One aspect of horse ownership people often overlook is the simple act of leading their horse. All horse owners must master leading their horse before beginning obstacle training, for the horse and rider’s safety. It is such an imperative, but often overlooked skill. I feel it is crucial that you understand the how and why behind the importance of leading your horse correctly. The why is to help keep you safe and to develop the control you will need both on the ground and in the saddle. If this step is glossed over you may be run over by your horse at some point in the future. In addition, if this step is not done consistently whenever you lead your horse he will never respect you or your space. The leadership he is looking for in you will not be developed. Furthermore, you will not have a strong bond with your mount which should be based on mutual respect and trust. Always remember that you are dealing with an animal that has a mind of its own, so as much as your horse needs to respect you, you also need to respect your horse.
If your horse doesn’t stop with you when you stop and back up with you when you back up, DO NOT attempt any obstacle training. When you are trying to accomplish leading your horse in your chosen direction, you need a goal and a plan. Choose a point you are going to walk to in a clear area with good footing. I like to keep the horse about an arm’s length behind me and off to the right, he is not allowed to be any closer to me. Do not stand directly in front of your horse. This puts you in a position to be run over by your horse if they spook. You will walk off and then stop. If your horse doesn’t respond and stop with you, you are going to correct him using the halter, popping straight down until the horse responds by backing at least one step.
The horse initially is not going to know what you are asking, so he may try to come forward, or come into you. This is where not standing directly in front of your horse comes into play. You may have to move with him, but do not stop popping down on the halter. He may go away from you, so you have to keep working at this until the horse gives you the right answer. During this whole exercise you are not going to turn towards the horse and you are not going to make eye contact with the horse, but you will keep him in your peripheral vision at all times.
When your horse takes that one step backward you immediately release your horse from the pressure you have been putting on them and praise them. Only when your horse makes that first break, and takes a step back, are you allowed to turn and face your horse and verbally praise them and pat them.
I have found in my years of working with horses that generally the ones that will move into you are the insecure, ornery, or spoiled horses. They’re either trying to get out of the work or are using you as their security blanket. Usually, the reason a horse is ornery is because they are spoiled and do not respect your space. This is because that is something that has usually been allowed by that horse’s owner. You are not doing your horse any favors when you allow them to get away with bad behavior, which includes invading your space and trying to run into you. This is what will get you hurt. Generally many accidents with horses happen when you’re standing on the ground with them versus in the saddle.
Next in the process you will move forward again and then stop, asking him to stop again. It should come quicker this time and you will build on that one successful first step back, turning it into 2 steps back, 3 steps back and so on. You stop, your horse stops and then you back up and your horse backs up, to the point that if you were to back up all the way across the yard, so would your horse and there would be no fight. Remember that you dictate the speed. If you wanted to run backwards your horse should do the same. Think of it as the horse mirroring your every move. They should keep an eye and ear on you at all times.
This is something you will need to practice all the time whenever you lead your horse. By practicing it you will continually reinforce the habit and soon it will become second nature for not only you but for your horse as well. At some point your horse is going to spook and I can almost guarantee you that if he hits that “bubble” that you have established around yourself he will spook around you instead of over the top of you.
Now that you have established the “bubble” you will be able to control your horse’s shoulders. With shoulder control you will be able to work your horse on the obstacles safely. If you do not have control of a horse’s shoulders you ultimately do not have control of that horse. The shoulder is the first thing that is going to hit you if the horse spooks. This will then enable you, once you start the obstacles, to control and direct your horse’s shoulders. The start of getting control of the shoulders is getting the horse to walk when you walk, stop when you stop and step backward when you step backward. Remember that this form of leading should become the “norm” from now on. If turned into a habit rather than a chore it could save you from ending up on the ground or in the emergency room.