Leading a Problem Horse
Ground Work,  Horses,  Positive Reinforcement

How to Lead a Horse Guide: Teaching Your Horse to Lead

A horse that leads well is so important and learning how to lead a horse is that much more important. This isn’t only for safety reasons but it also sets up the horse’s 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 telling them “Hold the rope with two hands and walk on the left.”

Proper leading techniques teach 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.

So 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, rearing, or ignoring you completely then this post will help guide you on what you should do.

Your problems leading your horse 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, things will start to change for the better.

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

Training Techniques for Leading a Horse

There are two basic ways to train a horse, Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement.

Negative 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). Much of horse training is done with Negative Reinforcement. Even the most novice of horsemen have heard of “Pressure and Release” which is the essence of Negative Reinforcement.

But what do we do when the horse does something wrong? Which method works better for a situation like this?

I can assure you that it’s not Negative Reinforcement. It just doesn’t work well for correcting unwanted behaviors. The dynamics of a situation that requires a correction call for “adding” something, not “subtracting” something. We need to “add” a correction or “add” a reward in order to communicate with our horses what it is we want from them. Holding pressure during an unwanted behavior will more likely lead to a horse’s opposition reflex being activated than it will be getting your point across.

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” has a more desirable outcome than the discomfort of your “punishment” this horse will simply choose to take the punishment. Still getting 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.

a women leading a horse

Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement is especially beneficial with a horse that may already bring tension to an interaction. It works wonders to de-escalate a situation and redirect the horse to the correct behavior. This approach constitutes an entirely new way of communicating that your horse will recognize 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.


Leading Your Horse 101: Things You Need

  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 brand is Knotty Girlz because their quality can’t be beaten 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.


First Steps for Leading a 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) that 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 sitting 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 stopping when we stop are the specific behaviors we MARK and REWARD.


Good Leading Improves 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 benefits of strategically using your time on the ground to teach your horse what’s expected of them, the more harmonious your time in the saddle will be. 


Frequently Asked Questions About Leading a Horse

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.

What’s the correct lead on a horse: left or 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.

What should my body position look like when leading?

Your position in relation 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.

Why a rope halter for leading a horse?

For the horse that wants to blow past the boundary of your hand or doesn’t stop when you do. Instead, dragging you with them 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.

Results You Should See

Regardless of whether you’re starting out with a problem horse or a pretty darn good one, there’s an 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!

Providing Helpful Horsemanship skills to horse-people of all disciplines. Curated by Robin Martinez, a lifelong horsewoman with a passion for learning and teaching. Together with her husband Dionicio, they own Blackjack Farm in San Diego, CA where they train and compete their own jumping and dressage horses.