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Lead the Way

Leading a horse
Rearing Horse

Tiger is a 3 year old, 16hh, unbacked, Danish Knabstrupper whose owner, Aston, and her mum Angela, contacted me for help when leading difficulties got out of hand and started to cause them anxiety just at the thought of leading to and from the field.


Angela told me that Tiger would pull on the halter, push into her handler’s space with her shoulder, rear up and, more often than not, try to pull away from them and bolt off - quite often successfully.  This is a fairly extreme leading problem, however, I find that leading is a common problem of varying degrees and one that I am often called in to help with.  I am always amazed at how many people think nothing of being barged and hauled along by their horses with the attitude that this is, in fact, quite normal and goes with the territory when handling horses.  This need not be the case at all and horses that have been taught to lead correctly and respectfully will walk calmly by the handlers side on a loose rope.


Invariably if there are leading problems, it doesn’t just stop there.  I find that there are usually associated problems in other areas too, and Tiger was no exception to the rule.  When tied up she would fidget and push into her handler’s space, swinging her hind quarters with little regard for anyone working around her.  Her general demeanour was one of tension, distrust and anxiety.


It is horses such as Tiger who are so often misread.  Most people would look at her and other horses like her and say she was disrespectful, pushy and dominant, however, I see her as fearful, distrusting and worried about life.  Aston and Angela are both very sensitive and feeling owners and did realise that Tiger was worried rather than badly behaved, they just didn’t know what to do about it.


So what is actually happening in Tiger’s mind?


In a domestic herd environment the so called ‘lead horse’ will often be tested by the other horses.  It is my belief that this is done to check that he / she is still the best horse for the job - the job predominantly being to keep the rest of the herd safe and orderly.  The day that ‘lead horse’ loses his edge is the day another horse will assume the more dominant role, not necessarily because he wants to but purely to ensure the herd’s safety and survival.  This is a very simplified view as in reality herd dynamics are incredibly complex, not withstanding the fact that the domestic herd differs from the wild herd, due to restrictions and general human intervention.


It is worth understanding that the horse doesn’t need to be in a herd to retain its herd instincts.  Horses are herd animals and nothing will change that.  Just because we often choose to keep horses isolated or in separate paddocks doesn’t change a thing.  In fact this will often serve to reinforce those instincts even more as the horse craves the comfort, companionship and safety of others.


The behaviour that Tiger exhibited no doubt started off with small things like walking a bit too fast or pushing into her handler with her shoulder.  This could be viewed as her testing her handler to see if they are worthy enough to be trusted with her life.  Since the answer was unsatisfactory for her then she would start to push the boundaries more and more in the hope that somebody would eventually take responsibility.  As this still didn’t happen she would then start to get more fearful of her environment when anywhere but within the comfort of her field.  The behaviour steadily deteriorates until it gets out of hand because she is falling further and further back into her wild side.  Every domestic horse has a wild horse within.  All the behaviour Tiger was exhibiting when I first met her was natural to the prey animal - run away from frightening situations if you can and if you can’t then fight.


Similarly, when she was tied up in the yard she felt too restricted as her anxiety levels were too high.  She felt the need to move her feet all the time as she was constantly on guard.


Starting Over


Now we understand why Tiger is behaving the way she is we can start to do something about it.  I use a communication based on trust, respect, and understanding - relating to both parts of the horse / human relationship.  Horses learn through pressure and release  (physical or emotional) but it is essential that everything is presented to them in a consistent manner.  


I always start by teaching the horse to back up out of my space, yield the shoulders and hind quarters away from me, uphold a responsibility to maintain gait and direction on a circle and also that the horse can be drawn back in towards me when asked, to ensure balance within the communication.  This is designed to build the level of trust, respect and understanding between horse and human.  It gives the handler the tools to deal with any inappropriate behaviour with ease and confidence, in turn filling a nervous or resistant horse with respect for and trust in his handler.


During my first session with Tiger, Angela led her into the school with her usual halter and rope.  She uses a rope halter already but only with a short traditional lead rope so I changed to my own horseman’s halter, which has a 20’ rope attached.  The first thing Tiger did before I even started putting pressure on her was to rear up nice and tall.  I sent plenty of energy down the rope in order to make the wrong thing difficult and then started to walk into her space with lots of determination and confidence as I needed to let her know that I wasn’t frightened or put off by this display.  The moment her feet touched the ground again and she backed away from me I quit the pressure and let her relax - the pressure motivates but it is the timing of the release that teaches.  She tried this a few times but each time she was met with the same answer from me so the rearing gradually reduced in height and, when it did happen, it was much further away from me, so far less threatening.


She was very quick to get to grips with the backup.  I always start at close range so the horse learns about moving away from halter pressure, but once she had the idea of moving away from the feel on her nose I started to send energy down the line so I could send her backwards from a distance of about 2-3 metres away.  Knowing you can always get the horse out of your space in a moment gives the handler confidence, and the more confident the handler is the calmer and more confident the horse tends to become.


Next I needed to gain control of and be able to direct the shoulder.  With a rearing horse I find it essential to get the shoulder under control quickly.  By now I realised that Tiger did not cope well with pressure of any kind and was incredibly unconfident - this was her biggest problem and she was very reactive because of it.  I started work on the shoulder with a fairly soft approach, showing her the way with a lot of understanding and rewarding the slightest try in the right direction.  With a more threatening / aggressive horse I would use a much firmer approach.  It didn’t take long before she was moving the shoulder over and away from me on both sides.  


The biggest challenge came when asking her to continue forward onto a circle.  At first she was reluctant to walk forward and then her answer was to shoot forward very fast instead.  So I had two extremes to work with - very fast or no motion at all!  I needed to build her confidence further, so I worked at yielding the hindquarters over and away from me.  She found this really hard and I had to spend quite a bit of time on this.  It wasn’t really until the second session that she started to get the hang of actually stepping across properly with her hind legs - before that her preference was always to bring the front end around and not move the hind legs at all, as though blocking my request.  Not surprising when dealing with a horse where the defence comes from front end action (rearing, shoulder pushing).  


Working with the hind quarters helped Tiger to become less reactive to pressure so then I started working on the circle again.  She was better to the left than to the right.  This is often the case, particularly in younger, inexperienced horses as they get used to everything being done on the nearside - halters, rugs, rollers etc.  It is good practice with any horse to do things as equally as possible on both sides, but it is particularly important when the horse is young.


By the end of the first session Tiger was a lot calmer but there was still a long way to go.


When I arrived back at the yard for the second session 4 days later, I was greeted by rather excited owners.  Aston and Angela couldn’t wait to tell me that Tiger had been great leading to and from the field since my first session with her.  They were amazed that those basic communication skills could have such a profound effect.  Especially since neither of them had actually been able to do any of the work with Tiger themselves.  I will usually get the owners working through the basic groundwork skills in the first session but Tiger is a rather challenging case so it wasn’t until the 3rd session when I was able to get Angela working with Tiger in the school.


It is often the case that following introduction of this basic communication owners will see beneficial changes in the mental and emotional state of the horse, in many different areas.


Tiger is still a little reactive when we first enter the school environment but this is improving considerably each time.  She is becoming more accepting of pressure by yielding rather than feeling like she has to run off or jump about.  


Over subsequent sessions I started working on some lateral moves.  This was immensely useful in helping her to gain confidence and not run away from pressure.  I started by driving her sideways along the fenceline.  Once she got the idea about crossing front and hind legs together I quickly got her into the middle of the school and started asking her to move away from my energy in a sideways motion from the circle.  After squirting off a couple of times she quickly got the idea and realised that she could in fact do what I was asking and really started thinking about where she needed to put her feet.


Other techniques that have helped her to build confidence, stand quietly and become less reactive are things like swinging the tail of the rope over her back, neck, rump and around her legs; asking her to lower her head before I praise her with a face rub; using a rope around the pastern to lift the front feet up and placing them wherever I want them.


Passing the tools on to the owner


At the moment I tend to work with Tiger at the beginning of every session, moving her forward in her education, before having Angela come in and take the rope.  Both Angela and Aston are still a little nervous around Tiger but they are fast overcoming their fears as they see the changes she is making all the time, as well as being better equipped and more confident at dealing with anything that might arise when leading to and from the field.


The most important thing for Angela has been to work directly with the leading techniques.  


Always remember that if a horse feels less restricted he is less likely to want to move his feet around, therefore, LET GO OF THE ROPE.  Not literally of course but get out of the habit of trying to ‘hold’ the horse.  A human is absolutely no match for 500+kg of horse!  A worried horse that is being restrained will want to try to get away, whereas a worried horse that is allowed to drift on a longer rope will be much more likely to be able to contain himself.  In a lot of cases a slack rope and confident handler eliminate the horses need to move his feet at all.


I talked Angela through the best place to be positioned when leading - between the tip of the nose and the front of the shoulder.  If you allow the horse to get too far in front of you, you become less significant and effective in your communication.  Likewise, if you get too far ahead you are rather vulnerable.  I like to use the phrase “Don’t walk in front of me I may not follow, don’t walk behind me I may not lead, walk beside me and be my friend”, which you may already be familiar with.


I also showed Angela different ways to hold the rope so she could be most effective in various situations.  For example, when leading generally, I suggested she hold the excess rope in her leading hand (the hand nearest to the horse) and just the tail in the other.  This way she can swing the tail of the rope in front of her like a windmill to help keep Tiger out of her space or turn her away.  She can also swing the tail behind her if she needs to encourage Tiger to step out more.  If she is having particular problems with sticky feet or she wants to send Tiger through a gate and yield her hindquarters on the other side I showed her how to swap the rope over in her hands so she now has the tail of the rope in the hand nearest the horse and can drive her forward and around her.


We also looked at using our own energy to affect the horse’s speed.  I showed her how to breath out and slow her feet when she was preparing to stop so that Tiger stayed in tune and slowed her feet too, then stop steadily so the horse understands and can stay in step with the handler.  If you stop without warning the horse will usually continue for a step or two as he has not realised what was about to happen.  Finally, I talked Angela through how to keep Tiger from getting too fast by using a wiggle of the rope, which slows the feet down, or, if this is not effective enough in the moment, how to stop her own feet and give a firm bump downwards on the halter, before then continuing forward once Tiger was back where she should be and under control. 


In order to build confidence in handling, I showed Angela how to move the horse from one side of her to the other without stopping her own feet.  Knowing how to move the horse around her and being able to keep her out of her space gave Angela a real boost.  In one of the sessions Tiger spooked at a noise behind her, jumped forward and then hopped her front feet up a little.  Angela sent her backwards out of her space and then stopped when all four feet were back on the ground.  Her first feelings were that of worry at the situation but then she realised what she had achieved and, again, her confidence took a nice big step forward - as did Tiger’s because Angela had handled her so decisively, and consistently.


The Next Step


As I move forward with Tiger, so I will move Angela and Aston forward in their handling of her also.  They have a lot of baggage to unpack and fears to lay to rest but they are making excellent progress themselves and I’m really proud of them both, and their commitment to Tiger.


Over the coming weeks I will be continuing to teach Tiger to yield to physical pressure, wherever it comes from, in a responsive manner instead of a reactive one; building on the amount of mental pressure she can handle in any given situation; promoting a calm, confident demeanour; and generally preparing her for her next big step in life - backing.  If she is prepared properly then the actual act of backing should be no big deal - just another day in her educational diary.

Written by Viki Sheppard.  Published by D J Murphy (Publishers) Ltd : Horse & Rider UK : January 2010 Issue

Horse going sideways
Equine Communication - Trust, Respect and Understanding
Relaxed horse when tethered
Teaching the horse to pick up the feet
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