On the Trail: The Need to Lead

Your horse revs his motor as though he's at the starting line of a race. He focuses ahead, chomps on the bit, jerks the reins, tosses his head, jigs and bucks. Paying no attention to you or the other horses, he shoves his way into the lead. Sound familiar? If your horse is the boss on the trail, you need to take control now, before someone gets hurt.

Follow the Leader

There are three primary reasons for your horse’s fight-to-the-front behavior. The leading causes involve his rank in the herd hierarchy and fear of being left behind and ambushed by a predator. Horses depend on herd-mates for survival. If a predator threatens, the herd relies on the lead horse to direct them to safety. On a trail ride, you change the herd organization, thus taking your horse out of his comfort zone. If you try to control his position in line he’s likely to become insecure toward the back.

A secondary possible cause: as a rider you inadvertently train the horse to act this way by what you do or don’t do. If you frequently race your riding buddies or drill your horse on timed events, you encourage him to take charge. You need to establish a balanced riding program that includes sufficient controlled, relaxed riding.

Another example is letting your horse bounce around when he’s excited, afraid or angry. Control your horse’s nervous energy and put him to work. Approach it as a training correction, rather than a disciplinary issue, because no matter what the reason, the problem is still instinctual.

Developing a trusting relationship with your horse and focusing his attention on you helps resolve his rush. However, this takes patience and perseverance. Avoid punishment, as it only escalates the bad (instinctual) behavior. Instead, patently and gradually train your horse. Don’t fall into panic mode and insist your horse stop or stand still. It’s not going to happen. Control the nervous energy through work.

Simple Solution

Be sure to let the group know your plans – Discuss the plan and options before mounting up. Ride with people who are interested in safety and understand riding at the level of the person having the most difficulty.

1. Start at the back.

Begin toward the back of the group, riding two-handed with direct-rein control and remaining relaxed. Don’t punish or fight him. Avoid tensing and pulling back on the reins or your horse could rear. Move on to step 2.

2. Turn your horse.

Once your horse tries to surge forward ignoring your soft request to slow and maintain distance, cue him to turn around. Most likely he ignores your cue. Immediately, with one rein loose, use the direct rein to turn in a tight circle. As he completes the 360 degrees, release the horse and allow him to follow the horse ahead. Leave both reins loose, relax, breath and smile. You have begun to teach control.

As he closes in on the lead horse again, ask him to slow softly. When he does not, turn him in the opposite direction. Use direct rein to guide him in a tight circle. As your horse completes the 360 degrees, release the direct rein, breath, relax and smile. Continue until you notice improvement and watch for the trail to widen.

3. Ride to the front.

Find a wide spot in the trail and jog ahead of the group to the point where he can’t see the rest of the group. This puts his nervous energy to work and pushes him through his comfort zone to where he feels insecure and thus, learns to listen to you.

When your trail mates are out of sight your horse may become nervous. That’s okay, you must make him uncomfortable to get him focused on you and encourage the desired behavior. Put him to work as described in step 2.

4. Perform familiar maneuvers.

Once your horse is in the lead, perform simple maneuvers to encourage him to relax and listen to you. Practice serpentines or walk-jog-walk transitions. When he complies with your cues, allow him to take a few free steps, then repeat. Continue working until he forgets about the group and takes his cues from you.

5. Ride circles.

Walk your horse in large circles moving toward, and then away from the group to gauge his responsiveness and prepare him to re-enter the pack quietly. Support him around the circle with your direct rein and leg. You might need to repeat this technique on several rides.

Happy riding!

Story originally posted by: Mike Kinsey – from Backcountry Basics

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