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Equine Partnering: Leading

Lauren Woodard

You’re on the way to the mall or ball game with your friend. You get out of the car, walk to her side and as she gets out, you wrap a chain around her neck and snug it up. Then you take hold of it inches from her neck, straighten your arm, march forward while saying "Come on buddy, let’s go shopping" Hmmmmm.....

If you’re at the end of your rope with your horse, maybe your rope is too short. You are vulnerable to being kicked, stepped on, shoved or dragged as well as myriad other dangers when you’re dealing with horses. However, is it possible to NEVER have a lead or rein drag, or even drop it accidentally, kick over a bucket, have a plastic grocery bag blow across the trail or road you’re on? The possibilities are far to numerous to begin to count or even imagine. Something you never thought of will happen. Then what happens after what happens happens?

The less experience you have with horses, the greater the potential for danger, but if you want to be a horse person, you must continue learning. And learning what not to do is just as important as what to do.

There are many theories and philosophies about the correct way to do something in the horse world. But there are no absolutes and many people chose or wish for a better partnership with their horse, not a militaristic dominance relationship. Your friend at the mall will be resentful of your treatment, your lack of trust and overwhelming authority behaviors and probably wouldn’t want to be with you. Rightfully so, you wouldn’t turn a toddler loose in the mall parking lot. But you would, over a period of time, teach the toddler not to run blindly through the lot or street and also not to get scared because a car is safely driving by. So, exposing your buddy to potential dangers or problems and teaching them appropriate responses would seem a worthwhile use of your horse time. This includes things such as allowing the horse, in a round pen or other safe, large enough area, to step on his own lead and learn that he can remain calm and step off. By the way, this does mean that you need a longer lead, about 12 feet is a good length for daily, regular use and we’ll go into the uselessness of a 6 foot lead later, particularly with a chain. This also means getting them used to a plastic grocery bag. Better in the safety of your paddock than when that eighteen wheeler is driving by you as you go down the road.

So called ‘bomb proof’ horses don’t get that way from being shielded from every possibility of fright or danger. They get that way because they’ve had enough experience with scary things to weigh the danger first and then respond if necessary. Just a note, there is no such thing as a bomb proof horse, but there are some really savvy and/or brave horses out there.

How to lead a horse. Goodness, the rules for this one and most other rules of this type were design for uniformity in the military. So that everyone looked the same and ranks were in a visual order. There is no logical reason for only standing on the left side of the horse, 12 inches from his feet with your body in prime position for trampling by the major weight of the horse should he get frightened by something on the other side that you couldn’t even see because the horse was in your way. Also, how would you lead your horse on a cliff trail or some place where it isn’t wide enough for two, or if something else prevented your being on the left side. Your buddy would be comfortable with you in any place if you’d walked on the other side of him or in front of him before. It’s easy to spot a horse that is uncomfortable with a person (not his buddy) on the off side. Off side is another military installation in normal horse person language but there is no off side. You should be just as comfortable leading, mounting and dismounting from either side. You never know when you’re going to need it. Those steer wrestlers do it all the time.

Leads! Yikes! If your horse rears and you have a 6 foot lead, you’re right under his pawing hooves and haven’t an inch of lead to back away. If your lead was about 12 foot, you’d safely be 6 feet away and still have the horse attached. Chains-just what I’d put under my buddy’s chin, over his nose or under his lip, especially just to walk from the stall to the tack area. Yup, that’s partnership. If a horse can feel a fly land on his hair, why would he need a chain pressing on his nerve endings to know you’re there. Horses can feel ANY weight change on a looping rope if it’s adjusted at all or even swings with your motion. Teach him what motions mean what and let him have his dignity. Will he really feel like doing things for you when you treat him like a convict? And what happens if you do drop your lead? If you say you don’t USE the chain when you’re just walking, what happens if he steps on the lead. The punishment of the chain on those tender parts when he steps on it is going to cause him pain and pain will cause him to run. And what do you say, ‘oops’? Buddies don’t need chains when they’re with each other. People teach people how to treat them. Same with horses. Treat your horse with respect and learn from each other. Observe someone who treats their horse the way you’d like to treat your’s and who’s horse behaves the way you’d like your horse to behave. Then find someone who does it naturally to help you get there. Alternatives that enhance your partership with your horse are available!

Lauren has been teaching riding and training for 30 years and riding for 45, from hunter/jumper and basic dressage to living on a working cattle ranch and trail riding (blazing). She teaches equine partnering now and is committed to helping people expand their awareness of and respect for the intelligence and gifts the horse has to offer. Lauren can be reached at 480-951-1546 or