Location: CTDate: January 27, 2011Leading horses… the million dollar questionBelow is a Q&A that was from many years ago. When I check on my blog stats, over the last 8 years that I’ve had my blog “live”, the #1 searched inquiry is “How to lead a difficult horse/my horse won’t lead.” So I thought I’d share this old blog post…Questions: Say that I am taking my horse out of a pasture (through a gate) or leading my horse around. If the situation arises where my horse becomes spooked or just misbehaves, (bucking, kicking out, rearing, and running ahead of me, hard to control) what EXACTLY should I do in that situation? How should I control my horse? Should I turn them in a tight circle or back them up? I am clueless! Note: I do not own my own horse/ride often, this is a bit of a beginner question, but this happened to me a little bit ago and I was clueless on what to do. Thank you!
Answer:First you are going to need to offer your horse a "clean slate" and assume that she knows nothing. Second, you're going to need to raise your level of awareness and sensitivity. The time to influence a horse's brain and then movement, is not during the moment of panic/chaos, but rather ahead of time.
A horse’s physical movement is a reflection of their brain and emotional state. They are a prey animal, and if feeling pressured, unsure, insecure, fearful, anticipative, etc. they tend to get “big” and dramatic as a defense mechanism.
A horse never randomly does something, so you'll need to become aware of the first signs your horse displays that she is having a problem, AND believe her when she shows them. Something has obviously been missed when your horse was initially educated, so she has resorted to "protecting" herself by taking over and fleeing. Many times people work with horses and are hopeful that the horse will eventually figure out what is being asked of them. This leaves the horse in a state of constant “unknown.”
Effective and clear aids need to be established, so that they become tools, rather than hinderances, in order for you to slow down your horse’s brain, and help her think through a situation that bothers her. People tend to live in the “gray” area, but horses need to be offered black and white clarity towards what behaviors the horse offers that work and those that do not. You will need to establish not only clear communication when using the lead rope from the ground, but also spatial respect, so that as you’re working with the horse, running you over isn’t an option. When you do something it must MEAN something. Every time you show up, you are “teaching” your horse something, whether you mean to or not.Your horse's defensiveness towards you (her fleeing or bolting) is her way of showing her lack of trust and her insecurities. You will not be able to force yourself upon her and “make” her stay with you out of brute force, (though if you open any tack magazine the gamut of tack to help “control” your horse is overwhelming and an illusion.)
Your first priority needs to be for her want to happily greet you in the pasture/stall, without fear or worry. Then the basic concept of what pressure (when the halter is on and you are using the leadrope to direct her brain and body) mean, and that she is not defensive towards the pressure. She needs to be able to look (moving her head) towards wherever you make direct her, then be able to take soft steps (depending on how many your ask for), and have a soft halt (with not leaning/dragging/pulling on the rope) before you add any level of "real world" encounters.Right now your horse is "making" the decisions because there is a lack of mental availability towards you. You need to get your horse's brain to slow down and address you, and then she will physically comply. Your goal should be to influence your horse's mental and emotionally availability in order to create a physical change. You will start to see how little an action can create a positive change in how your horse reacts as she begins to trust and respect you will. This will be the beginning of you working WITH your horse, rather than each of you tolerating one another.
Timing, awareness, energy, sensitivity and clarity are all things you will need to establish in order to start seeing positive results with your horse.There needs to be a clarity of physical communication (because when leading her you are using a lead rope, so this a physical way of influencing her,) she needs to understand your energy and literally match that, if you want to move out in a big walk, she needs to too, or if you would like to "creep" along, she needs to make that adjustment to remain "with you." When you stop she needs to respect your personal space and stop immediately, rather than to "fall" into a stop. Most times when people catch a horse the horse goes "brainless" on the end of the lead and is literally drug around. The horse may be physically complying but is mentally resistant. The day will come that if there is enough stress presented, if the person working with the horse does not have enough "tools" in when they use their lead rope and clear communication in how they use their rope, the horse will get just as "big" on the rope and as in your case, bolt.You should be able to ask your horse to first stop and think, then look and then step in a designated direction (left, right, forward, backwards, sideways, etc.) You should be able to do all of this without having to lead your horse or "drive" her (with a whip, stick, etc.) in order to get an attentive, light, mental and physical response.Remember the goal is for your horse to ask "what would you like?" instead of tolerating being told what to do every step of the way. The more confident she feels that you are listening and helping her when she is having a problem the more she will turn to you rather than coming up with her own way of avoiding (bolting) what you are presenting.Once you can ask your horse to first look (to address what you are presenting) and then literally take one step at a time towards whatever you have presented, you will have established the necessary tools to help your horse to mentally address what you are asking. For example let's say that you are presenting walking through the gate in your arena. Before you ever get near the gate you need to see how focused (mentally) your horse is on you. If you ask her to stop, back up, step forward and so on is there a delay in her response, does she step into your personal space, and is she walking forward but looking somewhere else? These are all opportunities for you to assess where her brain is at, and will tell you “what is coming” based on her response. That gives you a direction of what you need to ask of her, in order to help her through the gate area. If there is any level of stress, blowing you off, etc, you need to get a change in your horse first, before you present an obstacle like the gate. Remember that the more you can break down passing through the gate into baby steps the more confidence she will gain in "trying" to address what you are asking. The more she believes she can "get it" (it, being whatever you are asking of her) right, the more she will try when you present new things.By the time you present the gate, grooming, standing tied, etc., you should be able to ask your horse to walk up to the gate and stop and address it (smell it, look at, etc.) without any concern of passing through it, until YOU ask her to.
Then you would imagine that you are presenting an imaginary line that you would like your horse to follow as she crosses the gate. First she has to be looking at this "line." In most cases if she is worried or insecure about the gate she'll try and avoid it by looking at everything EXCEPT the gate. So you'll need to address helping her focus using the aid of your lead rope by being able to establish looking specifically at the gate. She will not cross the gate with a "warm fuzzy feeling" until she decides to literally look at the gate. Once she looks at the "line" you want her to walk on, you increase your energy (probably using the excess of your lead rope - but NOT driving her or chasing him) across the gate, literally one step at a time. You do not want your horse to "survive" crossing the gate, rather you want her to think and feel confident with each step she is taking as she crosses through the gate. As she is in the opening of the gate, you want to feel that you could stop or pause her movement at any time, or pick a specific place that you would like to have her move.After you successfully help her address and cross the gate from both directions (with plenty of breaks and rests in between) you might ask her to focus on something else and then present the gate again later in the session. The slower you can have her think about what you are asking, the better the quality of her performance will be.Remember, this “conversation” is not about the task of passing through the gate, but rather that it is a two way respectful communication that builds confidence. It can be applied to leading, the gate, crossing water, trailer loading, walking on tarps, etc.
If you have effective tools, you can help your horse through anything. your safety is a number one priority, if you hear that little voice in the back of your head telling you not to do something, listen to it. Too many horse related accidents occur because people are "hopeful" that it will all work out.Good Luck, Samx