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Step-By-Step Guide to Safely Leading a Horse

If you’re starting riding lessons, leading a horse is one of the first things you’ll learn. In certain ways, leading a horse is like walking a dog on a leash; you’ll hold a lead rope or reins attached to the horse, and the horse will walk next to you. That said, there is a big difference between a dog and a horse…and it’s about a 1,000-lb difference!

How do you lead a horse? To safely lead a horse, follow these steps:

  • Lead from the left side of the horse
  • Hold your lead rope correctly
  • Lead from beside the horse’s head
  • Look where you want to go
  • Point your shoulders where you want to go

Lesson horses tend to be lazy, so you may find keeping the horse beside you hard. Even with a lazy horse, you must remember that you set the pace, not the horse. Keep reading to learn how to lead a horse like a pro!

Which Side Do You Lead a Horse From?

Horses are universally taught to lead with the human being on their left side. In the old days, knights and cavalry carried swords on their left hips. If they were to lead or mount the horse from the right side, the swords would have bumped the horses and been cumbersome to maneuver around. While today we don’t carry swords, the tradition has stuck!

Most horse trainers have realized the benefits of a horse’s ability to lead from both the left and right sides. A phrase in the horse world goes, “What you do to one side, you must do to the other.” There will be instances where a horse must be led or mounted from the right side, and the horse must be OK with this.

Most horses you encounter today should be able to lead efficiently on the left or the right; however, I have known a few horses who were never trained to lead from the right. When I purchased my yearling, he knew very little about leading in general, but he had definitely never been led from the right side. Over time, I have worked to get him comfortable being led either way.

How to Hold Your Lead Rope Correctly

A long lead rope can be cumbersome and awkward to hold when leading a horse. You may feel inclined to wrap the rope around your hand or arm; however, you should avoid doing this at all costs. If the horse were to spook or bolt, you could get caught in the rope and get dragged.

First, use both hands to correctly hold a lead rope while leading a horse. For example, if you’re leading your horse from the left side, your right hand should be placed on the lead rope or reins closer to the horse’s head while your left-hand holds the end of the lead rope. Vice versa, if you’re leading from the right. Your left hand will be placed on the rope closer to the horse’s head while your right-hand holds the rest of the lead rope.

You will hold the rest of the lead rope in the hand furthest from the horse. Instead of wrapping the rope around your hand, fold it and hold it in the middle. If the rope were to be yanked out of your hands, you would avoid getting wrapped up or caught in it.

If you are leading a horse with a bridle, be sure to bring the reins over the horse’s head so you can hold them properly. If you left the reins around the horse’s neck, the horse could easily pull away from you.

Where Should Your Horse Be When Leading?

The horse’s head should be beside your elbow when you lead them. In this position, you can easily control the horse and stay safe if the horse were to spook and jump forward.

The last place you want to be when leading a horse is directly in front of them. While horses can almost see 360° around them, one of their blindspots is directly in front of them. A horse can’t see you there, and if they were to startle, they would run into you.

Walking directly behind you is what most horses will revert to, as they often walk nose-to-tail with other horses. My yearling would also do this when I first purchased him. I had to remind him by pulling on the lead rope and asking him to step up so that he was supposed to be beside me, not behind me.

Look Where You Want to Go When Leading a Horse

The primary way a horse communicates is through body language. As equestrians, we must learn to communicate effectively with our body language to help our horses understand what we want from them. When leading your horse, you can communicate with them by looking where you want to go.

Horses look at your eyes to see where your attention is. If your attention is ahead of you and focused on where you are going, a horse will also bring their attention there. If you’re leading your horse, looking at your feet, and making sure the horse isn’t going to step on you, you’re telling the horse that you’re focused on the ground. They will get confused and be less willing to move forward.

If you’re leading a horse past an object the horse is nervous about, don’t look at the object. Look where you’re going and keep moving forward. This will tell the horse that you’re not worried about the object, and they shouldn’t be either.

Point Your Shoulders Where You Want to Go When Leading a Horse

Another way to use body language to communicate to your horse what you want is to point your shoulders where you want to go. A horse’s shoulders will point in the direction the horse travels. If you’re leading a horse and want them to move forward, your shoulders should be facing forward.

I noticed this when loading horses into a trailer. Many horses have difficulty loading into trailers, and I believe it most often comes from the horse not getting reassurance from the handler. Most handlers get to the trailer and turn around to face the horse, yet they still expect the horse to walk forward onto the trailer. I tested this with one of my horses, who tends to bulk at the trailer. Instead of turning to face them, I kept my shoulders facing forward and asked the horse to load in the trailer. It was much less of an ordeal.

Keep this in mind when you’re trying to give your horse confidence!

How Do You Lead a Horse That Wants to Walk Ahead of You?

Some horses are natural-born leaders. Some horses want to get to their food bucket. What do you do if you feel like your horse is leading you rather than you leading them?

One of the easiest ways to address this problem is to immediately stop and make your horse back up when they start to get out in front of you. To back up your horse, you can assertively wiggle your lead rope up and down until the horse backs up a few steps. Or you can press the horse’s chest.

Another exercise you can do is spin the end of your lead rope directly in front of you. If the horse tries to walk ahead of you, they will run into the spinning lead rope.

The long-term solution for this problem is to use groundwork exercises to set boundaries with your horse. Once your horse understands boundaries and the concept of personal space, they will be less likely to walk ahead of you. I have an online course that walks you through simple yet effective groundwork exercises that can help. To learn more, check out the online course here.

How Do You Lead a Horse That Wants to Drag Behind You?

To correct a horse that stops and refuses to lead forward or a horse that drags behind, in your hand, the furthest from the horse, carry a lunge whip. Let it fall at our side and behind you. Walk forward as normal, expecting your horse to move with you. If the horse doesn’t, keep facing forward and keep moving your feet as if you’re marching in place. This is important when telling your horse what you want.

Next, gently wave your lunge whip up and down to encourage the horse forward. As soon as the horse moves up next to you, stop waving the lunge whip and continue on. If the horse doesn’t respond, increase the wave of the lunge whip. Initially, you may have to tap the horse’s side to get them to understand what you want. As soon as they move forward, stop using the lunge whip and walk on.

Another exercise you can do is teach the horse to yield to the pressure of the lead rope. Walk ahead of your horse all the way to the end of the lead rope. If the horse hasn’t tried to keep up with you at all, you’ll feel tension on the rope. With the lead rope running through both of your hands, use your chest to create leverage with the rope, applying pressure to ask your horse forward. Keep holding the pressure until the horse steps forward and releases the tension. Once the horse does that, immediately stop moving and wait for your horse to come up to you.

My Horse Refuses to Move Forward When Leading

My yearling, who was almost two years old when I wrote this, has recently gotten in the habit of stopping and planting his feet if he doesn’t want to do something. The cute thing is he most often does this when I’m leading him back to his pasture. It’s like he likes being out and working with us! As cute as it is, the behavior must be corrected.

If a horse refuses to move forward when leading, you can use the exercises in the previous point to teach them to respond to pressure and move forward. There is a short-term fix to try in the moment to solve the problem.

If a horse is planting its feet and refusing to move forward, try leading it to the left or the right, making a sharp turn to where the horse’s balance is thrown off, and they have to step forward and move their feet. Usually, once I do this a few times, then the horse gets over it and will walk forward in the direction we were going.

If you’re preparing for your first lesson, not only will you learn to lead a horse, but you should also learn how to groom them! Learn all aspects of grooming in my article How to Groom a Horse: Complete Guide.

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How To Lead A Horse
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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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