You’re out hacking with friends. Suddenly, you round a corner, and there’s a ditch! Your horse stops and looks. Uh oh! Now what? Kicking doesn’t seem to be working. Your friends are waiting for you, and it looks like this is going to be a problem. But…it’s really not a problem if you get organized – and get a “lead”. What’s the safe way to get over the ditch without scaring your horse or creating more problems? Giving a lead is a safe way to teach an inexperienced horse to be confident about obstacles and uses a logical, inherent equine instinct to do it. It’s the herd mentality – following another, staying close to each other, the safety in numbers, the trust that the herd together is stronger and safer than one alone.
When you give a lead, you ride your experienced horse in front of the greenie, allowing him to follow you to and over the obstacle. When you take a lead, you encourage your horse to follow the horse in front closely enough to take the obstacle behind the lead horse. Most horses will follow one another even over strange or fearful jumps provided the lead horse is not too far in front, and the green horse is close enough to gain courage from the leading horse. And this is the key to successful use of this technique – keeping close.
Some of the pitfalls in giving and taking leads has to do with spacing. If your green horse stops while the lead horse goes on, chances are you were too far back, allowing your horse to get a good look and provide him with time to decide how to stop or avoid the jump. Getting too close to the lead horse is also dangerous — you don’t want a green horse to jump on top of the leader, as they take an extra big leap to get over the obstacle. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you can see the hocks of the horse in front. That should give you about a length and a half, which should be enough clearance at the take off.
Where you want to establish the herd-following instinct is back before your approach to the jump. Well away from the obstacle, get your lead process started. Have your lead buddy start to trot a large circle. Put your horse next to the lead horse, let them match strides at the trot. Ride side by side for a while and just “establish the forward”. Then, if you are riding the greenie, ease your horse back so it is FOLLOWING, rather than beside, the lead horse. Important: keep the same trot speed of your lead horse — not too fast but not jogging or jigging, either. When you ease back, put your horse RIGHT BEHIND the lead horse. See how each horse reacts. Your lead horse rider, too, should be watching her horse’s reaction and keeping up the pace. Some lead horses just don’t want a horse really close, and others don’t care. Keep an eye on the ears and the tail. A horse will signal with their body language if you are too close for comfort. Get the right following distance, and then keep the gap closed. Try a figure-8 or a couple of changes of direction, concentrating on the gap, and encouraging your green horse to keep close to the lead horse. Experiment with the nose-to-tail closeness, then widen it a little to the jumping distance – where you can see the hocks of the horse in front of you or even further apart.
The idea is to get your green horse to FOLLOW the lead horse and to become comfortable within just a few minutes of letting that horse be the leader. Let the instincts work for you — don’t mess too much with their mouths or try to change their frame, let the horse accept the leader and then follow it. The herd instinct is so strong that it can awakened in horses very quickly. It’s like an invisible string that connects the horses.
The riding school teaches you to stay away from other horses, but this is one instance when you really do want to stay close to the other horse. Once you’ve got your distance down pat, it’s time to approach your obstacle again. When your lead horse starts off, begin by putting your horse’s nose as close as you can to the lead horse’s tail. That sounds really close but it has a purpose. You want your horse to follow the front horse blindly. If they are that close they can’t look around and find a way out.
Establish the forward – as the lead horse increases pace, make sure you let your horse keep up. Keep as close as you can, directly behind. If you let your horse go to the side you actually put yourself in a kicking spot – keeping directly behind is actually safer as the horses know how to react when a horse is behind them.
Once your greenie is following and keeping up, you should make your horse follow exactly in the same hoofprints as your leader. This way you establish that you want a path that is exactly like the path of the horse in front. Your leader will head toward the jump or obstacle, and now it’s your turn to concentrate on your spacing and focusing on keeping the lead horse close. Remember, you will need a bit more space to jump, so this is the critical part of your ride, where you allow the gap to widen for safety in jumping the obstacle, but still have to keep your green horse focused on following! Now is not the time to sort of say, “oh well,” and let your horse fade; instead, don’t let the lead horse do all the work — keep encouraging your horse to follow; keep riding! Once your horse has hesitated, that is O.K., don’t panic. Perhaps your lead horse has gone on a few more lengths and your greenie is not sure he can get over that ditch, too. Keep your encouragement up, and let go of his mouth! Let that invisible string work. This is where your lead rider, having already negotiated the obstacle, should slow up and allow your horse to keep the distance closed. If necessary a lead rider can return and retake. It might take a few times! Be patient and don’t give up.
Lead riders need to judge their pace and keep the lead horse in a straight line, and check behind them to see that the green horse following is not too far back. Don’t hesitate yourself in front of the obstacle, but go ahead and take it, then wait on the other side for the green horse to come on.
Often, just a horse up ahead on the trail is enough to get a green horse to feel confident enough to go on. Be cautious if you are riding a horse that is not sure about having someone so close to their behind! Extend the distance if your horse shows any discomfort about having a horse’s nose in their tail to avoid a kick.
When I give leads, I usually do it on a good quiet well schooled horse that I am sure will take the obstacle without hesitation. I tell the following rider to put their horse’s nose on his tail. That’s the way the mustangs do it when they trail in the wild, they are nose to tail and that really creates a sense of comfort in a horse, they trust the one in front. And it helps to be patient — remember, you are creating confidence, not punishing for not doing it. You want him to look at a ditch and say, “Oh, I can do that”, rather than, “oh dear, here comes a beating again.”
Everyone needs a lead now and then, so hopefully this will help you the next time you and your friends need some help to get over something scary!