Here’s Norman, the new kid at the barn. He’s a young Percheron-TB cross with pretty wonderful gaits and a sweet personality. Sometimes he furrows his brow, confused as an awkward teenager. Like most horses, he wants to do the right thing but he can worry a bit. Considering his age and new home, it’s fair. But then, who couldn’t use a boost in confidence?
Infinity Farm is on a dirt road with the riding arena out front. Norman and his rider were doing groundwork before their lesson, just his second day of leading from behind, but his rider had found her spot and it was starting to click. Norman was curious, marching out, investigating. He was walking an arc when all of us saw the road grader. Roaring loud, followed by a huge dust cloud, a monster fighting the washboard road. Now what? But Norman, relaxed and forward, paid it no mind. It was a moment spectacular in its understatement.
Confidence is a sign of well-being in a horse.
One of the challenges with horses is understanding what a training method means to them, compared to what we think it means. For all we have in common with horses, there are also just as many things that don’t translate. We confuse anxiety for affection. We’re surprised by what does, or doesn’t, spook a horse. And sometimes pushing a method of training can end up getting the opposite result than we intended.
And we’re human. Most riders say partnership is their top goal but often we try to train them to behave like robots. No bad intention and not in a physically abusive way, but humans do love obedience. We like to micromanage his movement, his behaviors. We even want to micromanage his emotions.
Just let him move forward. Let him find his natural balance.
Balance is a bigger question for horses than we understand. It’s one of those things that doesn’t translate. Balance is the physical position that gives confidence to a horse. If we habitually correct, break his rhythm and alter his posture, it unsettles both balance and confidence. We might do it unconsciously by our own confusion, but the horse begins to think everything he does is wrong, the very definition of no confidence.
Horses need to move their feet to breathe and find balance. It’s primal, fundamental, necessary. The more we attempt to inhibit, restrict, and control them, the less confidence they have in themselves and us. Continual micromanaging is as soul-killing for a horse as it is for a human. We do have that in common.
Trust can only grow as adversity retreats.
Leading from behind starts with a long lead or a lunge line. The human stands behind the drive-line or girth area. You can be back at his hip or away, but not up by his shoulder. You may not use your leading hand, the one closest to his halter, you must ask him to walk on from behind.
All forward movement begins in a horse’s hind, so pulling his head to get him to go is counter-intuitive to him. (One of the things that means something different to a horse than it does us.) Just notice how much that leading (left) hand wants to move and retrain yourself to use the following (right) hand.
Standing back from his head, behind the girth, ask him for one step with your following hand, while your left hand stays still. Inhale, let him take the first step. Check your position and notice that you have stepped up by his shoulder. It’s what we do. Correct yourself, step back, and stay there. Repeat as necessary.
If you’ve done a lot of natural horsemanship, he may not even want you at his flank. Standing at a horse’s flank is a vulnerable position, it takes his trust to allow you there. Go slow.
Ask again. Say, “Good boy, you go first.” Encourage him, give him time to think it out. Most likely, he’ll be shy about it. In the past, he’s been corrected in his face for moving his feet. He might not have the confidence to step out on his own. Trust him to try.
You’ll want to give a bigger cue. Just don’t. Breathe instead and recognize it’s your anxiety; it doesn’t need to become his.
Leading from behind should feel remotely familiar. It’s a bit like ground driving, but with one line. It’s the sweet position for horse agility. Or it’s like lunging, only you walk along with him, not in a circle. Most importantly, he leads and goes without correction. Switch to his other side and continue.
He gains the confidence of standing on his own feet, in control of his balance, and because we ask at a distance, he has a choice. We learn to follow. It flies in the face of domination training, but we need to create space within ourselves for a partner.
And it’s crazy-making. Notice how much you want to do it for him. Take a breath and let him figure it out. Don’t escalate the cue, don’t hurry this first step.
Trust that he is intelligent. Let him earn some confidence in himself.
Leading from behind is a simple exercise that isn’t easy. It takes the temperature of the human half of the partnership; the degree to which this exercise frustrates you is the degree that you over-cue, so listen closely to yourself. Let this be more about noticing your need for him to get it right, or do it for him, versus his experience learning. It’s harder than it sounds.
Start in an arena. People tell me that their horses only graze if outside the arena. My thought is that grazing, stretching the neck, is a calming signal and most likely the horse is being over-cued, but still, it might be easier to start in an enclosed space.
This week, just wander along. Leading from behind, part two comes next week. I’ve always done this with my horses and last year, started doing it in clinics. The results amaze me; it ends up that leading from behind is one of those things that means more to horses than I thought. They are teaching me why and I’m listening.
Your new goal: Go explore the world in the tracks of your horse, see it through his eyes, let him feel the confidence of leading the way. Let him do it himself while you feel pride in the confidence you’ve shown him. The other word for that is trust.
It’s crazy, but horses learn from us even when we don’t give them a cue.
We call it connection when we stand close, romantically pushing into a horse’s face, but horses tell me that connection is freely moving in unison while a few feet apart. Trust shows best at a distance.