Caron Whaley, Horse Behaviourist April 15, 2015

Does your horse lead?

“Perfectly!” most owners reply, which is true even for most problem loaders when they’re being led as part of their regularly routine: morning turnout, stable for dinner or even to the arena for work.

But how well do they lead when they’re heading towards something they don’t like to do or that frightens them: trailer loading, vet, dentist or farrier visit? Do you see any holes in your relationship starting to show as this is when seemingly quiet, easy horses can transform into bracing, pulling back, rearing monsters with little or no respect for the person on the other end of the lead rope.

The more you can influence the movement of your horse’s feet through respectful training techniques the more you assume the leadership role. Within any group of horses, hierarchy is determined by who moves whom. So when it’s come to you and your horse, holes in your leading means a lack of respect which your horse will be the first to use to his advantage when he doesn’t like where he’s going.

Key #1 Teach your horse the following basics of respectful leading before you ever try to load:

  1. Walking politely with their nose at your shoulder on a relaxed lead rope (especially when heading towards the paddock or stable for dinner).
  2. Stopping when your feet stop and walking on when you move, without the need to pull or restrain with the lead rope.
  3. Back up or step over when you use a light cue such as a touch to his shoulder/chest or use light pressure on the lead rope.
  4. Yield to pressure of the lead rope i.e. if they feel a firm pressure on the lead rope they follow the pull (yield) and do not brace against it.

When you’re training these behaviours let go of your ‘lead rope death grip’ and let your horse make the mistakes; this way he learns by the reward or consequence that follows 2 seconds after the mistaken behaviour. Here’s an example of an unwanted behaviour and how to apply a training consequence to correct it:

If your horse tries to tow you along because he wants to get to paddock faster:

  1. Firmly take hold of the lead rope and ask him to stop
  2. Ask him to take a step back (the uncomfortable pressure on his nose is the consequence of the towing)
  3. When he stops and backs up immediately, release the pressure and walk on.
  4. Every time he forges ahead, apply the same consequence but be fair and consistent with your application of the consequence. If you give up after 5 tries because it didn’t seem to work, you have just trained your horse to understand that persistence pays of.

Practising and ironing out any problems in your leading before you attempt to load your horse is a major key in successful loading.

Who is moving whom?

Here are 3 key behaviours your horse may use to move you:


Behavior - brings his head and neck into your personal space, maybe even bumping into you; this moves your feet or he uses you as a convenient scratching post.

Message - it’s not because your horse loves to be close its more likely he considers you a lower ranking herd member that can be moved around. If your horse doesn’t respect your personal space, you may struggle when you challenge him with trailer loading, leading or to calm him in a fearful situation.


Behaviour – bumping his shoulder into you and physically moving you over.

Message – he doesn’t want to go where you’re asking him to and 500 kg horses that have learned this trick can be dangerous for a 60kg human to deal with as they can put you on the ground quickly; remember that a horse that has a successful outcome twice has learned a new behaviour.


Behaviour – walking off the side of the trailer ramp as you try to load him rather than following you on.

Message – he doesn’t want to load and by stepping off the side it forces you to walk back down the ramp and reposition him before you try loading again; you may feel you’re helping your horse by lining him up straight but ‘off the ramp’ results in him being turned away from the trailer as you reposition him and that’s a good thing from his perspective.

Key #2 - Gain control of movement and ensure the following before you ever try to load:

  1. Always maintain a bubble of personal space and any encroachment by your horse is addressed in a firm but non aggressive manner.
  2. Expand the leading work in Key - #1 to include groundwork exercises (i.e. turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches) that ask your horse to move his feet and remain respectful of your personal space. The lighter, more respectful a horse is to your requests to move the less likely he/she is to try and control a stressful situation by moving you.
  3. If your horse makes an undesired move, i.e. taking the ‘off the ramp’ position, rather than moving your feet and repositioning yourself apply pressure to the lead rope and ask the horse to take a step in the desired direction, i.e to step towards or onto the ramp, and reward this behaviour by releasing the pressure on the lead rope (primary reinforcer/reward) and giving him a reassuring stroke on the face or shoulder (secondary reinforcer/reward). This way he learns the ‘off the ramp’ position is an ineffective strategy in avoiding loading.

Being aware of who is moving whom and practising exercises that allow you to influence the movement of your horse’s feet, in a relaxed and respectful manner, before you attempt to load your horse is a major key in successful loading.

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