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.