Leading Your Horse- What NOT to do
If you haven’t read the previous post about leading your horse, you can find it here.
Besides using harsh and unnecessary aides when leading their horses, there are four main things I see people doing incorrectly when leading their horses.
DO NOT Escalate a Situation
The ranch is supposed to be a place where we relax and destress from our day. Unfortunately, the ranch and working with horses can be as stressful as anyplace else. Sometimes we are on our last nerve, and the horse we are working with is trampling all over it. Yelling at a horse and screaming at it to back up or stop is seriously unhelpful, however.
There are times when a “Hey! Knock it off mare!” or something similar is necessary, especially when the mare is attacking her neighbor over the fence (who she was probably best friends with yesterday). This is not what I see when people are leading a naughty horse, however. What I see is a horse who is obviously “up” and stressed, and the owner gets annoyed and screams at them.
Yelling at a horse doesn’t teach him anything. It is actually close to impossible to teach any mammal when they are frightened (1)– the hippocampus stimulates a “fight or flight” response, inhibiting our pre-frontal cortex, which drastically reduces the ability to learn (2). Obviously the human brain is different from the horse brain, but the comparison is relatively the same. If you are scaring your horse, you are creating a situation that a) shouldn’t be a situation, and b) can actually prevent your horse from learning anything.
Basically, take it down a notch. Being firm and having a strong voice does NOT mean yelling.
DO NOT Jerk on the Rope
I see this a LOT at stables. For example, a person gets a horse out of his stall. The horse is excited and prances out, or, he sees something and decides to be silly while on the line. Instead of calming the horse, stopping him and teaching him to lead correctly, the person jerks multiple times on the rope, pulling on the horse’s nose and poll. The horse throws his head up as a way to get away from the pain from the jerking on his nose and behind his ears, which does stop him, but it doesn’t teach him anything.
How do I know this doesn’t teach him anything? Because I keep seeing this over and over and over again. If this worked, all of the horses who had their head jerked around by someone who has little to no patience would learn not to do that behavior again. Instead, I see horses being horses- because they are horses- and people continue to jerk and pull on the lead rope instead of getting the horse’s attention and calmly teaching them appropriate behavior by backing them up or asking them to calmly stand.
DO NOT Swing the Rope Back and Forth Violently
This is a technique that I see with some natural horse trainers, and I want to state publicly that this is a TERRIBLE way to train your horse. The video isn’t great because it shows me and doesn’t show too much of Gypsy as she backs up, but if you watch the video, you will see her throw her head up, back up, and get visibly upset. This is not unique to Gypsy- this is the response that these trainers apparently thing is appropriate because it gets the horse to move away from you.
There are two reasons why you should NEVER do this unless you feel that your are in physical danger from the horse coming at you. First of all, the swinging of the rope back and forth puts the rope into the horse’s face, and they will put their face up and back away to get away from the situation. But now you have a scared horse who is heavy on his hind and his face is up in the air. Your horse is just one step away from rearing, and that is the most dangerous behavior you can experience. You can move away from a kicking or biting horse. A horse who rears, however, can strike you while in the air, on the way down, and when they finally land, can land on a person, or near a person, then knock them over. We spend so much time PREVENTING the horse from rearing- why do something that might encourage that behavior?
For all of those people who say, “Oh, I do this all of the time, and my horse doesn’t rear,” I ask you- if it works so well, why are you doing it all of the time? And why would you possibly put yourself in a situation where he might?
The second reason why you should not perform this is because it scares your horse. Again, your horse cannot learn if he is scared. Watch the video and see how long it takes for Gypsy, who was calm and docile before I swung the rope back and forth, to relax even a little. For the record, it took about 30 minutes and a LOT of cookies before Gypsy decided I was a decent human being again.
DO NOT Expect Your Horse to Be Perfect Without Training or Continued Reinforcement
Again, every time you work with your horse you are training him. You cannot get frustrated after a few weeks when he is still needing reinforcement, or a few years later and he is not perfect. Some horses will test you to make the rules are still the same- I see this with Gypsy, and I’ve talked with other Mustang owners who have said their horses will do this as well- they are just making sure the herd dynamics are the same. Usually these are just tiny little tests that I correct without thinking much about them, and unless you were paying close attention, you wouldn’t even notice that there was a test at all.
Other horses will continue to test to make sure that the rules are the same because they are not comfortable. I see this quite a bit with horses who have been abused or have had multiple trainers with multiple different ways of training- the horse tests because he wants to make sure the rules are the same- if the basic leading rules are the same, it means the rest of the rules hold as well. This may seem silly, but I deal with the same issues when I teach in a classroom- some students will “test” really basic classroom rules, and if I constantly reinforce proper behavior, they feel more secure because then they know that the rest of the rules are the same. Rules create security, and reinforcing appropriate behavior helps your horse feel more secure; this is why it is so important that you need to be consistent with your training.
Additionally, you have to realize that are horses who are just kind of jerks and do their own thing. This could be for a lot of reasons, but by being consistent instead of being aggressive and scaring the horse, you can develop a relationship with him, and teach him to trust you. Sometimes it takes a while, but unless there are physical reasons (like severe neurological issues), eventually he should come around.
Finally, there are some horses who are just high strung. No matter how calm you are, the horse is wound tighter than an eight-day clock. These horses need you to create a situation that is calming and with a great deal of structure, because they are already working on a fight-or-flight pattern of behavior, which, again, prevents learning. You need to reinforce the rules for his own peace of mind- and you need to just accept that that is something he needs from you.
If you have any specific questions about anything I’ve discussed about leading, or other topics, please feel free to send me a message and I will try to respond in 24-48 hours!