She was born on a full moon so I named my Iberian filly Claro De Luna. She was so independent that she didn’t let me touch her the first day, but no worries. I body-talked to her dam, Windy, until little Clara couldn’t stand it. By day two, we had short conversations. We walked together to turn out, Clara, Windy, and my Grandfather Horse, the one who taught me how to be irresistible.
That first week, I looked out to check on them just in time to see Clara jump the perimeter fence and leave the farm. There she was, loose, not far from the road, practicing her canter. There was her dam, more interested in grazing with my Grandfather Horse.
There were two problems. The first glaring one was that I didn’t want a jumping horse. The second one involved me fixing this. With no gates close by, and her independence wearing thin and she was starting to panic. I didn’t have time to lead Windy to her, and not being a jumper myself, that four-foot field fence with t-posts looked dangerous. It was a toss-up which of us would kill themselves first, but I voted for me. She took a run back at the fence in her full baby canter at the same moment I half-jumped, half-climbed, caught half-a-toe, and full-fell head first, miraculously on the other side. I scared her into a splayed halt, saying good girl as I landed. Then she took off for the fence again.
She bounced off this time, no hooves tangled but dazed just enough for me to walk in and get a rope around her chest. She’s doing a canter piaffe now, not a recognized dressage movement but closer to not being a jumper. I got the second lead rope around her hind. Yes, I had a baby halter and yes, she’d seen it up close, but this was no time to use one, so I wrapped my hands in the lead ropes and we started home.
The first steps were away from her dam, then out to the road. Windy finally got worried and did a lovely extended screaming-trot on the inside of the fence line, while we did a crab-step down the road to our driveway gate. It wasn’t pretty but she was with Windy again. Clara and I took many steps of different sizes, in many different directions, all at once. I am proud to say two things: No one died. I did not pull on her face once.
Leading is one of the most fundamental things we train foals. Too much contact, too soon! It’s important to get it right, so draping a lead rope around their haunches as a come-along helps. Think of it as the original lead from behind.” I repeat, going forward is never about a horse’s head. It’s the most natural thing for a horse to move with us. Their dams teach it best, we just go along with them until the baby comes along with us. Leading requires finesse from the handler and willingness from the horse. Lucky for us, moving forward is a calming action. It works out.
A foal’s head and neck are fragile, but more than that, all pulling on a horse’s face ever does is create resistance, dread, or a fight. The last thing I want is her pulling back at this age. Or any age.
A horse moves forward using his hind legs to push, so cues behind the drive line, (where the girth goes,) are the universal cue to walk on, and cues given in front of the drive line are meant to ask the horse to come back or stop. Clearly, it isn’t their face that stops, it’s their shoulders, but if you are leading by pulling a horse’s lead rope, you’re giving a whoa command to walk on. Think about that. It’s why your horse is confused.
There is a choice. You can teach your horse to submit to pressure from your hands, something no horse does naturally, or you can teach your horse that we all move together, something horses do naturally.
I mention Clara because those first moments of leading stay with a horse forever. It’s how brain neurons work; the first trainer has a long-lasting impact on horses. I meet lots of grumpy horses who submit to the halter with dead eyes or brace against the bit. Many horses don’t willingly walk forward on a line or under-saddle. They think every cue is to stop and it kills their confidence.
Many of us use rope halters, universally known to be harsher than web halters. Some of us use spurs or carry whips or swing ropes, to send them forward to the halter or bit that stops them, giving the infamously crazymaking “stop-go” message. Others switch to bitless bridles, which hurts less when they get pulled on. Or fear being pulled on; remember the first trainer’s impact.
The worst mistake leading is to pull a horse laterally to start the walk. Some idiot-human explained that we can leverage them to walk by unbalancing them so they are forced to take a step. It sounds human-logical but horses don’t like losing balance so they resist. And we pull harder.
Other times, we don’t prepare in time or the horse is stopped when we need to turn, so we pull laterally. It’s the equivalent of turning the steering wheel without having the engine on. Horses must be moving forward to turn, even if it’s just a step. We constantly ask them to turn when they don’t have room; think two axels on a car, or truck and trailer. They need more room than we do, but instead, we unbalance them. Stoic horses appear to tolerate it longer than a demonstrative horse but eventually, there is head tossing and set-jaw resistance. Or robotic compliance to our dominating cues.
The horses who don’t tolerate being unbalanced get sold or retired because of our bad habits. Some of us give up riding because our resentful horses scare us. We switch to “liberty” with varied success, if you ask the horse.
Let me be blunt: You don’t have to stop riding, your hands need to improve. In the saddle and on the ground, think before you pull. Then, don’t pull.
It’s a huge challenge because we’re primates; it’s our instinct to use our hands. We barely notice we do it. So they give us calming signals. Horses look away, graze when they aren’t hungry, ask us in every way they have to go slow, to calm ourselves. All we hear is disobedience.
Instead, feel your toes inside your boots. Breathe and relax your jaw. If you have to, hold the rope with your little pinky, because horses can’t give up their instincts any easier than we can.
Offer to trust your horse by engaging your feet in the conversation. Then ask for simple forward. It’s the only cue we need, just forward without interruption. Trust your horse’s willingness to move and their natural intelligence.
As you wait those long dull seconds for your horse to respond, long seconds as your horse waits to be pulled on, notice what your hands are doing. Notice they have a life of their own and perhaps they need the kind guidance more than your horse.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.