to gently stroke him, rubbing him in places he likes. When he’s relaxed, pick up the whip and, keeping the tip low, rub his coat lightly with the butt of the whip. Next, touch him lightly with its tip. Gradually work to the point that he’ll stand as you run the whip end lightly over his entire body. If he reacts during any of these procedures, read about Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling for information on how to teach him to accept the whip before you proceed with his training.
Teaching your horse to go forward and stop on cue is first taught at a standstill. This exercise teaches him to yield his hindquarters:
- Position yourself approximately one to two feet out from your horse’s shoulder, in line with or behind your horse’s ear. (You’ll need to be a little behind your usual position at his ear as you begin to handle the dressage whip.) Hold the lead in your left hand and the whip in your right hand.
- Apply pressure on the lead to turn your horse’s head toward you as you begin to lightly tap his near hock with the whip. If he kicks a bit, simply keep up the gentle tap. If he tries to step forward with the outside hind (the leg you’re not tapping), follow him, keeping the pressure consistent and the soft taps continuous. Tap until he moves the inside hind—the leg you are tapping—in and forward in front of his outside hind. Repeat the training on the other side, tapping his right hind leg. Practice in many places around the arena.
After you’ve taught your horse to yield his hindquarters, follow these steps to teach him to move forward with you when you move:
- This training is often easiest when you work against a rail or wall. Position yourself as you did when teaching your horse to yield his hindquarters. Hold the lead in your left hand and the whip in your right hand. Although you’ll be moving in the direction in which your horse is pointed, you need to be looking at the top of your horse’s hip and holding the whip toward the hip.
- Pick a spot about 10 feet ahead of your horse. Tell your horse you want him to move by clucking or kissing as you take a step forward. Before your foot even hits the ground, begin tapping very lightly with the whip on your horse’s hip. It’s essential that you do the following:
- Give the verbal cue before you begin tapping. When your horse has learned this lesson, the cue will be all you need to tell your horse to move. In the beginning, however, he needs you to associate the two events for him. If you tap first, he’ll never learn that your verbal cue means “move forward.”
- Keep tapping lightly with only one-second intervals between taps. Keep tapping until your horse starts moving forward. This means that even if he steps to the side or backs away and you have to follow him, you should continue tapping.
- Don’t put pressure on the lead or tap harder.
- Stop tapping the instant your horse takes even a single step forward.
- Continue the clucking and tapping procedure any time your horse stops before you get to your designated stopping spot. If he stalls, backs or even takes a step to the side, begin cheerfully clucking and tapping. When you reach your spot, tell him “Whoa,” and stop asking for forward movement. Don’t worry if he walks past the spot, just say “Whoa” again and apply backward pressure on the lead. Hold the pressure until you see his near hind foot cross over in front of his off hind and his hindquarters move away from you. Re-apply pressure with the slack in the lead if he moves forward again.
- If your horse doesn’t quite get the idea of “whoa,” teach him with the help of a wall or fence. Walk toward the fence. When you are about five feet away, say “whoa” and apply downward pressure. Keep up the pressure until you reach the wall and the horse has to stop. Release the pressure instantly and scratch his withers or give him a treat as if he’d stopped on his own. Repeat the exercise until he stops before reaching the wall, and then work to stop him away from the wall. Always precede any pressure with “whoa,” and release your pressure the instant he slows. You can always re-apply the pressure if he doesn’t actually stop.
Step Three: Teaching Your Horse to Respect Your Space
Teaching your horse to pay attention to your space helps keep you safe. This training also teaches your horse to better balance his body and move his shoulders when he turns his head. Your first step is to teach him how to move away when he’s standing still:
- Begin on his near side, facing his hip with the lead in your left hand as you did when teaching him to move forward.
- Exert pressure in your direction so that you bring his head toward you, but at the same time step into your horse at his girth. He should follow you, moving his hindquarters away from you. The moment he begins to move his hindquarters, release the pressure. Wait a few moments and then start again until he swings his rear quarters away, pivoting around his forehand.
- Finally, teach your horse to move first in a circle toward you and then in a circle away from you. You’ve taught your horse to move forward freely when you cluck, so you shouldn’t need the dressage whip.
- Begin walking in a large circle to your left so that your horse is following on the outside. Gradually make the circle smaller. You should soon see your horse swinging his hindquarters out and away in a way similar to what he was doing in the stationary pivot exercise.
- Next teach him to give to your presence on a circle to his right. Begin by making a relatively large circle into your horse. To give him the idea that he should move away, lift the hand holding the lead (your right hand) up and toward his head. After all the work you’ve done, he should move away from your hand. If he doesn’t, keep walking toward him with your hand up until he moves ever so slightly. Drop your hand and stop. Begin again. With patient and consistent work, your horse will learn that he’s to keep his shoulder in line with you but yield to your movement. At that point, start making the circle smaller. As the circle gets quite tight, he’ll begin to pivot his hindquarters around his shoulder.
All the Tools
You’ve now taught your horse all the skills necessary to lead well. When you lead your horse, always keep him in your sight—never turn away from him without stopping and pivoting and asking him to come around you. Periodically practice the hindquarter yield when you stop in case you ever need to use the maneuver to stop him abruptly.