Riding From Behind

In my fantasy world, you’ve read about leading from behind and beyond, and tried it with your horse. It wasn’t pretty at first. One of you might have tried too hard and one of you might have held his breath. And vice versa. Hopefully, your hands left his head alone. Hopefully, your horse got the chance to figure it out on his own and feel good about himself. Then the two of you went exploring. You sampled what it feels like to trust him to do his job. You and your horse got to stand on your own feet, out of each other’s space, and yet truly connected. Yay.

Leading from behind means, in part, that since all forward movement for a horse begins in his hind, we ask him to go forward from that area, rather than leading (pulling on) his head. It’s more like ground driving or long-lining.

Can we ride from behind? Can this attitude of forward movement be encouraged in the saddle?

You’re in the arena at the mounting block with your horse. You’ve consciously haltered him, done some affirmative groundwork, and now you’re sitting in the saddle. You want a forward ride, your horse curious and engaged.

Now is a good time to remind yourself of some fundamentals. Most important, a horse must be allowed to step out in each gait, to find his own balance in fluid forward motion. All of that happens behind the girth, or driveline, as he pushes from his hind legs. Simple enough.

Sure, you held your reins as you mounted, but what then? Did you pick up (pull on) the reins before he moved? If you were in a car, that would be putting on the brakes as you pumped the gas.

Any cues given in front of the girth area, meaning his head, slow him. Sometimes a halt is the intention. Sometimes the intention is to turn, but he slows down, losing rhythm or forward. Maybe we hold the reins in hands that don’t follow his movement. When we restrict a horse’s stride (balance) with our hands, they resist. It’s ridiculously easy for a hand to inadvertently contradict the forward cues. Anything that seemed simple before, isn’t now.

Humans are primates. It’s our instinct to hold on, grab, clutch, and use every other hand control possible. Instinct means that it’s a reflex, grab first and ask questions later. It’s our nature to do it, like it is the nature of a horse to need to move freely. The dilemma in riding is that horses and humans both must learn to trust when our best instincts say differently.

So here in blog-world, we’re still at the mounting block, in full knowledge of the requirement of free forward movement for the well-being of the horse, and as usual, totally distracted with our hands. Gak. And humans think we can resolve everything with control. Laughable. Give it up and start breathing again. We stop at the mere mention of control, ever noticed that? It’s something we have in common with horses.

So, in the first part of the ride, as he is warming up his forward movement and positive attitude, give him a long rein, just like the line when leading from behind. Be safe, maintain situational awareness, but let him go free. Don’t care about being perfect on the rail. Let him stride out. Feel your hands grab? Good, you can’t fix it without feeling it first. Say good girl and then let the reins go again.

Get your mind off your hands and into your seat. 

Yes, I just said that. Keep the focus in your seat. As a rider, you want to have a part of your mind that just lives in the rhythm of his movement. Like hearing the backbeat in music, you’re a metronome, aware of slowing or speeding at such an early time that your “correction” can be a small suggestion. Are you using your hands again? Of course, you are. You’re human. Back to the bum.

When I ride, I always have a neck ring, long enough to use like reins with both hands, on my horse. It’s a way of connecting body to body with a horse, rather than hands to face. It aids me in being less human with my hands.

So, now we’re walking in the arena with no steering, white-knuckled from desperately NOT grabbing. And your horse likes it. Just like leading from behind, he needs to know it’s okay, that he won’t be pulled into a frame when he isn’t ready. Since you’re keeping your commitment to not micromanage him with your hands, you’ve got nothing but your seat. Breathe, your seat is all you need.

Let him march on, keeping rhythm and energy in your seat. Turn your waist for a circle. Find the inside pulse leg cue for a leg yield. Reverse on the rail, do box turns. Warm up every part of your horse, while not impeding his forward with your hands. It takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to get to his joints, so keep going.

Trot transitions on a long rein. About time to think about half halts, isn’t it? If you can’t pull him back, use your legs. Give them a chance to work, you’re in an arena after all. Exhale. Give your horse time to take the cue, reward him lavishly for thinking about it. He might still expect his mouth will hurt if he moves. Give him time to trust you won’t go there.

Adjust the volume of cues with your energy instead of your hands. Find ways of asking kindly, affirmatively. Always make the reward larger than the ask, focusing on what’s right rather than punishing the wrong. Twenty minutes riding transitions on a long rein and you’ve done everything but pull on his face. You might be frustrated, he might be confused, but it’s what learning looks like.

How is his energy? Too forward or too slow? For us humans with little body awareness, it’s time to thank him for letting us know there’s a problem… with us. If you’re getting too much response from your horse, check your thighs, is blood still flowing? Check your shoulders, are they stuck up by your ears? Breathe, soften your body, feel your horse come back. If your horse is slow and stuck, check your seat for signs of life. Are your sit-bones like a cinderblock? Is your core clenched? Inhale your heart soft. Can you remember how to dance? Breathe and release yourself to being lifted and held by a horse.

Notice that the answer to everything is to breathe? Back to simple. 

Does this all sound too fundamental for you? Are you more advanced and not in need of this kind of relaxed and forward start to a ride? You’re wrong. It’s the fundamentals that are hard because they challenge our instincts. In this warm-up, you’re laying the foundation for gliding transitions and balanced gaits. Responsiveness and lightness. Partnership and trust. There is nothing more fundamental or advanced than that.

Leading from Behind, Part One

Leading from Behind, Part Two and Beyond

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

31 comments

  1. Great blog, Anna. Keep it up to help us all keep breathing and moving with and for our horse partners as they do for us.

  2. Love the idea and would love to do it – but I have got a spooky, spinning horse, which doesn’t make going round on a long rein very relaxing!

    • Sorry to say it, but this should be the goal. Spooking is a lack of confidence, unless a helicopter is landing… this will help. Do the leading exercise first, build up to this. I understand what you mean, it’s hard to relax on that kind of ride… but someone has to start. Thanks Beverly, and good luck.

    • I have a super forward horse, too, and the more forward she gets the more it rattles both of us. I am so glad that Anna is writing these blog posts. Every other trainer says; “Don’t let her ____”
      In our world here “Don’t go fast” = “Go fast” so excising the “don’t” and the “fast” from my vocabulary has been my challenge.

      • I work with so many horses with anxiety about correction… it destroys trust. We need to go slow and just say yes. Thanks, Gina.

  3. Had a blast leading from behind! Will play soon on an obstacle course. This lesson too is perfectly timed. Exactly the problem my trainer and I worked on and riding with loose rein through transitions. He loved it. Will play more this weekend. Thks for another keeper!!

  4. “The answer to everything is to breathe.” Anna, can I tattoo that on my arm? Excited to go try leading from behind tonight.

  5. Thanks for the leading from behind. Long story short we can ride from behind no problem. But we conquered an assault course this week after your blog popped in my head. Damn me if one of my horses didn’t take me right round every spooky thing leading from behind xxx

    • Smiling. I don’t know entirely what the leading from behind thing means, but horses seem to have a strong opinion…:) Thanks for reading along.

      • She is a very dominant lead mare and would not be taken to the obstacles! So I just thought let her go! There were obvious tracks to each one and off she went. It was quite breath taking watching her work stuff out x

  6. Really need to try the leading from behind but alas, no arena and not too sure I want to try riding from behind in the wide open!

  7. I am looking forward to this when I can ride again, but until then, leading from behind is sufficiently challenging for me ! Something has clicked for me in a new way with these last 3 blogs. Thanks so much Anna !

  8. this all sounds sensible to me. Yesterday in a break from dressage I took Biasini out to the big grass field and a loop that goes through the forest behind it. I did not ask him to be round or to be on the bit or lower his head. I rode my dressage horse with a loose rein. When he canters up the hill of the forest loop he just goes and gallops on. Fabulous. He loves it and I love it and to slow him down I just sit up and close my finger a bit and he comes back to a slower canter. Thanks for this post it makes so much sense.

  9. It’s a great feeling to have a horse stop worrying about what you’re going to do to his head (mouth). Rudd did not use bits at all. He had his own contraption that was made from soft rope. It wasn’t exactly a hackmore but close. He also started you without a saddle. “You need to feel the living breathing animal under you. Respect him and he’ll respect you.” We worked in the corral. If we HAD to grab anything we were told to grab the mane or better yet our shirt near the waist. Learn to balance on his back, center yourself, ride without tack. You’re right, it’s a learning experience for both you and your horse, but it’s a learning experience that will help both of you grow – in trust and respect and, yes, love.

  10. “Inhale your heart soft”. Always, ALWAYS, there is at least one line in your posts that make me stop in my tracks. This one was huge. It reads like a one line poem. Thank you.

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