Leading from Behind, Part Two and Beyond

Leading from behind is an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp, but most things about working with horses are counter-intuitive for humans so it fits right in. And I am far from the first trainer to suggest this exercise. I first learned about it in a book I checked out of the town library back when I was starting my first young horse and the Beatles were still together. Uh-huh.

We’ve been doing one version or another of leading from behind for a few centuries and there are no two trainers who teach it the same way. And at different times, we have different intention behind the exercise.

This is the secret: Improving your training skills isn’t about learning new techniques; it’s about deepening understanding of how horses think and then evolving our intention into something a horse believes is trustworthy.  Our intention is written all over us; it’s the first impression we give horses.

Some of us approach horses like a helicopter landing with body language that spits profanities, on full attack with ropes, flags, and a few too many training videos on the brain. Some of us approach horses as if we’re on a pilgrimage for spiritual healing, humbly reciting the rescue story and nearly crippled by our own compassion, explaining the heartbreaking plight of horses -to the horse.

I have never, not once, seen a horse have a positive training experience from domination or commiseration. We want to find middle ground and partner with a horse. Affirmative training should build confidence in both horse and human.

My intention in this exercise of leading from behind is for the horse to experience moving with us but without our constant jabbering about how or where or when. He gets to discover and make choices. That adds up to confidence.

The benefit of this exercise for humans is the opportunity to go slow enough to become aware of how we lead. Can we just listen to the horse and say yes? If we want a partnership, we must first make space for the horse inside ourselves. We must learn to share.

How did leading from behind go? There were comments that it was hard, the horse didn’t do it right. Comments that all the horse did was graze or trot off or go stand by the gate. All good and fair answers but humans didn’t like them. Okay, don’t take it personally. Breathe, remember calming signals? Each of these behaviors that we judge as “wrong” are their way of telling us we’re too loud, that they are no threat to us. We might need to work on listening to that.

Pro-tip: The answer to every question is forward. Allow him the confidence to move and find his natural balance. 

We aren’t looking to correct a behavior, but to acknowledge his voice with the hope that this exercise creates a shift in our thinking, by starting in a quiet place and pondering the real question, “Would a horse volunteer to be with us if we didn’t force him?” Wait. Don’t answer the question for him or for you. Just ponder it.

Have you known horses who are better under-saddle than on the ground? Picture it, when we’re in the saddle, we’re effectively out of their space. Hold a position at least that far away from your horse’s head. Give him space. Then check your feet, notice that you’ve moved to his shoulder, and step back again. Maybe go back to last week’s blog and ponder it again.

Let’s say leading from behind went well, that we gave the horse moments of autonomy and it didn’t destroy all his training. That we were so confident in ourselves that we weren’t threatened by his answers. Let’s say we responded to all our horses did with a kind word. Good boy for walking to the gate. Let’s say we did it enough that both horse and rider felt good about it.

Now, in the peace of following, it’s finally time to ask for a task. Look around and pick an “obstacle.” It could be a fence post or the mounting block, a letter on the rail or a tree. Label it the destination in your mind. Did your mind shift? Does the task take you out of your body and back to your brain? Breathe, maintain self-peace, then follow behind as your horse does the task.

Let your cue be like a secret between you, too loud if it’s visible.

Notice how much you want to use a hand to touch him. If you can reach him, you’re too close. Does your hand on the rope move without you asking? Resist. Go smaller, focus on every movement in your body because a horse’s senses are more acute than ours and they listen to body language. That’s why it seems to us that horses read our minds; our minds are written all over our bodies. Hands are superfluous, put your shoulders at the angle you want to travel; let him read that.

Do you think he’s ignoring you, this life-and-death prey animal? Do you need to repeat the cue for this animal whose senses are so keen? Is he not fast enough for you? That’s your anxiety. Take a breath and keep it to yourself. Listen to his body instead of your mind.

Can we agree that a horse is standing in front of an obstacle, a tarp or a wading pool or a horse trailer, is smart enough to know what to do? Go slow, let your horse think instead of distracting him with another louder cue. Perfect, give him time to reason it out himself. Let him come up with an answer and reward that.

Trust his ability to learn. It’s more about confidence than a quick answer by rote.

Eventually, you and your horse take turns choosing the path, like partners. You’ll think canter transition and he responds effortlessly because after all, it’s his canter. If we want this quality of relationship, then we must give up some ground (control) to get it. Horses tell me that the exercise of leading from behind is transformative. My hope is that humans come to the same conclusion.

I hear story after story of something a horse did that was really smart. People tell me it’s special. Not just their love for their horse, there’s a quality of awe that their horse is so quick, so smart. Sorry, but no, that’s horse normal.

Why does it surprise us every time? We all agree that horses are sentient but we speak down to them. We micromanage horses because we don’t trust them to volunteer. We control them into robotic submission because we don’t trust their intelligence.

Ponder this: Beyond love and control, beyond platitudes and cheap talk is the realm of authentic trust. First, Leading from Behind, then Riding from Behind, and ultimately, Training from Behind are the act of truly believing in horses.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro

32 comments

  1. WONDERFUL, Anna. Thanks so much. I think I’ll print and post this column in the barn. There is no more soaring moment than when a horse volunteers the thing you’re thinking. It’s like letting go of the string as you run to launch a kite. The moment your let go, the kite takes flight.

  2. Wow!! I love being trained by you. Maybe some day, when I’ve learned well from you my horse will love to learn from me.

  3. I just tried leading from behind yesterday evening and it was a very relaxing experience! There were a few stops at the gate… but Kat was amazing and went over ground poles and cavaletti- thanks for your post- it helped me to imagine it better before doing it!

  4. I am very much looking forward to trying this Part 2 piece of leading from behind when my horse is more medically stable . In the meantime, maybe i could practice with the OTHER horse who often gets over-looked as he is the “companion, ” but maybe he and I can do better together with leading this way than we have in the past with other ways. .. in fact, I am sure of it as he is very sensitive and attuned. I am sure you have told us all this before but it’s just now become clear to me that , like all good horse people, you are attempting to train the HUMAN, not the horse.

  5. Wow. You do know, don’t you, that you are speaking to an infinitely wider audience than rider/trainer, and that what you’re talking about has universal truth in it about relationships of all kinds? I’ve been spellbound by every post I’ve read ever since I discovered your blog. For me it all resonates because horses have always been vitally important – even though I haven’t been able to have any equine contact for years. But what you are teaching is what all of us need to learn – about ourselves, firstly, and about our relationships with every other creature (and human) on the planet…..
    I keep telling all sorts of people who have nothing to do with horses, ‘you’ve just got to read this!’

    • Well, that’s humbling. Of course, I’m just a blogging horse trainer. Who has followers who don’t have horses. Thank you for reading, Dapplegrey. I appreciate it.

  6. I have to agree with Dapplegrey. I was blessed with having Rudd in my life at a time I now realize was pivotal in how I approach people and animals. I love hearing from you things I heard from Rudd so long ago, he was right, you’re right. Will a horse chose to spend time with you? Go sit in the pasture or corral, ignore the horses, become part of the scenery, be calm and quiet. Don’t be surprised when one of the horses come walking over and gives you a sniff, or stands by you quietly, just being. Rudd had us do that. He wouldn’t let anyone ride who tried to “catch” a horse, He told us, and proved it, that they’d chose us, but we had to show them we were worth their bother. He lead from behind, I can’t ever remember him with a rope on any of his horses, just walking off their rear quarter on either side and they’d go where he wanted them to, He never touched them, moved his hands, spoke to them. I used some of the same things I learned from Rudd with my dogs, did with the step kids, still do with the spouse, only the dogs really knew what was going on. People can be extremely dense, animals never are.

    • Thanks, Aquila. This is what I mean. You wrote “He never touched them…” and he moved with them. They understand that so clearly. It’s like we think we have to be lion tamers… great comment, thank you.

      • I watched his horses move to touch him, several would stand pushing their heads gently against his chest and he’d scratch their jaw bars and ears and they’d sigh over and over. It was a true love affair based on tremendous respect and understanding.
        I wish Rudd was still with us. I know you two would have loved talking with each other and being around horses together. He had a horrid accident one summer after we had been on vacation and I’d had my usual week in his company. He fell into a lake, hit the back of his neck on a big rock and ended up a quadraplegic. Dotty, his wife, just couldn’t handle the kids they’d adopted – six, if I remember right – and the horses – about 20 or so. They kept his registered Quarter horse stallion, Yenom, Money Spelled Backwards until he died. It was strange but after the accident, Rudd never seemed to notice his body wasn’t like it used to be, that same quiet, loving acceptance was always there. He was a true blessing, for the horses he had, for the children he raised, for us kids he taught about horses and life, and the world lost a remarkable man when he left this life.

  7. Our first session with my mini was OK-he sort of got what I wanted him to do-walk forward-and I praised him profusely. However, the next time, he just trotted in circles, throwing his neck as if to say-“No, I’m not doing that”. ” I know what you want, but no”, typical of his mini attitude. Our next session will be tomorrow-I’ll let you know how we do.

    • Good luck and maybe slower. If the answer we get has too much energy or anxiety, I ask quieter. I’ve worked with minis that don’t like us in that position. Thanks, Suzanne

  8. Wonderful suggestions. I love quite peaceful sessions. I do have to continue to work on me…slower, softer, quieter…make my cues a secret. It just makes me so nervous when other people are watching me. Last week I went to pick up the ponies from a boarding facility I use when we go out of town. Little Momma Cass loaded right in. Always does. Mr Wynn however has to resist and dance around a bit and call to his new horsey friends. High energy. Plus there is a guy, his wife and daughter (who board there) and the barn owner (with a broken arm) sitting at a picnic table watching us. Ugh! Sooo…Mr Wynn and I do a little dancing for them for a few minutes. I finally stop and think about ‘leading from behind’. And trying to block out ‘the watchers’. As we get a little closer to the trailer ramp,I step away from Mr Wynn..acknowledge him..” it’s alright, you’re doing fine”.. and me. We are in the sun, it is 90* out, i feel a slight ache at the back of my neck and I am dripping sweat. I move back by his hip and let him think. I admit i did cheat a bit. I had my small buggy whip in my right hand and used it to softly tap his right shoulder to encourage him to move forward and pretty much whispered ” in ya go let’s go home buddy”. He took few more seconds to think about it…then in he went! I was glowing! I lavishly praise both ponies and share treats (yes I use treats). Thanks Anna! =-)

    • I find this the easiest way to load horses, assuming you’ve done some of it before. Driving horses especially. Well done. And BTW, you wouldn’t like my job! Thanks, Deb.

  9. This is working with my rescue mare. I have not been able to touch her for six months. She will pretty much move where I want her to go, but it’s hands off. I hope I can build enough trust so she will let me catch her someday. (or she will catch me someday, I’ve learned not to get into “catch mode”, even thinking about it sets us back months)
    Thanks for the encouragement. You have shown me a direction that I can go with her.

  10. Thank you again for his post, my pony Star entered into this exercise with immediate delight. She has always been a bit too headstrong in hand, but now we have realised my dream of walking and jogging together happily in hand around the lanes, just having fun, and she has transferred automatically this to our hacks as well, which is lovely, a big thank you, love this exercise!

  11. Anna, this was a light bulb moment for me! I’ve been playing with teaching my young mare to follow the rhythm I’m counting in my head and body. 4 beats for walk, 2 beat trot, 3 for canter. She’s loose in a round pen and I’m moving with her but I’m closer to the center. OK, maybe she’s teaching me 🙂 She’s been doing really well circling left, but going right, she she switches back to going left constantly. Since I don’t use the round pen in the “conventional” way, I haven’t been forcing her to switch back. Reading your article, the body language part jumped out at me.
    I discovered that when we circle left, as I walk near her, my upper torso is turned slightly left following our circle. When we circle right, my legs are walking right BUT my upper torso is still turned left!! My shoulders are turning her away from me as we walk!
    I tried correcting that torso turn in me, (surprisingly difficult) and she stayed on the right circle without switching!!
    Wow. I love this!! Thank you

      • Played with the body language and my young mare again today in the round pen and it was going so beautifully at walk and trot that I upped my rhythm to a three for a canter. My girl absolutely lost her mind! She began running in a blind panic, stumbling and bucking, racing around the pen. Instead of trying to control or stop it, I let her go. (I’ve had her two years and started her over since she had no use for humans when I got her. Have not worked on canter.) Her melt down would often bring her over to me and she’d pause, snort and then take off again. She began to stay with me for a few seconds and I’d stroke and talk to her before she’d lose it again. Finally she stopped. Her sides heaving, she came over to me and we walked together with my hand on her neck til her breathing slowed. We had a long quiet talk about dark memories and how beautiful she is. 💜

      • Canter is always the test question… keep breathing. (I’m guessing that might have slowed up during the trot.) Well done, Janice.

  12. Reminds me of a moment in one of Buck Brannaman’s colt starting videos in the roundpen he has this magical moment when he is behind the horse but leading it with no halter.. it has so stayed with me.

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