by Anne Wilson
The need for a horse to lead well in-hand is obvious. It is the first requirement of obedience and mutual respect before mounting begins. However, sometimes this phase of a horse’s education is somehow omitted. Some horses are quite malleable and obedient when ridden but seem to revert back to almost an ‘at liberty’ state when on the end of a lead rope. This normally stems from successfully pulling away from their handler, either to reach a nice piece of grass or just to have a gambol around when they feel like it. Once they have done this a few times, it is ingrained in their mind that this is quite an easy thing to do (which it usually is) and is not necessarily bad in any way.
Once a horse has gained his freedom, it is very hard to verbally scold him when you manage to catch him, lest he pulls away again. To break this cycle you need to be able to restrain him, for his own good as well as yours.
Since horses are the strongest land mammals known to man (pro-rata three times stronger than elephants) it is useless to attempt to restrain a confirmed puller merely on an ordinary head collar. There are many restraining head collars on the market, which put pressure on the nose and poll area when the horse pulls. It is important to choose one which will loosen when the horse stops pulling and the pressure is taken off. This is important, not only for humane purposes, but from the training aspect. The horse learns that as soon as he stops pulling he can be comfortable again. Sometimes a slight jerk on the lead-rope from the handler when the horse shows signs of taking off, is enough to stop a full-on pulling match, but make sure that you release the pressure immediately.
If a controller halter does not prove to be successful, then you may have to resort to stronger methods, such as a bit, or even a stallion chain. This is not cruel if used correctly and pressure only applied in an emergency. To preserve both horse and human life it is necessary for the horse to respect his handler and be reasonably obedient – anything else is just dangerous. Apart from this, the horse will feel more confident and happy in the long-term if he is taught distinct boundaries, beyond which he must not step.
Some horses give no warning of when they are likely to take off, but do it suddenly for no apparent reason; usually when they realise that their shoulder is in front of the handler, which normally renders any attempts at control useless. So make sure that you don’t let him get in front of your shoulder whilst walking.
Respecting Your Space
Once the horse has learned that he cannot escape, rush to the nearest clump of sumptuous grass, or otherwise misbehave whilst in hand, he should be taught to walk, turn right and left, halt, back-up, etc; all at a moments notice. This can take the form of an interesting game/exercise in obedience and should be enjoyable to horse and handler.
I would suggest that you begin in an enclosed space, such as a riding arena. If your horse tends to barge around, wanting to go in his own choice of direction, then plenty of halt transitions should be used. In the case of a young horse, it is helpful if this in-hand training takes place before lungeing or backing. He can be taught the verbal commands of halt, walk-on, back, and even turn right, turn left, which can be very helpful when teaching him to lunge as well as combining the voice when teaching the physical aids under saddle. He should be led in hand in the usual way with the handler roughly shoulder to shoulder with the horse – not too close, nor with too much space between the two. The lead rope should be held approximately 2 ft. from the horse’s head. There should be no need to grip the head collar or otherwise permanently tightly restrain the horse. As previously mentioned, if the horse’s shoulder precedes the handler, then he is much more likely to pull away, and if the opposite occurs and he is too far behind the handler, then in the event of the horse being startled and rushing forwards, there is a danger of the horse colliding with the handler, causing a nasty accident.
Every time he starts to barge, halt and ask him to step back a stride. Although rein-back under saddle is quite an advanced, difficult movement for the horse; one simple step backwards should not be too taxing and he should be taught this in the very beginning in the stable or yard, at the same time as being taught to move over from left to right or vice versa. This is important around the stable and yard for obvious necessity for farriery treatment, grooming etc.
I am not a fan of the practice advocated by some natural horsemanship methods, where the horse is worked on a long line; the line being waved at the horse to ask him to back-up. Because of the fact that this is confusing and therefore stressful to the horse, it invariably results in bad backward steps, performed in a hurried fashion with a raised head and stiffened, hollow back; all of which is physically and mentally detrimental. Instead, the horse should be taught to step back, firstly in the stable or yard as previously mentioned, with the handler at the horse’s side, encouraging a backward step by voice accompanied by the hand gently pushing or intermittently nudging on the chest. The whip can be used in the same way as the hand to assist in the horse’s understanding of this, providing he remains calm and is not afraid of the whip (which he should not be). If the horse still finds this hard to understand, then it is sometimes helpful to halt him in front of a wall or gate. He will understand that he cannot go forward and, so long as he is not hassled or frightened, will eventually step back. Immediately upon a backward step, he should be rewarded.
DO NOT ASK FOR TOO MANY BACKWARD STEPS AT THIS STAGE – one or two will be sufficient – remember rein-back can be strenuous.
Backing-up can be used as a disciplinary punishment, but should not be over-used, as we don’t want him to see it purely as a punishment. When first teaching him to back-up, ask immediately for forward movement once he has complied and reward him with a stroke, congratulatory words or a tit-bit. That way, he will want to do it again!
However, if he is continually being obstreperous and bargey’ he will soon get fed up with stopping and going backwards, and is much more likely to co-operate.
You must also take care that he doesn’t become so used to backing-up that he uses it as an evasion.
When he will walk calmly by your side without pulling, walking too fast, too slow or generally being awkward, you can begin to teach him to turn left. For this purpose I am assuming you are leading him from the left. You can give him a little warning of the manoeuvre using whatever words come to mind, such as ‘left turn’ (always use the same words henceforth). What you are aiming at is for him to turn with you, keeping a sensible distance without bumping you or coming near to treading on your feet. To aid in this, it is helpful to carry a whip, to which he should already have been made accustomed. He should definitely not be afraid of the whip. You should be able to stroke him all over with it, and use it to flick flies away, but he should understand its meaning when asked to move away from it. This should also have been previously taught in the stable and yard, when asking him to move over etc.
If he comes too close to you as you turn left, just hold the whip strategically in place to signify the distance beyond which he should not step.
You can teach him to turn right when leading him from the right in the same way. You should also accustom him to being led in straight lines and circles in both directions from both the left and right sides.
To teach him to turn right whilst leading from the left, use a verbal command, such as ‘right turn’. This time give him a little push on his left shoulder with your hand and hold the whip gently against the left hand side of his neck. You can obviously teach him to turn left whilst leading from the right in a similar way.
If you make good use of verbal, physical or food rewards, this learning process will become enjoyable for you both and usually he will eagerly await your next instruction rather than thinking about pulling away or barging, and he will have learnt what it means to respect your space.
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org