The other day I observed a young woman and her horse. She took it out of the (sandy) paddock and walked towards the stables. She marched in front, chatting with her friend who groomed her horse some meters away, and didn’t look much at her horse. Tempted by the fresh spring grass, the horse almost immediately pulled on the lead rope in the direction of the grass and took a few bites. The horse owner on the other end of the rope was stopped in her tracks. Angry, she turned around, reprimanded the horse by giving a sharp tuck on the rope, and said something along the lines of “I have told you a thousand times…!”.
I see situations like this very often and I always find them very unfair towards the horse. The horse didn’t do anything wrong. It was the owner who didn’t lead the horse, who didn’t give direction and who didn’t connect with the horse. She didn’t ask the horse to stay with her, or to walk in a specific direction, or told him how fast he should walk. She just dragged him behind her and expected him to follow.
The other variation that I see often is that the horse runs ahead, wanting to get to the stable fast (probably because there is food), dragging the owner along until he is in his box. In both cases, the human failed to “lead”.
The first thing I will start with a horse in training is leading, and I believe it is the most important thing to do! Without good leading, without making clear who walks where, how fast, in which direction, there cannot be good communication and there cannot be togetherness. Otherwise we depend on the mood of our horse, if he will be hungry for grass today, or if he will be fast or slow. Or the horse will depend on our mood, if we will not care, or if we will be annoyed by him. Clear rules for leading, which are in place EVERY TIME, EVERY DAY, are absolutely essential!
And we must remember that we have to lead ALL THE TIME. Not just when we want to do some groundwork. We lead the horse from the stables to the paddock, from the paddock to the stables, to the wash box, to the mounting block, in the forest for a walk. We can’t expect the horse to follow us if we just lead sometimes, for example during groundwork, and the rest of the time we don’t adhere to our own rules. That doesn’t make us very reliable in the eyes of the horse.
Of course we can decide to follow, or to be lead. I enjoy giving my horses the lead sometimes. But then we should not reprimand the horse for it’s decisions.