Leading from Behind and Green Grass

Pia, a lovely intelligent mare who has no issue with grass.

*Public Service Announcement* Your horses pay me a small stipend to remind you of things so obvious to them that they doubt the human ability to reason. They want me to mention that it’s spring in the northern hemisphere. The spring grass is very tender and sweet. The aroma is intoxicating. They say even humans, who have no real sense of smell to speak of, must at least see it, for crying out loud. Dew-covered spring grass is better than apples and carrots, you idiots, it’s the drug of choice.

A reader request: “This leading from behind business. Sounds intriguing, but the absolute only place my mare will lead is to the nearest snip of grass or weeds. In our defense, she lives in a dry paddock, with a couple of hours a day turnout as conditions permit… I suspect the girl has some degree of food anxiety, maybe, from years of being boarded and getting just two feedings a day. All to say I just can’t compete with any bit of green morsel. You’ve mentioned that the eating may be a calming signal because I’m asking too loudly. Which begs the question, how DOES one ask for something beyond weeding the fence lines and arena??

*Continued Public Service Announcement* Your horse says they have no issue with grazing in any way. It’s your issue entirely, even if he gets sick. Horses are designed to graze most hours of the day. It’s natural to think of the next meal while eating this one. He concedes that you take good care of him, but this is ancestral survival instinct passed down from infinity.  He wants to remind you that you knew he was a horse when you bought him. He’d also like to remind you that bluntness is an under-rated superpower.

This is our challenge, isn’t it? How to be more interesting than grass?

Reader, I do think your mare’s past plays a part, as does her ulcer history and the current situation, even with free-choice hay, she reminds you, is sticks and dirt compared to fresh grass. Because most of us have been taught grazing is wicked disobedience, we jerk their heads up. Naturally, their grazing takes on a frantic quality. They think they’ll be punished each bite. How could a horse not give a calming signal?

Then there’s what horses might read in us when we try to train something new: Desire, passion, want, frustration, impatience, and perhaps a small dose of general craziness. In other words, the exact way horses feel about a spring graze.

Adjust your thinking. Let the horse take you for a walk. Say, “You go first.” Leading from behind is a conversation, an exercise. It’s more about exploring than training. Leading from behind is curious, peaceful, and done on horse time.

Leading from behind is more complicated than you imagine because it’s counter-intuitive to usual training, but at the same time, simple enough that we over-think it should be easy. It’s not about them doing something for us. Horses need time to think about that. We’ve taught them that we’ll pull on their faces if they take that step, we’ve micromanaged their heads. We tend to help too much and do it for them, which is more head-handling.

Horses want us to know they’d be crazy to trust that cue. And for some mysterious reason, every other training insecurity, past or present, seems to come up, too. For them, the question we’re asking is bigger than a step. Respect that.

Remember the fundamental law: All forward in a horse begins in his hind end. Leave his head alone. If it takes twenty minutes for him to offer a step, keep reciting this truth. Breathe, let him figure it out without interruption. Offering choice to a horse who isn’t used to it might feel confusing to him and challenge his confidence.

Some walk right off, especially if they were ground driven in training, while other horses who were started in other training methods, will start awkwardly at first. The horse doesn’t know what you want, but his brain is engaged, so reward the him for thinking. The conversation has begun. Watch his calming signals and if he says you’re too loud (by shutting down,) get quiet. Let a weight shift be a big deal. Horses learn in hindsight; they know they’re right when we release the cue, so take breaks.

Part of the point of leading from behind is that we don’t correct them, we just say yes. If that isn’t possible on grass, practice somewhere without grass. Use an arena, put obstacles out. If you want to be nice, put handfuls of hay around for the horse to find. This is supposed to be fun for them, crank up the music. Lighten up. Training doesn’t have to be so serious. Horses think we get a bit coyote-like when we think too hard.

Imagine this: Horses could feel freer on a lead rope than liberty work feels when there’s a whip. The goal is a walk of autonomy. It’s a confidence builder but it means more than that to horses. It’s about the freedom to choose. Can we let them be their most natural selves next to us? From the number of people who write to tell me of amazing improvements in other seemingly unrelated issues, I know this matters to horses in some primal way, perhaps healing things as old as the desire to graze.

At clinics, participants have a choice of groundwork, riding, or a combo for their lessons. Recently, we were at an indoor unfamiliar to the horses, with mirrors, obstacles stacked at the end, and lots of odd noises outside. We had a wide range of horses; youngsters and rescues and performance horses, but all the participants wanted to start with leading from behind. We had the best time letting the horses be curious. Every inch was explored, every horse-in-the-mirror was spellbinding. Situational awareness is life-or-death for a horse, but we can trust it to them. The release of stress was palpable all day, as the horses showed us their beauty, courage, and intellect.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any level and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage fundamentals combined with an understanding equine calming signals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines.

Anna Blake

36 thoughts on “Leading from Behind and Green Grass”

  1. Past putting it to use, but THAT explains it. Sure does take a LOT of patience – something that most of us dont seem to keep on hand! I know I lacked it big time when my boy was still here.

  2. Perfect timing for your postscript as I just tried this with a friend and her two horses she hopes will adapt to life boarding after a lifetime on a spacious farm. One was feel in sufficient stress to colic the first two days. I thought it perfect occasion for this experience. It was all you described, including grass seeking, until we just went for a walk. And while we two humans talked about other shared interests, I looked over to see her formerly stressed horse walking with ease about four feet ahead and to the right of her. Will continue to play with this concept and love how much it reveals in my own tendencies. Thanks!!

  3. I love your blog. Very helpful. I seek every way possible to have a better and higher partnership with my mule (and all equines that I encounter). Recently, she has come into a level of trust with me that blows my mind (she was a troubled mule when I got her, so it has taken quite a while to have her full confidence), and I intend to keep that trust! To me, it’s a sacred thing. I don’t ride all the time (maybe once per week, or once every 2 weeks), but I love to do ground games and exercises with her. This blog gives me ideas for our next “games day”! I will let her lead. Thank you!

  4. “He’d also like to remind you that bluntness is an under-rated superpower.”
    “Imagine this: Horses could feel freer on a lead rope than liberty work feels when there’s a whip.”‘
    Awesome!

  5. Oh singer of my soul-song!
    I’m 12 yrs old. A green-broke 2 yo pony has arrived at the school, and he doesn’t look too good. Entrusted to me, also green. Lunch breaks, I take him for walks to graze, fill him up away from where horses live, where the abundant grass is sweet. He leads, I allow.
    I’m 15 yo and a lucerne (alfalfa) crop has given way to a new freeway. My mentor scythes, I fork, we fill the ute (pickup) and a team of show horses each gets a mountain of green alfalfa that night. He called it a “green drench”.
    I’m 53 yrs old, packing alone across New South Wales in Australia. Green grass in the lanes. Old Tapestry says “That looks nice!” so we stop for lunch, throw her lead up across the pack, slip the bit of my saddle horse (her sister) and peace reigns. We are three. They never leave me, all I need to do is allow them to provide for themselves.
    I am 71 yrs old. Release the boss’s PTSD mare from her quarter acre place where she lives on hay alone, to fill up on long green grass. Why? She’s fat enough, but snatched desperately when riding. I allow all the time in the world, brush her down as she grazes. Saddle up, ride, return to another half-hour of stuffing it down. Rope is in the grass, we’re not leading from behind, but scratching sweaty places with a stiff brush as she peacefully picks along. She has learned she need not snatch as we travel, nor run from me when she is free.
    Green grass is full of water, the belly sucks the water from the grass as you ride, but don’t go too hard or fast. Makes for a much more contented horse. If water is scarce, they will survive very nicely. Green grass is also a trigger for oestrus, if you are contemplating a foal.
    It would seem this “leading from behind” as in grazing and communing has always been a part of my life. It has an old earthy peace to it.
    Anna, your insight touches me again.

  6. I am so drawn to the communion that you describe with horses, and really want that with my own, but in the case of my two-year-old, who doesn’t know very much, my (more experienced) horse friends are concerned that I want to let him be the leader and that this will make him more difficult to train or to get cooperation from (like today when we want to practice walking outside his home paddock while the herd remains inside). I haven’t lived this enough to know how to have confidence in an alternative to pressure/release. I’m deferring to their experience today but plan to continue working more this new way in the future! Any thoughts from all you more experienced folks would be greatly appreciated!

      • Just to add, it went very well through being so patient and content with his careful exploration outside the paddock. Watching his calming signals helped me to know when it was time to come back inside. We didn’t pull or force him at all and the next thing you know two of the other horses were showing interest in going for a little walk as well! It was a lovely time.

        • I know your friends are non-believers, but this approach works. We don’t need to pick a fight, horses are peaceful and willing animals. Glad you had a nice walk, good for you. Thanks, Susan.

    • Susan, I’m with you on this one, I too have care of a 2 yo, but not game to take her out of the paddock, one miss and it all goes to ruin if you lose them. With a little help, perhaps take the youngster out with 2 riders, one leading it, the other following, good way to teach them to travel, and have a grass picnic. The calmness of the saddle horses transfers to the youngster, just keep the lead loose, and the rider behind can cue him if he stops. Don’t let him pull forward, signal with the lead, then give, same as a saddle horse pulling. Try it in a confined space before venturing out. Reins in the left hand, led horse in the right, and keep a light conversation going with it. So go grab your “more experienced” friends to help you out. He’ll love it, and soon catch on. Walk and jog beside you on a loose lead, doing it by himself. No more than the two riders, it gets distracting. Good luck.

      • Louise, thank you so much for your thoughtful reply! My situation is unusual in that we’re not riding any of these horses at this time, but the groundwork is working out well with just patient and attentive moments of grazing outside the paddock. I’ve realized that the biggest problem is my own expectations that “more is better” rather than simple repetition (which ends up leading to “more” anyway). My friends are willing to slow down also, and that helps a lot!

        • I’m gradually learning how slow I can go haha. Just when I thought I was going slow, I find a new level of slow. And it feels good!

          • Kim, you are so right about slow! And to me what makes it feel good is the ideas of “enough”. I’m enough, my relationship with my horses is enough, but don’t have to be constantly striving to be better. Geez, what a relief!! Thanks for your support.

        • Susan, with these babies less is more. The very moment the horse achieves what you are looking for, end the lesson. Begin the lesson with revision, run through it all with a pat and a spell between each action/daily habit whatever, and only add one new activity at a time. Soon as he gets it, quit. If he doesn’t get it, no issue, relax, go back to something he does well, then quit. It might be something as simple as picking up a front foot. Don’t own it, its his, let him put it down. You’ve had it for a moment. Always finish on a positive note. Now you are walking out for feed, you can quit and go commune over the grass. Good way to begin too, if you have the time. I had to spend a lot of time (advance and retreat) to pass the lead over filly’s head, as you would reins or putting on the bridle, she couldn’t stand it passing the right eye. Knotted halter goes nowhere near eyes, but I noticed the shyness and have fixed it long before it can cause trouble bridling. I love Anna’s ways, also learning heaps.

          • What a wonderful gift from you to take the time to share your thoughts with me. I really appreciate it! I don’t quite have the kind of support community but need and it’s so cool to find support while also learning “Anna’s ways”. I agree it’s a unique perspective and thank you for sharing it with me. I’ll keep you posted on how the babies and I are doing.

        • Time is about all I do have, and I love sharing what I’ve learned, learning what others share. I can’t ride out with filly beside me either, she’s not mine and I don’t have my own saddle horse, boss is too busy farming, the stock horses treated like a tool to hang in the shed (stand around in big yards) when not required, get quite ratty with irregular work. Facilities are primitive. To save overloading a youngster’s brain, as you finish a training session, leave your horse thinking about the new thing he just learned, “Is that all? Are we done?” Give him something to ponder on until you return.
          Anna is quite simply a revolution in modern equine psychology, philosophy, and a godsend.

          • Wow how interesting and challenging to figure out how to function and be content in a situation that you don’t have much (any?) control over. Do you give lessons, or train, or get to teach in any way? Sounds like you do, maybe on the sly…I am so eager to be around experienced horse people just to soak up some knowledge, although ironically now I don’t really want to hear what a lot of them have to say since it’s so control-based! I follow some clicker trainers as well and my horses really seem to like it. I’m retiring next week and my life is going to be all about hanging out with horses and learning from them as well! Where are you based? I want to find some folks I can actually meet up with.

        • Susan, I’m in the Upper Hunter in NSW Australia, a caretaker tenant on an old family farm where they breed vealers, using horses for the cattle work, which is intermittent. 71 yo. Almost 6 years ago I put an ad in The Land newspaper “Horsewoman, aged pensioner seeks rural situation………..” and now I mind the original homestead, there are 4 separate holdings, they truck between them. I pay minimal rent and volunteer where needed, incl a free hand with this filly, last of a long line of this farm’s heritage. Anyone could find me on FB, pic of my old Aussie stock saddle, message me or post, its wide open. Be very happy to chat with you.

          • Thank you! I may have to break down and get on Facebook although every time I do I delete within minutes because the rush of exposure and intrusion is so overwhelming. I may be doing it wrong but it takes all of my contacts and shows me their accounts, so I imagine it shows mine to them as well. I’m an introvert who has a YouTube channel, go figure. I’m 71 as well. Growing old is not for sissies! The people you work for should be paying you or at least not charging you anything! Oh well, maybe I’ll take another stab at FB. It’s been lovely chatting with you!

  7. Okay, so I am trying this with my dog. We often fight on walks because she wants to linger and smell things. Today I will lead from behind. Obviously, dogs are not herd animals nor grazers, but seriously, she likes nothing better than smelling every square inch of the trail. So today is her day. 🙂

  8. Wow, Anna. Once again you have helped me to be a better partner wiith providing such incredible insight into my horses mind.
    Thank You!

  9. I love this one, Anna. Once again I am laughing to myself as I read and nodding my head, yes, yes..this is it and how it should be. Thank you for another delightful look at the horse’s point of view.

  10. This has long been a favorite way to say “thank you” to the horses and they nearly always vote yes, when offered to graze (in hand).

    When trail riding, we always stop at least once at a good grass area and I get off and give them snack time. Afterall, they need to keep food in their stomach to feel good.

    At a favorite nearby park, you will know, Anna-Homestead Park–there is a spot I call “McDonalds” for the horses. We Always stop, get off and give them a short grazing period at this spot. It has decent prairie grass and boulders for re-mounting. If I’m with a friend and get to chatting, my horse will pull over when we get to McDonalds’–they Never forget. This simple ensured-grazing-opportunity helped to convince a horse we rescued 6 years ago, that trail riding could be rewarding for him too.

  11. A friend sent me a link to this post, asking if I had seen your previous work about leading from behind. I replied that I had only been following your thoughts on this subject from the first moment I saw it launch from your finger tips on the keyboard. My friend said it may be your best post ever. I totally agree and feel so fortunate to be able to observe this totally cutting edge progress for horses and their people IN REAL TIME. Need I say more?

  12. Thank you Anna.

    Brilliant! I think I’m (finally) starting to understand that in “leading from behind” we’re not meant to be ‘leading’ at all. The point is to let my mare choose the movie. And my challenge is to go along as her partner, relishing and encouraging every scene, plot twist, and character of our adventure together! I can do that.

    I’ve already experienced AMAZING results with haltering and fly-masking both of my horses, by simply offering the contraption, and letting them decide when and in the case of fly masks, IF they want me to put it on. My gelding acts like he LOVES his fly mask. I just hold it open from across the paddock, and he looks, licks, chews, and struts right over and sticks his ears in it. Much less stressful all around from when I more or less ran him down and stuffed his face in it.

    Thank you so much for the clarification. I look forward to the continuing journey of learning and mutual respect.

    • Great comment, thank you. LFB is that weird, describing it as a movie date is great… and I love the fly mask pat. What cracks me up is the assumptions we make, when we give them a choice, are frequently wrong. He loves his flymask… teehee.

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