Taking The Lead
By Mike Rosauer
Stars Miniatures, USA
This article will be a continuance of the relationship we started in the Whoa article. The relationship that we build with our horse teaches the horse to focus on us, and allows us to ask him to show when we want him to. Some horses have a natural desire to show and others don't. Whatever the case, the horse needs to be focused on you so that you can tell him when to show and when to relax. These exercises are great for a young horse or an old trooper who needs their focus sharpened back up so that they get their edge back. The exercises in this article teach our horses two things. The first is the basic ability to lead. This sounds simple, but when we get to the show ring, leading is a very important part of the show process. We need for him to be able to walk, trot and stand on a loose rope while being as full of energy and confidence as possible (See photo A). We make our first impression to the judges as we walk in through the gate. If you are dragging your horse like a sack of potatoes (See photo B), or worse yet, he is dragging you like a sack of potatoes (See photo C), it is a bad first impression. The obvious thought would be that your horse doesn't want to be there, or that you have no control over your horse. Besides that, you dragging him or him pulling you changes his appearance by throwing off his balance and frame. The second thing these exercises do, and it is what I consider the most important, is to build focus and responsiveness in your horse. Your horse needs to be giving you his undivided attention if you have a halter on him. With his attention on you, he needs to react to each of your movements. In the Whoa article we got his attention as he stood still and we moved. The next step is focus and reaction as we both move.
As in the Whoa article, it is best to start these exercises in a quiet area so that there are fewer things to draw your horse's attention away. We are going to start by standing in a spot directly between his head and shoulder, with two feet of loose rope between us (See photo D). Without any verbal commands, simply look forward and start to walk. You may have the urge to turn your head and look at your horse, but a really focused horse might anticipate that you are going to face them, so they might not want to step forward. If your horse is concentrating on you, he should step forward as you do. If from your mid neck position you move past his head without him moving, use a verbal cluck and the tail of your lead as aids to push him forward (See photo E). After he walks 3 to 5 steps with you, stop walking. If from your mid neck position his shoulder passes you, use the verbal command "Whoa" and jerk the slack out of your rope. Please notice that we did not use verbal commands or use our lead rope until after the horse made a mistake. If you use a verbal command before you walk or stop, your horse may be listening to you instead but not watching you. If, as you start this, he swings his hind quarters away from you, find a wall or fence that you can use on his right side to keep him in frame (See photo F).
Continue this exercise until your two feet of rope stays slack and you never have to use verbal commands. Some horses learn this lesson very quickly while others are a little slower. In both cases, I use this exercise, along with what we did in the Whoa article, in each session of training. If you are having problems with this exercise, spend more time doing the semi circles in front of your horse that we did in the Whoa article. Make sure that your horse is turning his head and watching you with both eyes. Once he is focused, go back and try the leading exercise again. Once I feel I have my horse’s attention, and my horse understands this step, I will gradually add speed. Again, from the mid neck position, I will bend slightly at the waist and take a step fast enough that it requires the horse to trot. He should not allow me to get past his head or I will use the verbal cluck and the tail of my lead rope. Each time I start to move I will travel a random amount of steps because I want to know he is focused on me and not learning to move a certain distance and stop. After he has mastered different speeds, we can start moving away from him and giving him more rope. It is my goal to be able to walk, trot and stop from the very end of my slack show lead. Next, I will start adding potential distractions. This can be as simple as moving to a busy part of the barn or outside next to a noisy road. I often work the horses I feel are trained in paddocks where there are other horses running loose. If a senior stallion will focus on me in a pasture full of mares, I feel confident that I can keep his focus at the horse show.
This should be fun for you and your horse. Treat it as a game, and as things become easy for your horse, come up with new distractions to test his focus. The stronger your bond, the more you can get out of your horse.