Leading to Leadership

Wow – an article on leading a horse.  Seems a little trivial doesn’t it?  Does it really matter where your horse is, or what he is doing when you’re leading him?  It might not be a big deal to you, but the conversations that you have (or don’t have) when you’re leading him form the foundation of his entire social structure.  It’s a big deal for your horse.  With a little know-how you can use leading to form a corner stone of a solid leadership agreement with your horse – one in which he’ll trust you and follow, both in and out of the saddle.

Let’s start with a quick review of something we know: horses communicate primarily through space, energy and empathy.

Personal space. Katt is just on the edge of Marg’s space.

Space. We all have personal space. When I ask folks what they consider to be their space, the answer is almost always the same: the length of their arm. To illustrate, consider how close a person could walk toward you until you feel uncomfortable. You’ll feel when they encroach on your space. Have you ever had someone – like a close-talker – walk toward you and you’ve backed up? That person has demonstrated ownership of their space by moving you with it. Instead, you could have pushed the other person away from you with your space. Again, this would demonstrate your ownership of the space.

We know that horses not only speak to each other through space – and the energy they put into it – they also use ownership of space to establish herd position. It’s a simple process.

Energy is something that can be put into a particular space to achieve a certain effect. For example a horse might put energy into the space to the left side of their hip to push another horse away in a certain direction. How much energy is put into that will dictate how much or how quickly the other horse moves.

Empathy is the ability to share or communicate a feeling. For example, one horse is scared so the other horses become scared; the herd leader relaxes so the herd around them does the same.

We’re going to focus on the spacial piece because it’s very important.

There are three different types of leadership relationships you can have with a horse:

  1. The horse believes he is above you in the herd order. You’ll see this when you go to lead your horse and your horse does not come with you; the lead rope gets strung out behind you as you walk away and the horse does not. This tells me that your horse is aware he owns the space and can choose whether or not to follow you. If you get ahead of your horse and he does not work to catch up, then he’s assuming ownership of space behind you. The opposite (and more obvious) example is when the horse is physically leading you (ahead of you) and you’re working to catch up to him (or trying to hold him back).
  1. Your horse does not know who the leader is. This happens when you are inconsistent in your presentation. As an example, one day you might kick your horse out of your space when he tries to come in, and the next day you let him barge into your space because he’s doing something you think is funny. From his perspective: on one day you were the leader and on the next day, he is. This drives horses crazy. When I hear someone say with respect to their horse on the ground that their horse is fussy, in my face or misbehaving, these are all clear indications that the horse is simply trying to get a clear response: where are you in the herd order? This is an easy question to answer for your horse. And in the few minutes it takes to answer that – with a clear and consistent demonstration of spacial ownership – you’ll find the fussiness is gone. In every clinic there is at least one horse/owner in this category, and within minutes the horse is calm and relaxed. We start our clinics off with a couple exercises to do this. These exercises are not done with anger or negativity – if we need to get bigger with a horse, we up our energetic presentation, not become angry or offensive.
  2. The horse is aware that you are the herd leader. A horse in this situation can follow you both mentally and physically. You can now begin to earn his trust by establishing credibility – precisely what we use our obstacle and trail courses for. Clearly this is what we desire!

Marg leads her mare, Katt. You can see that the lead rope is loose and Katt is following Marg in a perfect position – not ahead and not behind.

Once we understand how horses use space and energy, and how they establish leadership, then it’s not difficult at all to clearly establish a herd position. We can now easily assess where our horse feels we are in the herd (above / unknown / below) by how he responds when we lead him or ask him to move.

What might not be apparent is that this leadership agreement or spacial ownership agreement can nurtured and maintained by something we all do: lead our horse from point A to point B.

Here’s the how and why behind that.

We know that spacial ownership dictates herd position. We humans are weak in noticing and handling tests, requests and changes in that space. This is because we primarily communicate via voice. Remember that horse primarily communicates through space and energy – not like us at all – so you can imaging how frustrating it might be for them when they’re looking for an answer in horse and you communicate in human. This is what will produce a fussy horse.

Horses have many similarities with people but also many differences. It’s important that we know what those are and gain an awareness that his language is not the same as ours. One notable difference is that a horse simply wants to know if he’s above you or below you in the herd order. He can be 100% comfortable with either – but he’s not comfortable with not knowing (inconsistency in your presentation).

We also know that some horses will test that leadership agreement. This can happen for three main reasons:

  1. You have worked with the horse to increase his confidence. When a horse really changes his confidence for the better, then it’s only natural that they are going to take that confidence into their social relations – climb the social ladder, so to speak. So, while confidence is what we desire, we also need to have an awareness that confidence might precipitate a change in herd order, and he might attempt that with us.
  1. The horse is a natural leader. Just as some folks gravitate toward leadership positions, so do some horses. Gaining the leadership role with a horse that is a natural leader can be a struggle, since he is not seeking leadership like a frightened horse would be. Because of that confidence, he might test your spacial agreement.
  1. Your spacial leadership is unclear: you begin to allow your horse to own space or take actions on his own that indicate he’s leading.

Chip is a confident horse and a leader. He’s a great horse for people to learn leadership from, because he’ll play spacial games with you to find where you are in the herd order. A horse can do this in seconds and you might not be aware that it happened.

In any event, the horse might test your leadership agreement. These tests are generally subtle and folks typically ignore them. But by ignoring them, you might just be telling your horse that he’s above you in the herd, or that he’s gaining ground by owning more space.

Here’s an example: you’re leading your horse and he’s right beside you, where you want him. Then he sneaks three inches ahead of you. If you do nothing and he stays three inches ahead, he now owns that space. Again, to us, this little change might mean nothing. To him, it is a fundamental basis of his social structure; it’s huge in meaning. The same would be the case if the horse gets 3 inches behind.

The simple solution to this is to think that the horse has one job: to mirror you physically and mentally. It’s his only job. If you walk forward and pick your leg up, the horse should be doing the same. If you walk forward and your horse does not move then he’s no longer following/mirroring your leadership.

If following you is the horse’s job, then we can hold him accountable for that. If he starts lagging by 3 inches, then we draw or send him forward 3 inches. If he gets ahead of us 3 inches, then we use our space to push him back into his spot. When he’s in that spot we reward that by relaxing and providing him a positive feel, so that he knows it’s the right spot.

With practice we can do this (ask our horse to move forward and back, shoulder left and right, hip left and right) without changing our pace and focus. We’ll then be able to make small changes as we go – just like making tiny changes in the steering wheel when you’re driving a car.

It is imperative we do not change our presentation (focus, pace and energy) – because we want the horse to become accountable to follow. If we change, then we’re no longer presenting what we wanted him to follow in the first place. To illustrate: you’re leading your horse and he gets behind you, and in response, you turn around to face him. When you do this, he’s leading you. He’s done something that changed your focus and had you buy into his presentation. Instead, if you horse gets behind you, send him back up to you: start by energetically asking your horse to catch up. I like to feel that I’m connected to the horse’s chest with an elastic band. If that band stretches, it should pull the horse forward. Your horse will feel that. The opposite is also true – if my horse is encroaching on my space or getting ahead of me, I like to feel that there is a beach ball between my back and his chest. When I push my energy backwards, I feel that ball being squeezed if he does not move off my space.

If he chooses not to catch up when you have asked, then assist with a flick of your lead rope behind you and toward his hip OR use a stick that can reach his hind (if he’s getting ahead of you, use pressure toward his chest). You’ll do this without turning around – keep your eyes on where you’re going – because what you’re really doing here is asking your horse to follow your focus, energy and intent. You’re also answering his question about who holds the space by holding him accountable to be in a certain position.

If you watch horses moving in a herd, you’ll see the exact same type of communication. The great thing about this style of horsemanship – and this type of communication – is that your horse already understands all of it; he was born with the ability to communicate with other horses.

You might be thinking: what about directing him with the halter? Pulling forward or backward on the with the lead rope in order to put your horse in a position? Wiggling or jerking the lead ropes?

Well, we never see a horse pull another horse around with a halter as a means of directing him. They don’t need to because they are masters of space and energy. You can be one too. That said, do your best to not use the halter to direct your horse by pulling on the lead rope – that isn’t his language. Make sure to read my last article where we delve into the effects of tension in the lead rope or rein.

You’ll find a great feel in having your horse mirror you. Not only will he feel comfortable following you but he’ll strive to do so. Not only will you be confident in your leadership position, but you’ll take that relationship into the saddle. Imagine having your horse follow your focus and turn before you even pick up a rein. This type of following is normal for a horse – they do it 24/7 in the herd. All we need to do is learn a bit of their language and earn a trusted leadership position.  Join us at a clinic to learn and practice these great tools!


P.S. I’ll be filming a video to demonstrate some easy techniques you can try yourself.  To access it, you’ll need to have an account on our website.  Don’t worry – it’s entirely free!


Scott Phillips

August, 2018

This entry was posted in Horsemanship, Scott and tagged , , on by .

About amazingh

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and operating Amazing Horse Country. He is the proud owner of eight horses that he affectionately refers to as his "kids". Scott has integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

11 thoughts on “Leading to Leadership

  1. Ashley

    A great reminder, I need to remember in leading Kelton. He will try every once in a while to sneak, also he is so slow sometimes I need to remember to always have a long stick because I will stop and turn around.

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Those are both perfect take-aways from the article. Every horse is an individual and will ‘play that game’ differently. Some ‘sneak’. Some are outright obvious. Even though the horse is ‘subtle’ or ‘kind’ – they can still be assuming space. And you be just as subtle and kind at letting them know where their space is.

  2. Brenda Gardipee

    Leading your horse I would have never thought it was such a big deal but man is it ever . I have seen such a big difference in Poco since I have been a leader in leading him .. He is the heard leader so when I’m leading I have to be very careful and pay attention to Where he is. He is always trying to get in front of me .. but I have sure noticed a big difference in him when I’m consistent with him when I’m leading him and by making sure I’m using my energy to keep my space with him and getting thinks right on the ground is sure making a big difference in our riding and getting this good on the ground makes doing Liberty so much fun on the ground and in the saddle ..

  3. christa

    Definitely a great article to read to remind us to always be aware of where we are and our horse while leading them . We get compliant sometimes leading old trusty and forget that he to should be expected to walk right up with us not hanging back thinking about the pasture we just took him from . Also its a great way to play with energy , we don’t give them enough credit on there sensitivity to energy . This is a great way to show people how sensitive they are to our energy in the way we ask them to walk off or stop or perhaps follow us .

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      I think you hit the nail on the head there. We get complacent with our own horses, and I’m no stranger to that either! I found that when working with client horses, I was much more diligent than working with my own ‘old trustys’. But that doesn’t help them, or our relationship 🙂

  4. Donna

    This whole article is exactly what I have been working so hard on. Both my horses want to get ahead of me and I find it challenging to notice 3 inches. I did notice today though and I think we did well by the end of the walk. If I slowed my pace, Centaur slowed his. I was especially thrilled on the way back to the barn when he followed my pace. It’s a work in progress.

  5. Becky Gardipee

    This is great! I had no idea just how important leading was until I got Jinx. She really looks for my lead. Her attitude so obviously changes depending on how I’m leading. If I forget to lead without purpose, she picks up on it right away. She doesn’t follow me. I’m going to use the rubber band/beach ball trick from now on

  6. Charlotte Moller

    I am glad I read this article because this is an area I have been getting complacent with. My horse has been lagging behind lately and I haven’t been using the strategies I’ve learned to send her forward and to emanate forward energy. I think I’ll make working on this a goal for the coming week!

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      One of the things I do to help myself in that regard is to think that I’m out for a walk with a buddy. If your walking with someone and they’re behind you, it’s really awkward and annoying. To be part of the conversation, they need to be beside you. I find when I think that way, it helps in creating a connection VS just towing your horse along and you’re each lost in your own thoughts!


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