Teaching a horse to lead can be either easy or difficult. The level of difficulty depends on two main factors: the age of the horse and the size of the horse. Of course, the younger and smaller the horse is, the easier it will be to teach to lead.
The equipment needed does not depend on the size of the horse. Either way, easy or hard, a trainer will need a properly fitting halter, a lead rope and a buggy whip.
As mentioned earlier, teaching a horse to lead is easier if the horse is a foal, not weaned or separated from its dam, or mother. If this were the case, it is easier on everyone if there are two people involved with the training, one for handling the mare and the other one to handle the foal.
- First, catch and halter the foal's dam. After catching the dam, catch and halter the foal. It is likely that it may take both people to catch the foal and halter it the first few times, especially if it is not used to people touching. Of course, if this foal has had human contact since it was born or shortly thereafter, this step is easy. If the foal has not had human contact, this step may be one of the hardest ones to accomplish, at least for the first few times. However, with a little patience this step will get easier.
- The person handling the mare should slowly begin leading the mare forward and the foal's handler should allow the foal to follow behind the mare. The foal's handler should have a hold of the lead rope with the lead rope being loose, but not dangling down far enough to tangle up the foal or the handler.
- Repeat steps 1-3 until the foal is leading behind its dam with no problems. These three steps are important because they allow the foal to begin to lead as well as becoming accustomed to the halter and lead rope. These three steps also help the foal get used to people touching and messing with it. With its dam close by, the foal will not stress as much as it would if she were not involved in this training.
- Step 4 occurs after the foal is leading with no problems behind its dam. This step introduces the foal to a shorter lead rope, which puts more pressure on the foal's head through the halter. The trainer shortens the lead rope to the length that they are most comfortable leading a horse with and carefully puts the excess in the left hand. Do not wrap the end of the lead rope around the left hand though, this can lead to problems should the foal run away. The foal is lead behind the mare for several more days with the lead rope shortened between the foal and the trainer. Now is also a good time to begin to turn the foal while leading it. Turning is done simply by the trainer taking their right hand and while holding on to the lead rope under the foal's chin, moving it the direction they wish to turn. This step helps the foal get more accustomed to the trainer and to the feel of the lead rope and the pressure of the halter on its head.
- Now the goal is to teach the foal to lead side-by-side with another horse. The trainer will move the foal up next to its dam. The trainer should be at the left shoulder of the foal, between the foal and the dam, facing the same direction as the two horses. The two horses are led, side-by-side, for several more days, until the foal is comfortable with this step. This step is important in teaching the foal that it can be led beside another horse, not actually having to tag along behind. It is possible to accomplish this step with a horse other than the foal's dam. This is the last step before leading the foal by itself. The foal may still protest by balking (refusing to move) or by bolting (trying to run off). The trainer will have to be prepared to deal with either one of these situations and continue to lead the foal until it leads correctly, without having any of the improper reactions.
- Fine-tune the foal's leading. In this step the foal is taught to remain in its space, or to leave room between the trainer and itself. This space can be important if the foal gets spooked and decides to bolt. To accomplish this portion of training, simply push the foal over the desired distance with your right hand. Also, the length of the lead rope will aide in determining the distance the foal remains from the trainer. The shorter the lead rope, the closer the foal will be to the trainer.
If the foal has already been weaned from its dam, teaching it to lead may be a little more difficult, but can be done. The steps in teaching a horse to lead without the aid of the dam are different from the steps involved with a dam.
- Gather the equipment, which is the same as when teaching a foal to lead with a dam (a halter, lead rope and a buggy whip). The only difference is that there is no need for the halter and lead rope for the mare. It is still helpful to have another person around just in case the trainer needs some additional help with the horse. The trainer will also need a lot of patience and perseverance, probably more than a trainer who is handling a foal with a dam.
- Catch the horse. This may be the most difficult step of all, especially if the horse has never been haltered or had human contact. The trainer may need help with this step. I have found the easiest way to catch a horse in this situation is to hem it up into a corner and have it face you while you stand away from the fence. The horse will be between the trainer and the corner. After the horse is hemmed up in the corner and is facing the trainer, the trainer will walk up to the horse's left shoulder, quietly holding the halter and the lead rope.
Trainers should always be aware of their location in relationship to the horse. The left shoulder is a good place to be because there is little danger of being kicked or run over here. The trainer now places the end of the lead rope around the horse's neck and, while holding the horse with the lead rope, puts the halter on the horse's head.
- While standing at the horse's left shoulder, the trainer grasps the lead rope with their right hand, leaving enough slack with the lead rope for the trainer to remain safely away from the horse, but tight enough for the trainer to be able to control the horse. Next, the trainer will place the remaining length of lead in their left hand, being careful not to wrap it around the hand. At this time, the lead rope is in the trainer's hands correctly and it is time to place the buggy whip in the trainer's left hand with the handle up and the tail down. The trainer should be careful when handling the buggy whip and try not to spook, or scare, the horse with it for no reason. Now the trainer steps forward slowly, applying a little pressure to the lead rope, which in turn applies pressure to the halter, signaling for the horse to move. At this time, the horse will do one of three things -- lead easily, balk or bolt. The trainer must be prepared for any of these three reactions.
- The fourth step depends on the reaction of the horse to the third step.
- If the horse simply walks with the trainer as if it had been leading forever, then the trainer simply has to continue the first three steps until the trainer is sure the horse is leading with no problems.
- However, if the horse decides to bolt, or run away from the trainer when trying to be led, the trainer should pull on the lead rope, attempting to gain control of the horse. This is usually accomplished by pulling the horse's head around and having it face the trainer. Once the horse is under control and the trainer has regained his composure, the trainer will attempt to lead the horse again.
- If the horse decides to balk, or refuse to move at all, the trainer will use the end of the buggy whip to tap it on the rear. This is carefully done with the buggy whip in the trainer's left hand and is done behind the trainer's back. Never hit the horse hard with the buggy whip, you are not disciplining it, just trying to coax it into moving. The trainer has to hold on tight to the lead rope while doing this because the horse may go straight from balking to bolting and the trainer should be ready.
- This next step is easy to remember, but may not be easy to accomplish. Simply repeat steps 1-4 daily or until there are no problems leading the horse. The amount of time it takes to train a horse to lead depends greatly on the horse and on the trainer. Some horses take longer to train and some trainers can do it quicker because they have more experience training horses.