When I get a new horse in training, regardless of its experience, I generally spend a good amount of time working on leading. To some, this may seem like a trivial waste of time – “he already leads! He’s here for canter work!” Or some such thing. Firstly, I’ll start out by saying accurate leading is so much more than putting a halter and lead on and dragging a horse around. And secondly, a horse that leads accurately is safer, more responsive to riding aids, and will more willingly load or cross into areas that might have otherwise created resistance.
So to begin, what exactly is accurate leading?
To me, a horse that is properly halter broke is one who understands and responds to the feel of the lead rope without resistance. This horse leaves the slack in the lead rope, and does not drag behind or pull ahead. This horse knows how to speed up, slow down, stop, back up, and turn when the feel of the rope changes without resistance. They don’t pull back, step on top of you, or crowd you.
Why does it matter so much?
I can tell pretty quickly from leading a horse how they’re going to handle under saddle. If they drag on the lead rope, pretty frequently these types of horses are heavy in the hands, stiff in the neck, and heavy on the forehand. If they are tough to speed up on the ground, you can pretty well bet they won’t respond to the leg promptly, and if they’re running over the top of you, well, you have some big problems there, too.
If I can get a horse operating on the lead rope well, not only can I tune up these riding issues before I’ve ever stepped in the stirrup, I can also make a more peaceful horse. Horses do not love being pulled on, and they also do not love pulling on you. They’re just doing what they know, and what their education has set them up to do. I can get them lighter in their shoulders and more balanced from just proper lead rope work – a horse who is resistant to lead forward is often very heavy on the forehand, therefore canter work (if that’s what he’s here for) is going to be a battle if he’s dragging around. The more little pieces I can help him make sense of and connect, the easier the more advanced stuff will be for him.
It makes a much safer horse. I don’t need to tell you that a horse that steps on you isn’t too fun to handle. Teaching these guys where to be and when makes all the difference. A properly halter broke horse will NOT jump on top of you when scared by something (provided you have given them enough space and have not trapped them and given them no other option). They will load in trailers, lead into wash racks, and walk over scary things on the ground, if you give them time and preparation, because they know how to respond to the lead rope. They will not pull back when tied (again, assuming you have not put them in a situation where they have no choice).
So many times, a riding issue can be cleared up by just tuning up your leading. If all you did was commit to better leading for 30 days, you would find a much easier ride the next time you climb I to the saddle. It sounds simple, because it is, but it isn’t always easy.