Bringing It All Together: Workouts

Part 2. Dixie on the Lead

After feeding and watering, leading is about the most fundamental equestrian skill, for both horse and horseman. If you and your horse can't work out who is in the lead (and who isn't) while your feet are firmly planted on the ground, you're not likely to have much more luck when you're in the saddle.

When you’re leading your horse, it is his job to stay in position and match your moves (not vice versa)... fast, slow, forward, backward, left, right, stop, or go; whatever you say, goes. In order to accomplish this your horse needs to watch you all the time, and this should be naturally easy for him, since it is precisely how horses keep track of what is going on in the herd: they keep their eyes on the leader and read his body language, then they follow his lead. When you show your horse that you are the leader, he will begin to watch you for cues and he will position himself without you having to constantly tell him what to do.

First, you need to decide where you want your horse to be when you're leading him. Personally, I like my horse's head to be about even with my shoulder. Some people like to walk ahead of their horse, and some like to walk at the horse's shoulder; it doesn't matter so long as you are consistent with your cues. He'll get the idea. If you lead with your horse at your side, however, be sure that he stays two to three feet off to the side so that he is not crowding you. If he walks too close, reach behind with the end of the lead line or the stick to brush him off to the side.

Fig. 1: Waiting. Here Dixie waits calmly for a cue as I get my lead line and stick organized. She is calm and quiet, but attentive.
Fig. 2: Stepping Off. When I'm ready to step off, my body language changes. I stand up straighter and bring up energy in my body. I look where I’m going to go, not at the horse. Dixie has seen these changes and is ready to step off with me. If she wasn't paying attention, I would simply reach back behind me with the stick to encourage forward motion. If she was really off in her own world I might even have to tap her with the stick. Once she is walking next to me on a loose lead, I take all pressure off.
Fig. 3: Mix It Up. As you lead your horse during workouts, vary your speed. Whether you walk slowly or run flat out, your horse should stay in position. Give verbal cues as you go. Cluck or kiss for more speed, and say “whoa” just before you stop. Be ready to reach behind with the stick to encourage forward motion, or bring the stick in front of your horse's chest to slow him down if he tries to move past where he should be. Here, Dixie is lagging behind slightly and I am about to move the stick back to encourage her to speed up.
Fig. 4: Whoa. Ideally, you want your horse to stop when you do, and to be in the correct position when he does. Here, Dixie has stopped somewhat behind me and a little too close. She is also more interested in what her herdmates are up to in the pasture than in me at this moment. More work needed here.
Fig. 5: Back Up. From the stop, move backward. Your horse should back away from you as you back toward him. You may need to bring up a little more energy in your body by pumping your arms up and down as you back up. If he doesn't get it at first, reach up and tug back on his halter. As soon as he moves backward a step or two, drop the halter and return your hand to the lead line. When he has traveled a few steps backward, stop and reward him with a rub on the neck and some praise.

Dixie still puts her head up and her ears back when she is asked to back up. I'm not worried about this right now, though, because she is backing softly and well, and with repetition she will learn that there is nothing to fear, and her anxiety level will come down.

Figure 6: Good Girl. Here at the end of the leading lesson I give the head down cue, and Dixie and I are now enjoying a little quality time with a neck rub and some soft praise.