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Leading a Problem Horse

How to Lead a Problem Horse

A horse that leads well is so important. How to specifically lead a problem horse is just that much more important. Not just for safety but for setting up the expectations for everything else you do with them. It’s crazy to me that something so important is so neglected. It’s just not something that really gets taught. Teaching someone how to lead a horse should be more than “Hold the rope with two hands and walk on the left.”

Proper leading teaches the horse to stay “with” you; not behind you, not in front of you, not moving away from you, and not moving into you. These concepts are not only important from the ground but also in the saddle.

If you’re having serious problems with your horse when you lead them; behaviors like trying to bite you, blowing past you when you want to stop, dragging you in various directions, pulling the lead from your hand, or ignoring you completely then this post is for you!

Your problems leading may not get better overnight but they will improve more quickly than you might think. Within just a few days of consistently working at it you should find that you have gone from a problem horse to one that is now offering up the right behaviors before you even ask.

Wick, Junior, Crush and Dutch give us some great examples of common problems.

Training Options

There are two basic ways to train a horse, Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement. Negative reinforcement means we take something away when the horse does something right (Negative = to subtract). The other is Positive Reinforcement which means we add something when the horse does something right (Positive = to add). But what do we do when the horse does something wrong?

There are two big problems with having Negative Reinforcement as your only tool for training. The first is that it doesn’t work well for correcting unwanted behaviors. The second is that it just doesn’t work on some horses, especially on the “problem horse.” If you’re eagerly reading this post then you most likely have one of these horses!

When Negative Reinforcement doesn’t work

It’s typical to train a horse with Negative Reinforcement. Even the most novice of horsemen have heard of “Pressure and Release” which is the essence of Negative Reinforcement. Negative Reinforcement works to get a response in the moment as a result of pressure being applied. This works fairly well in many situations. Where it does not work well is when you have a horse that is already showing you they want to “do their own thing.” Suddenly telling them “No!” with a jerk of the lead rope doesn’t hold much weight as far as they are concerned. If you find yourself at this point please be clear that this is not the problem. This is a symptom of the problem. The problem is a lack of understanding on the horse’s part. It’s our job to let them know what’s expected of them and what behaviors are acceptable.

Even if Negative Reinforcement is “working” there’s so much more that’s possible. Its the difference between pushing a rock uphill and rolling one downhill. With Positive Reinforcement you will get a horse that thinks for themselves. They learn to problem solve and best of all they begin to volunteer the correct response. This is the magic of Positive Reinforcement! The horse is motivated to offer the desired behavior because they like the reward they get for it.

Happy Horse

Offer versus Obey

With Negative Reinforcement, the premise is that the horse desires to have relief from the pressure you are applying. This desire for relief is the motivation to obey your request. However, if the “bad behavior” they are displaying has a more desirable outcome like food or freedom than the discomfort of your “punishment” this horse will simply choose to take the punishment AND still get the outcome they prefer. It could be the grass they are pulling you towards or the freedom they get if they pull the rope from your hand.

In these situations, the best you can hope for is what I call a negotiated outcome. Negotiating creates a horse that will simply continue to push the limits set by the humans they encounter. Sometimes the outcome is a “naughty-boy” that drags you to the grassy patch but otherwise seems harmless. But other times the outcome is a dangerous horse that literally and figuratively walks over the people in their life.

De-escalating a situation

Positive Reinforcement is especially beneficial with a horse that may already bring tension to an interaction. It works wonders to deescalate a situation and redirect the horse to the correct behavior. Let me be clear, we do not reward a horse that displays dangerous behavior. What we do is make right and wrong answers abundantly clear to the horse by Marking the right answer. Most of the time we simply ignore (no reward) or clearly correct the wrong answer. The correction is still Positive Reinforcement because we are adding it as a result of the given behavior. Choose the right answer and we add a reward. Choose the wrong answer and either nothing happens or we add a clear non-emotional correction.

The goal is to show the horse that they can make choices on their own and be clear that those choices have good results (rewards). With Positive Reinforcement we don’t force a horse to do something, we motivate them. Right answers begin to appear more and more. Wrong answers (i.e. unwanted behaviors) typically disappear due to lack of reward.

Mark and Reward

A primary tool of Positive Reinforcement Training is to Mark and Reward correct behaviors. Clicker training, which many people are familiar with, is another name for Mark and Reward training. Clicker training is common in dog training. It is also the type of animal training that you might see at an aquatic park. The Clicker is used to “mark” the correct behavior in the animal. With horses we use a Marker Word rather than a clicker device. The Marker Word is a distinct sound that the horse quickly learns to associate with a forthcoming reward. Our word is “tisk.”


This approach constitutes an entirely new way of communicating and your horse will recognize it right away. If prior to this you were talking over each other, now you will be talking with each other. Each interaction with the horse is a conversation. You ask them a question and they give you an answer. It’s a very simple format; the conversation begins with asking the horse, “Will you…{fill in the blank}? If the horse gives the wrong answer you simply ask again. This is where it’s very important NOT to make a big deal of the past behavior (wrong answer). Either ignore it or correct it then move on. Once again I simply ask my question. The horse will quickly learn what’s right and what’s wrong by what gets rewarded. Once the horse responds with the correct answer, you’ll mark it with the “tisk” sound and give a reward.

Ready to give it a try? You’ll need the following things:

  • 1) I highly recommend a rope halter. The level of communication that’s possible far exceeds that of any standard halter. A 2-knot halter works well for the average horse. A 4-knot halter is appropriate for a horse who has any propensity to get strong or behave dangerously. My favorite is brand is https://www.knottygirlz.com because their quality can’t be beat and they offer so many sizing options.
  • 2) A lead rope with a knot tied 12″ from the clip and another 12″ from the end.
  • 3) Gloves (if you don’t choose to use them don’t blame me, I tried to tell you…)
  • 4) A dressage whip.
  • 5) A reward pouch stocked with low sugar treats.
  • 6) An area that you can practice with a barrier on the opposite side of you. The interior of the barn or the arena fence both work well.

Why the knots in the lead rope?

The knot at the top of the rope is your contact point with your horse and your first line of defense if the horse pulls on you. The knot at the end of the lead rope is a safety mechanism for you. If the horse pulls the rope through your hand you can grab onto that end knot. This can be very useful with a fresh or problem horse and it sure beats the heck out of a rope burn and a loose horse.

Left and Right

Though it’s common for us to only lead our horses from the left this is not in our best interest or the horse’s. If you consider that when we lunge or ride everything must be done on both the right and the left sides then why wouldn’t we begin this practice when leading? With this in mind, when we train proper leading we do it from both the left and the right side of the horse. Caveat: If you’re currently dealing with a difficult horse I suggest that you both get good at leading from the left before you give the right side a try. Being on the right side can feel very awkward for both the horse and the handler. Better to work out some of the bugs from the side you’re both currently comfortable with before you give the right side a try.

Your Body Position

Your position in relationship to your horse’s body should be at or slightly in front of their shoulder with both of you facing forward. When leading on the left (remember we will practice leading from both sides in which case you will need to switch hands) you will carry the whip in your left hand and hold the lead rope in your right hand.

Let’s Get to Leading the Horse

Whether you’re starting with a problem horse or a pretty good one we start the same way. To begin, you will lift your right hand showing the horse (visual cue) you’d like them to walk forward. If the horse doesn’t move with you then with the whip you will touch them behind your body on their barrel asking them to move their feet and walk forward.

As the horse walks forward they must stay “with you” in the boundary you are setting between the whip and lead rope. If they try to walk past the boundary of the knot in the rope you will correct them by turning the whip towards the front of your body and slowly waving it in front of them. At first, it is very likely the horse will overcorrect and end up way behind the whip, this is where you’ll softly use the whip to once again put them forward towards the knot. This action is where we really begin to teach the concept of staying with us which will translate to staying between our leg and hand when we ride. Walking forward and then stoping when we stop are the specific behaviors we MARK and REWARD.

Why a Rope Halter

For the horse that wants to blow past the boundary of your hand or doesn’t stop when you do but instead drags you with them to wherever they feel like going, you’ll use the whip as I’ve described but also the special powers of the rope halter. This is key when leading a problem horse. The knots across the nose of the rope halter are strategically placed to be mild to very uncomfortable when tugged. We will use tugging on the rope halter as our method of correction. It’s important we clearly make the point that dragging the handler is not acceptable behavior.

We don’t want to get into a battle of strength or illicit the horse’s natural Opposition Reflex thus we don’t just pull against them and hang on for dear life. We use intermittent tugging, as hard as you can in some cases, to make your point. What we want is for the message to be clear, “Dragging me is not okay.” With consistency, even the most difficult horse can learn self control.

Good leading will improve your riding.

When we lead our horses as I’ve outlined, the whip represents our “leg” and the knot in the rope represents our “hand.” We want the horse in front of the whip and not past the knot. When you give a little tug on the rope it’s the equivalent of squeezing the reins to say, “Hey do not go past my hand.” When you use the whip you’re saying, “Stay in front of my leg.”

You are setting a boundary for your horse just like you will do when you are riding. The horse must learn to keep himself at the end of your knot, not creating tension by pulling away from you or by lagging behind you. The horse must also learn to stay up in front of the whip not lagging behind and losing impulsion. This is how we practice the art of telling the horse where we’d like them to be and allow them to practice holding themselves there. This is the beginning of Self Carriage. Self Carriage-at the walk-from the ground. Who would have thought!

The Results

Regardless of whether you’re starting out with a problem horse or a pretty darn good one, there’s opportunity for productive training on a daily basis. First we want a well mannered horse that’s pleasant and safe to lead. Second, we’d like one that understands the concept of staying between the aids. That’s the horse that will be such a pleasure to ride we won’t ever want to get off them!

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