You earn respect by controlling your horse’s space, movement, and direction. Good ground manners are a vital first step in being able to do a lot of training work. You have to be able to safely lead your horse around the property, even to get to and from a round pen or arena. A horse that cannot be easily or safely handled on the ground is not enjoyable in any way, and you become less likely to want to work with her. Proper ground manners means your horse respects your space and keeps a proper distance when being led, while standing, is quiet while being tied, etc. During actual leading the horse should learn what I call the “equine heel.” When you stop, she stops. When you turn right or left, she moves with you automatically. When you back up, your horse backs up. When this lesson is complete, you are never making contact with the lead-line, it is always slack. Instead she is simply heeling to your body position. It also means she is the correct distance beside you while leading, not too close, and not lagging too far behind.
So while leading a horse around may seem like a mundane chore, it is a fantastic training exercise and one you should plan on doing extensively with your young horse. You will see “leading” appear quite frequently on my training calendar! It sets you up to do so much more with your horse and really works the emotional and mental aspects without causing any physical stress. Every time you take your horse out of the stall or pasture is a training opportunity in ground manners. Make every walk you take with your horse count. Determine the distance you want the horse to walk beside you. (I like a horse about eighteen to twenty-four inches from my shoulder.) Cue your horse to go forward from the stand with a kiss or a cluck. Do not pull on the lead rope. Always give her a chance to move forward just from the pre-cue. If she does not move, continue cueing and then apply light pressure to the line that matches the pressure she is offering (no more and no less). Once she starts forward, immediately release the pressure and continue walking with a slack line. Always walk your horse with a slack line. If your horse starts to walk ahead of you, stop and ask her to back up several steps. Horses do not like to back up and this is an appropriate negative reinforcement. Horses need a reason to change a behavior; backing is a reason they can understand.
I will just say now, plan on backing your horse up a lot. Your young horse is very likely to try to walk ahead or behind. Because they are often nervous at first, ahead of you is more common. Don’t get frustrated, just keep stopping and backing. If you do it right away and every single time the horse crosses the line of where you want her to be in relation to your body, she will get it eventually. Using a training stick on the ground in front of the horse can help provide extra incentive for them to back if they seem resistant.
Likewise, you may have a horse that is prone to lagging behind you. To work on this, carry the stick with your left hand, while holding the lead-line in your right hand (you will be on the left of the horse while walking forward). If the horse slows or falls behind, cluck or kiss as a pre-cue, and then reach back with the training stick to tap her on the hindquarters. Use as much pressure as you need to get her to go forward faster and nothing more. Like walking ahead, you will need to do this every single time she starts to lag behind. By using the verbal pre-cue, you will also be reinforcing it as a basic go-forward cue for a lot of other training work.
So once you have the physics down for how to react if the horse walks ahead or behind, get out there and start leading your baby as much as possible. Over time, as her confidence builds you can move farther and farther from her paddock and visit new areas. For variety you can incorporate crossing objects such as poles and tarps. But your goal should be leading her as much as possible, and having a higher expectation for her performance as you progresses. Teaching your horse to lead properly is one of the most important first lessons.