Training Mythunderstandings: Green Horse Lessons: Adding the Lead Rope

I’ve taken my baby green horse from knowing nothing about people or interacting with them up to the point where our pattern of interaction creates a feels in him that I’m safe to be with. Our pattern of interaction has shown him that I am not threatening and that I work in a horse-logical, rhythmic and relaxed way that allows him to be rhythmic and relaxed.

I’ve shown him how to respond to pressures. When I create a corridor of pressures using the wall or fence on one side of his primary line of influence and myself on the other side of it and start following him, he has learned that moving forward partially relieves those pressures. I’ve shown him that when I relieve the corridor of pressures by stepping farther away from his primary line, he can ensure I won’t reapply the pressure by turning and coming up to me.

So he’s learned to move away from the pressure of being followed to relieve it and he’s learned he can make it go away even more completely by coming up to me when I invite him into my space. When he does that, he gets scratched on and loved on. The pattern of rhythm and relaxation doesn’t change. Life is pretty good.

As his training continues, I want the horse to continue feeling safe with me as I introduce new corridors of pressure and enlarge the “vocabulary” we can use to communicate. I always use the quietest corridor of pressures possible to show him what I want before I ask him to do it. If the horse does not understand, I do not simply make the same pressures “louder.” I never want to raise any pressure to the startle level. I don’t tell him what to do until I’m sure he feels what it is that my corridor of pressures is showing him. And I don’t enforce whatever I’ve told him to do unless I’m absolutely certain the horse completely feels what the corridor of pressures is suggesting he do.

So, at some point when the green horse comes up to me and I’m scratching and loving on him, I’m going to snap a lead rope onto his halter for the first time. I don’t intend to use the lead rope to control the horse. I don’t plan to pull him forward, pull him backward or use it to push or pull him to one side or the other. I just stand there with a loop of slack in the rope and wait until he gets restless enough to want to leave.

When he leaves, I let him lead the dance. I turn and face forward so our primary lines are now parallel and I just follow along with my secondary line of influence through my shoulders lined up just ahead of the horse’s secondary line that runs roughly through his withers. If I can keep up with his stride and he’s a horse that pays good attention, he may mirror my footsteps. A horse that pays full attention will be paying attention to the rhythm and pattern I’m setting with my feet and pick it up. But I won’t get this with very many horses right in the beginning.

So we just walk along together. When the horse’s attention wanders, I scratch him a little or bump him with my elbow or lean on him a little to get his attention back on me. I may even swing my leg sideways and bump his upper leg just a touch. Depending on the emotional makeup of the horse I’m working with, I’ll start to do something that gets the horse’s attention back on me. But I do not use the lead rope to guide him or steer him or to give him any signals. I want the horse’s attention on my position and presence, not on the rope.

Now we’re coming to one of the reasons why I like to work with green horses in arenas with corners rather than round pens. Eventually as we’re wandering around, we’re going to start approaching a corner where a fence or wall creates one side of a corridor of pressures and my presence creates the other side of that corridor. The horse is going to become aware that if we continue on a straight line, he’s going to come to a dead end and be trapped by that corner.

Let’s assume I’m on the horse’s left side and the wall is on his right. I do not use the lead rope to pull or guide him through the corner. Instead, I give him a horse-logical solution to the dilemma by using my body the way another horse would use its body. Staying just ahead of his secondary line with our primary lines parallel, I turn my shoulders away from the wall and swing my primary line to the left. This creates a feel in the horse that there is a space to the left that he can move into and avoid being trapped in the corner.

Now I am beginning to lead the dance. I want the horse to pay attention to my presence and to follow my lead. At some point when we are approaching a corner, I am going to show the horse that when I stop moving my feet, he should stop moving his feet. I do this by quietly going into the corner without opening my primary line and then I stop moving my feet. If I’ve kept everything I do with the horse rhythmic and relaxed, going into the corner should not create a big emotional charge. As the horse stops, I’m going to turn and face his shoulder and start scratching and loving to show him this was the right response. I didn’t use the lead rope because that would teach him to lean on it or the feeling of having his head trapped might have startled him and interrupted the feeling of rhythm and relaxation.

After we’ve stood there awhile, I turn, line up our shoulders, and put our primary lines parallel to one another. Then I turn my shoulders to the inside to open up my primary line and invite the horse into the space I’ve opened up. I’ll step with my feet to indicate I want him to move his feet. If he still doesn’t move, I’ll change his balance a little by leaning on him right behind his shoulder in order to create a feel of moving. I start easy, back the leaning pressure off, then add a little more if he’s still not moving. Very often, since you’re not using the lead rope to mess with his head, he’ll move his head away and as his head swings back, it moves his whole body toward you and begins a stride.

So we’ll work on stopping in corners from both sides until we’re good at it. Then we’ll work on stopping when there’s not a corner. And so on until we’ve practiced to the point where the horse is paying attention to our presence and mirroring what we do going forward and turning.

One way to teach the horse how to back up is to use a whip handle (or you can call it a stick or a wand if you like those terms better) to show the horse which foot you want him to move. As each front foot goes forward, so does the shoulder. So as the horse is walking forward, you hold the whip handle in front of him and put alternate pressure on whichever shoulder is moving forward (you’re going to wind up rocking the handle). The horse begins to associate the pressure with the movement of that shoulder and foot.

Now, with the horse standing still, you use the whip handle to put pressure on one of the horse’s shoulders to ask for that foot to move. You face backward as you do this, stepping with your feet to help create a feel of moving back rather than forward when the horse moves the foot. As the horse moves that foot, you move the handle and put pressure on the other shoulder to ask the horse to move the other foot.

Remember with any pressure you’re applying not to get greedy. Backing is a good example of this. The first time you ask for a backward step, if the horse even lifts a foot without moving forward, he’s responded correctly. If you push him to do it again without giving him a reward (removing this new pressure and going back to something he already knows and feels good about doing), you’ve ruined it.

In the beginning, you’re just showing him the connection between a pressure and a foot. Don’t spoil anything you’ve shown the horse by demanding more and more and more of it. The horse needs time after each response to “process” and understand how his reaction to a pressure relieved that pressure. The younger the horse is, the longer this “understand” time has to be.

Contributed By
: Ron Meredith