This article explains the proper procedure for leading horses. Includes safety and troubleshooting tips, common mistakes, and detailed explanations of how to lead, turn, stop and back up your horse or pony from the ground.
by Adrianne Lake
Learning how to lead a horse or pony safely may seem daunting to the green equestrian. With some practice this necessary horsemanship skill quickly becomes second nature.
You will require a properly fitting halter, a lead rope and possibly a crop or whip.
Step One: Catch and halter your horse or pony. While standing on the left (near) side of the animal make sure the lead line is securely attached to the halter under the chin. Grasp the lead line a foot of so under the horses chin with your left hand. Fold the remaining lead line over and hold it in your right hand. DO NOT wrap the lead line around your hand thinking you’ll have a better grip. You must be able to let the lead line go quickly if something dangerous happens.
Step Two: Your position is important for your safety. Make sure you are beside the horse on the left hand side and keep a couple feet between you and the horse at all times. This way if your horse bolts forward he won’t run you over accidentally. Generally, horses are led and mounted from the left side. That said it is good to know how to lead from the right side as well.
Step Three: Standing in the direction you wish to go, cue the horse forward by clucking, kissing or saying, “walk”. Move forward assertively. Gently tug the lead line forward but remember to release pressure as soon as the animal moves forward. Don’t look at the horse and keep facing where you wish to walk.
Stopping: Stop walking and say, “whoa”. A little backward tug on the lead line is another way of cueing the animal to stop.
Turning to the Left: Keeping your position and a distance of two feet or so between you and the horse, simply turn left, give the lead a little tug and allow the animal to follow.
Turning to the Right: This is a little harder than turning to the left. Always maintaining your position, push the horse with the lead rope to the right. Don’t speed up your walk and try to cut the horse off and force it to turn. Simply walk to the right and guide your horse to do the same. Remember that a horse will go where his head is pointing.
Backing Up: To back up the horse, you’ll need to alter your position. Turn to face the horse. With your hand still in the original position (left hand holding the lead line close to the chin and the right hand holding remaining lead line). Apply rhythmic pressure to the lead line. Many horses do not like backing up. Another thing to try is tapping the animal in the chest with a crop or lead line. As soon as the animal takes a step back, stop tapping and release all pressure.
Remember that learning to lead a horse around is tricky when you have never done it before. It’s always a good idea to have someone experienced supervise you until you feel comfortable and confidant with what you’re doing.
Horse Doesn’t Move Forward: First thing to watch for when this happens is your assertiveness. If you are maintaining passive body language and voice commands many horses will “laugh” at you. Ask an experienced horse person to lead the horse. If they have no trouble, then you can bet it is something you are doing to keep the horse from moving. Also, remember to imagine the horse moving forward with you. If you are only focusing on what could go wrong, the horse will pick up on it and make it happen for you. Don’t try and pull the horse along. Most horses will only pull back. Take care not to look the horse directly in the eye. Keep your eyes where you want to go.
A good trick is to carry a crop or whip with you. When giving the forward cue, turn and gently “flick” toward the rear of the horse with the crop. This usually urges a horse to move forward. If you have trouble focusing on the rear and moving forward at the same time, try it while turning to the left. This automatically puts you in a better position to drive the horse from the back end and keeps you safer if the horse were to spook from the crop.
Spooking: You can determine if the horse is spooking by observing his body language. If the animal is spooking, try to bring the animal as close to the scary thing as he will tolerate. Then stand there a moment. Turn around and do it again. Each time stay a little longer. Allow the horse to move his feet and don’t hold him uncomfortably close. Eventually the horse will feel more comfortable and will move closer more willingly. Punishing a frightened horse does no good. You want to make the experience as positive for the horse as you can.
If the spooking horse is making you afraid or uncomfortable, don’t be ashamed to ask someone for help.
Horse Leads You and Crowds Your Personal Space: Many people have horses that tend to lead them around. Or the horse will push and pull the handler around, invading your personal space. In these situations it’s obvious who is really in control! These are respect issues and horses like this are usually called “ill-mannered”. However, behavior like this is usually easy to correct. It is important to address these issues because left unchecked behavior like this can escalate to more dangerous habits. If your horse has bad ground manners it is important to take some time to specifically address these problems.
With horses that demonstrate bad manners on the ground, I always keep them slightly behind me when leading. If they pass me or invade my space, I turn and swiftly back them up. Or I may take a crop and tap the chest. Gently at first, then gradually harder if I don’t get the desired response. The more they invade my space, the farther I insist they stay away from me. I imagine a bubble around my body. If the horse pops the bubble, they have come to close and I back them up.
Some horses will need more than assertive leading to teach them respect. Round penning is usually a good solution but only have an experienced person do this. Some groundwork in general is a good plan for situations like this.
Bad Handling Habits
*When leading a horse make sure you are not constantly pulling on the lead shank. You only need to give the lead a tug to reinforce a cue. The moment the horse shows an effort release any pressure and stop cueing.
*Don’t let the horse crowd you and don’t crowd the horse. It’s annoying and alarming to horses when you hold them close and don’t let them have their space. Don’t forget that horses need to move their feet when feeling anxious. As a rule, never hold the lead shank closer then a foot away from the horse’s head and keep it loose (as opposed to pulled tight all the time).
*As mentioned earlier, it is correct and proper to lead a horse from the left side. This is expected at most stables. But it is important that both you and your horse can lead comfortably on the right side as well.
*If carrying a whip while leading, keep it in a neutral position while walking. Keep it low, pointed downward and more or less parallel to the body. If you use a whip or crop as an aid consider it an extension of your own body.
*Remember that behavior on the ground often carries over to riding. If your horse is respectful on the ground he is more likely to be good under saddle. If your horse is rude and ignores you on the ground it won’t magically get better when riding.
Good luck! Remember the importance of being a good leader to your horse. If your horse respects and trusts you you’ll have a much more rewarding partnership.