Leading Horse
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

You can do this before AND after your ride, to and from the field, or whenever you have a chance to be at your horse's side.

It's nothing special really, as it should be part of your regular handling routine.

But as we all know, we tend to let our expectations slide from time to time, then more regularly, until at some point (maybe when we get pushed into or dragged off with), we remember that we really should be doing this ALL. THE. TIME.

If you're familiar with Showmanship in the Western Performance Classes, then maybe you actually DO do this all the time! But I'm sure most of us don't!

What is it?

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Well, it's a simple leading routine. But I wonder how many of us do this regularly?

Exercise 1

The goal of this exercise is to get your horse to walk with you, at your side.

For the sake of clarity, I'm going to be very particular:

  • horse's head is at your shoulder
  • horse walks at your speed
  • horse doesn't go ahead of you
  • horse doesn't lag behind
  • no pull on the lead to make the horse go (visual cues only)
  • no verbal cues (yes! Get the horse tuned into your body language)

Walk on:

Your horse should start walking as soon as your shoulder starts to move forward. So the horse's cue is that you start walking (no leaning forward or giving any extra indication that you're going to walk - no, not even a cluck verbal cue). He should stay with his head at your right shoulder at all times.

If your horse isn't familiar with this and needs some help to understand to "tune in" to your shoulder, you may need to carry a crop with you to urge him forward as you start walking. I would hold it in my left hand and tap him from behind me, while the right hand continues to be steady on the lead. However, the end of the lead rope is likely just fine. Swing it behind you and that will probably get your horse walking on.


The only cue for halting is that you stop walking.

Again, the horse's head should stay at your shoulder. So he shouldn't keep walking after you've stopped.

If he does keep walking, use the lead rope and pull back until he stops. Repeat many times until he responds to your shoulder.

Once your horse responds regularly, you can move on to:

Exercise 2

After the halt, do a back up.

The goal is to have the horse backing up without fuss - no pulling on the lead - sharply, straight and using diagonal pairs of legs.

  • your body is positioned slightly to the left of the horse (exactly where you were leading from)
  • the horse walks at your speed backward
  • his body is straight and the your line of travel is straight
  • your lead stays in the right hand, ideally no extra pressure or shaking of the lead
  • horse uses diagonal pairs of legs (as in, slow, stilted steps are not what we're looking for)

To initiate the back-up, halt first. Then s-l-o-w-l-y turn your body to face the horse. This will give the horse time to see that you are no longer going forward, and that you are preparing for the back-up.

As you turn, your left shoulder will start to turn into the horse's space.

The horse should then back out of that space, at the speed of your walking steps. Go fast enough for him to use diagonal pairs as he's backing.

If your horse needs help getting started, once again, I use the end of the lead rope and swing it in the direction of his chest, right between the front legs. The motion of the lead is usually enough to get the horse to start moving his feet.

Back up enough steps to

a) get the horse out of your space

b) build momentum

c) go straight

The key to getting a good back-up is to have lots of energy. Again, the final picture is that the horse should literally start backing up as you turn your left shoulder into "his space."

Well, that's it!

Sounds really simple but I wonder how many of us are that particular when we're leading the horse....

Do it when your horse least expects it. Walk forward, stop, turn to face the horse, back up, stop, face forward and walk on. Again and again until your horse is your shadow. Play with the speed - slow, then fast, then slow. Be sure to praise all his efforts.

Why do this exercise? 

Most of all, it's for the safety of the ground person. It sets up a bubble for you ("my space") and a bubble for your horse to be in ("your space"). It teaches your horse to walk alongside you - which we all know is so important especially when leading outside.

The ultimate result would be when the person is leading her horse and has to suddenly stop, and the horse instantly stops right alongside the person. No yanking on the lead rope necessary.

Or if the horse and leader are stuck in a situation where they have to back up and it's all done with grace, poise and calmness.

It also teaches you to be consistent in your expectations and to develop a rapport with your horse.

Do this anytime, anywhere. It literally takes less than 5 minutes!

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    1. You can use the lead rope to push her hind end over in the opposite direction to straighten up. Make sure you’re walking straight. Straighteness will develop with practice.

  1. Hello,
    If you do this every time and the horse needs to give this reaction without cue (no voice or anything), then how do you make a difference when you don’t want the horse to back up and you want your horse to stand still? I am pretty sure that if i would want to mount on my horse she would be so clever to use this and keep backing up so that i wouldn’t be able to reach her back anymore hehe 🙂 how does my horse then know when i would want her to stand still while i walk towards her back and while i want her to back up while i also walk towards her back?

    1. That’s a great question. The movement is initiated by your movement. So if you stop, facing forward, she stops. If you turn to face her but still stationary, she should be stopped. When you start walking toward her, she should start stepping away from your movement (in this case, backing up). When you stop again, still facing her, she should stop again. If you’re going to face her to get on, for example, you’re not pushing her away with your body (intention) so she shouldn’t step away. Does that make sense? Everything is very subtle.

      1. Yes I can understand the intention is very important but I personally find this difficult. It makes me doubt myself. I have a very sensitive horse and I should be happy about it but sometimes that is hard too. Often I think it would be easier on cue because as she is so sensitive I often give cues without being aware of anything myself. So yes I understand you do this on intention. She is to know on when she needs to follow my movement or when she needs to stand depending on the energy that I give her. I will need to work on my intention and be more “in the moment” with this horse!

    2. Hi Sandy, I’m with you, I like to give my horse a subtle cue if I want him to move. Often it is just one soft cluck. I want him to stand still no matter where I move unless I let him know I want him to move by using a cue, usually a verbal cue.

  2. Excellent article! My horse is treat-motivated, so with a treat, we can take it to the next level. (No, not very well, but horses love fun, too!) To back up, I don’t turn around, I walk backwards, and he does, too, keeping his head at my right shoulder. We also try stopping, turning, changing speed, and changing direction without warning. After a few treat repetitions, we can sometimes stay focused without the lead. (I think we don’t ask enough of our horses routinely. Look at liberty and other performing horses, and horses as service animals. They really want to be good horses and want to do more to please us!)

  3. Great reminder of the basics. I have to say, I never backed using your method but I like it. I resume riding (after an 18 month hiatus) riding next week (on a new horse) and am anxious to try it. Thanks!

  4. You didn’t cover forging. My 18 hand horse outpaces me. Often l have to make circles depending upon how far we’re going.

  5. I love doing in hand work but I think it’s really interesting that in horsemanship you stand by the horses head.
    Here in the UK it is drilled into us to do everything at the horses shoulder as it gives you more control and out of the main kick zones.