Issues From The Ground: Rearing When Leading Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: My friend has a 9-month-old filly that is half quarter horse and half appaloosa. She is a good little horse but quite spunky. She has been leading quietly on a halter since she got her 4 months ago, she is able to pick up her feet, is no problem for the vet or farrier, and has learned to cross tie…most of the time. Lately (the past month or so) she has begun rearing again. (She reared the first couple of times she was led outside a few months ago. Then it stopped.) She has reared in the cross a tie twice and now also rears when being led, and when sometimes in the stall. It doesn’t seem to be fear based but more defiant…. like a rebellious 13-year-old kid, or when she gets excited. She’s up to about 700 pounds and we really want to nip this in the bud. If you have the time could you give us some suggestions? I hope this isn’t an imposition.

Thank you.

Answer: Peggy,

There are two different issues I would like to address in your question. One is the issue of rearing; the other is the issue of cross tying. Cross ties are a very popular means to secure horses, especially in barns with stalls and it is especially prominent on the east coast. It is a handy method but not a particularly safe one. It is quite easy for a cross-tied horse to lose his balance and fall down or rear-up and flip over. When using crossties, it is important to follow some simple safety procedures. First, a horse must be trained to crosstie. I like to hook up one end to the halter and just use a lead rope from the halter to the hook/post on the other side, just hooked over it, so that I can pull it free if needed. That way, I can easily unhook the lead if the horse gets into trouble and I can use the lead to teach the horse to stand still. Secondly, crossties should always have a breakaway on both sides, so that if the horse gets into trouble, the ties will break and set him free. The easiest and cheapest way to create a breakaway is to attach the crossties to the post with a loop of bailing string that will break easily. Thirdly, there should always be slip-free footing underneath the crossties.

Rearing is caused either by a refusal to move forward or when a horse that wants to move forward is prohibited from doing so. In this case, it sounds like the filly is refusing to move forward. Either way, the solution to the problem is the same: you must move the horse forward. The solution to most behavior and control problems, both from the ground or mounted, is to do more ground work with the horse.

Ground work will help you establish yourself as the herd leader or the dominant member in your herd of two (you and your horse). Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space of the subordinates and by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water). With observation of any group of horses, you will quickly see that the dominant horses constantly make the subordinates yield to or move away from the space of dominant herd mates. This is constantly reinforced in the herd, sometimes very subtlety, sometimes very overtly. Anytime a new horse is introduced into the herd, it is immediately driven away and chased around until it shows a certain amount of contrition, then it will be allowed to become a part of the herd. Gradually, the new horse will find his place in the pecking order as he experiments with which horses he can push around and which can push him around.

Once a horse accepts the dominance, authority and leadership of another horse, he will happily follow that horse anywhere. The most dominant horse in the herd is called the “alpha individual,” and this horse, usually a mare, is responsible for taking care of the herd and leading it to action. The alpha will lead the horse to forage and to water and will signal the herd when it is time to rest and when it is time to flee. Horses very frequently are seen walking in a single file line, usually in the pecking order, following the boss mare. Horses follow in a single-file line because they know that where the horse in front of them went is a safe place to walk.

Through ground work, you can establish this kind of leader-follower relationship with the filly. Once she truly accepts your authority, she will follow you anywhere, with blind faith and trust.

If possible, I would start in the round pen with this filly, driving her away from me and controlling her direction and speed. She is a little young for round pen work, so I would be very careful not to physically stress her. Once she accepts that I am controlling the direction that she goes, I would turn her around a few times so that she learns that I can totally control her actions. We would work on going from slow to fast to slow again repeatedly, until she is looking to me to tell her what to do. At any time I notice an effort on the part of the horse to do what I ask, I would reward her by letting her stop and leave her alone for a moment. All the while I am looking for signs that the horse is accepting my authority, such as licking and chewing, head lowering, relaxed ears. If I see signs such as head tossing, bucking and kicking, tense or raised tail, I know that she has not yet accepted me as her leader but I will continue on with the same amount of pressure until she shows the signs of subordinance.

When the right signs appear, I will allow the horse to stop and allow her to come to me if she chooses to. At that point I will let her smell my hand, rub her withers and see if she will let me touch her all over and walk all the way around her. Once she does all, she is pretty subordinate and will usually “hook-on” and follows behind me as I circle her in both directions and go from walk to halt to walk. This may take one session or many, depending on how dominant the filly is by nature, but all horses will eventually accept subordinance when they are handled correctly.

Once the horse is hooked-on in the round pen, we can go through the same process on the lead line to establish your authority and leadership in another setting. I like to use a rope halter with at 12′ training lead. My favorite brand is the Silvertip Halter; they are the highest quality at the best price that I have found. You can order one from my website.

On the lead line, we will work on many fundamental rules of behavior that all horses must learn if they are to be respectful and obedient. We will work on standing still first. When you want your horse to stand still without moving her feet, stand in front of and to the side of the horse, with your toes facing her shoulder. Horses are very conscious of the feet of the more dominant herd mates and she will quickly learn that when your toes point toward her shoulder, she should not move. I will correct any movement of her feet with a bump on the lead and I will reposition her back to where I asked her to stand anytime she moves. I will also teach the horse to keep her nose right in front of her chest and again, correct her nose anytime she moves it in either direction with a bump of the lead or by pointing at her with my finger or twirling the end of the rope toward her nose. Again, always reward the horse anytime you see an effort or even the smallest improvement. You can reward the horse by rubbing it on the withers or by simply turning your back to her for a moment to take the pressure off.

Next we will work on leading with halt-walk-halt transitions and walk-trot-walk transitions. The horse must learn to walk obediently beside me, neither lagging behind nor getting in front of me. To me, getting in front is a more serious problem because it shows that the horse still has dominant tendencies. Naturally, a subordinate horse will want to walk behind you but for safety purposes, we want the horse to walk beside us. But in herd behavior, the subordinate horse will rarely go in front of the dominant horse; if he does, he is met with teeth barred and hair flying.

To keep the horse behind us and beside us as we lead, we must keep our leading hand (right hand) stretched out in front, to delineate the most forward boundary that the horse is allowed to cross. Ideally, the horse should keep her nose about even with your hand and neither lag behind nor get in front. The horse will learn to watch your hand to know when to turn and when to speed up or slow down. Do not try to hold the horse back with the lead rope; let him make the mistake of getting in front of you, then correct him.

Anytime the horse gets in front of my hand, I will abruptly stop, turn around and vigorously back the horse up and out of my space, using whatever pressure is necessary (jerking the rope, stomping my feet, twirling the rope, hissing and spitting at the horse) to aggressively back the horse out of my space. With consistent enforcement of this forward boundary, in short order the horse will watch that forward boundary very closely and will back off the instant I lift my hand or finger. Watch the horse for this pushy kind of behavior whenever you are leading the horse back to the barn or anywhere that it is eager to go and always enforce this rule that the horse cannot go in front of you. If the horse is lagging behind you when leading, continue moving forward but give rhythmic bumps up on the lead. As soon as the horse makes an effort to catch up with you, stop bumping and slowly reel him in. Make sure you slowly and deliberately ask the horse for upward and downward transitions. For instance, when asking the horse for an upward transition from standing still to walking, I will first very deliberately move from the standing position (toes facing horse’s shoulder) to the leading position (beside the horse facing forward), then pick up slightly on the lead, lean forward with my shoulders and then move my feet. This way I have given the horse a series of pre-signals before asking her to move so that she has had time to think about what is coming next and move off with me and avoid the pressure on the halter. If she does not move off with me, the lead will get taut, causing pressure from the knots in the halter and I will begin bumping the lead up until she catches up. It is very important to give the horse an adequate pre-signal every time so that she learns that if she pays attention and moves with you she can avoid the pressure to her face.

For stopping or slowing, you should lift your shoulders and raise your hands slightly, then gradually slow your feet, taking several smaller and smaller steps to come to a complete halt. Most people stop and start without an adequate pre-signal and even if the horse wanted to move simultaneously with you, she doesn’t have the chance, therefore she will not even try to watch your body language for a cue. On the lead line I will also work on turning the horse away from me, making her yield to my space, in increasingly smaller circles until eventually she is pivoting on her haunches. I like to do lead line work from both sides of the horse so that her training is balanced and she is turning in both directions. It is not a good idea ever to turn the horse toward you while leading because first of all it is dangerous to pull a thousand pound animal toward you and secondly asking a horse to move into your space confuses the dominance issue. When you are turning the horse, make sure your hands stay up in front of you to form the boundary of your personal space. If the horse does not move out of your space, point your fingers and let them poke her in the face to encourage her to move out of your space. Don’t ever let your hands get on the other side of her head or try to pull her into the turn. We always want to push horses, not pull them. Make sure your hands and arms define your personal space and that the horse moves away from your space.

By now, the horse is standing still when asked, leading obediently, doing transitions and turning well in both directions. Next we want to work on a greater control of the horse’s entire body and I want to teach her to move her hindquarters and shoulders away from me when asked and to be able to drive her in a circle around me. Check out other Q&As for the technique involved in these maneuvers. Doing groundwork with your horse is like putting money in the bank and should always lead to a more relaxed, willing and obedient horse. Even the most dominant horse will gladly accept subordinance and your relationship will be more productive and more satisfying. Even spending just a few minutes everyday in these exercises will lead to steady improvement and a safer and more respectful horse. Once the filly has accepted the authority and leadership of her handlers, the rearing and refusal with go away.

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