Don't lead your horse incorrectly. By Don Jessop - Mastery Horsemanship
Don't lead your horse incorrectly.       By Don Jessop

Don't lead your horse incorrectly. By Don Jessop

February 20, 2018 7 Comments

Welcome to a world of controversy. Where every trainer from every corner of the earth, has their own idea of how to lead a horse correctly. But what is "correct?" And what isn't, according to Mastery Horsemanship? 

Recently I've been invited to help support another therapeutic riding center develop a safety course for their new staff members and the question about how to lead a horse correctly, came up again. With varying opinions about correct position for leading, coming in from so many places, I've decided to give an overview of what works best, why it works best, and why the other ways are simply, inappropriate for most people.

Of course, like every thing in the horse training world, these things I want to share with you, aren't rules. They are guidelines for safety and progress at home, on the trail, or in the show ring, so don't get your defenses up too high. When I say there is a "correct" way and and "incorrect" way, what I mean is there are different ways for different situations. We'll call these different ways, the "the six positions" of leading.

But before I get into the power of each position. I want you to remember another thing. I want you to remember the value of keeping the horse's attention and connection with you. "Attention over position." A master trainer can work from any position but won't continue on, day by day, without training the horse to be more attentive to signals and positions. Beginners can get caught up thinking it's all about positions, when it's really all about attention and positions. Leading from any position without the horse's attention on the leader and personal space buffer, is dangerous! With that in mind, here are the 6 positions:

Position one: Directly in front of the horse with a four to six foot buffer between you and the horse to prevent the horse from stepping on you. 

Benefits: This helps train a horse to walk nose to tail and stay focused on a trail, or while navigating obstacles that demand patience. Such as walking down a steep hill.

Hazards: The horse can get a spook from behind and bolt on top of the leader, if he or she isn't paying close attention. 

Position two: Beside the horses nose, with the lead rope hanging at your shoulder, not in front or behind too far, and with a buffer of about two to four feet to the side. This way the horse can see you at all times and you can see him as well, at all times, which makes it easier to manage his or her attention.

Benefits: The horse can give you two eyes, while at the same time giving you the ability to see his expression and position at any time. This position also makes it easy to turn any direction at any time without running into the horse. 

Hazards: The horse could bite you or strike at you (if he really wanted too). But he would really have to reach, and you can easily see it coming from your position.

Position three: Further back, closer to the horses neck and shoulder. This is useful for showing a horse to a panel of judges or quickly switching from leading to driving the horse into an arc or circle. 

Benefits: Allows the judges to see the horses whole head and body. Also gives the leader a chance to invite faster motion or transitions from the horse with slightly more ease, than in position one or two. Advanced horse people often use this position to demonstrate liberty or and other advanced maneuvers, but don't usually use this position to lead from point A to point B.

Hazards: The horse can loose focus and work against the leader, in this position. It's also very difficult for the leader to have a 360 degree view of possible hazards. Which can invite the horse to jump toward the leader if spooked and possibly injure him or her. Or he could bolt away, pulling the leader off their feet and leaving him or her in the kick zone of the hind feet. This position also makes it difficult to turn both directions because the horse's body is blocking the turn.

Position four: Further back again, closer to the ribs or hips. This is useful for allowing a horse to explore a bit and demonstrate curiosity. But highly inappropriate for novice trainers. Because this sets the leader around the kick zone and allows the horse to ignore the trainer at a moments notice.

Benefits: The horse can test new environments, such as crossing a stream or loading into a trailer without the influence of the leader already present in that space. The horse can also easily transition into circles from this position if desired.

Hazards: The horse's attention is split and can easily become too distracted for safety. The horse can kick the leader with his hind feet if provoked or spooked. And it still leaves the leader without a 360 degree view. It's like driving in a car with massive blind spots.

Position five: Behind the horse. This is useful for preparing a horse for riding or driving. It causes the horse to navigate the terrain with the promptings of the leader but without the visual support of someone actually taking the first steps into the unknown. This is also highly inappropriate for novice trainers due the position of the hind feet and the decreased attention levels from the horse. 

Benefits: Preparation for riding, causing the horse to take steps forward and learn to steer and stop from rein signals.

Hazards: The horse can easily become distracted or too scared to cooperate, leaving the trainer in a vulnerable spot near the kick zone. This also leaves plenty of opportunity to get tangled in some long ropes.

Position six: On top of the horse. Actual riding. Believe it or not, riding is leading. Just from a different position. You still must guide and direct the horse.

Benefits: The horse becomes a partner that can safely carry the rider through varying speeds and terrain, inviting the opportunity to engage in games or fantastic adventures.

Hazards: The horse's attention is split. He or she can easily become too distracted to listen to signals from the rider. This leaves the rider vulnerable to bolting, bucking, rearing, spinning, spooking, sliding, pitching, and other undesirable events that can lead to injury.

So which one is the best one? Which is the most "correct" or "appropriate" way to teach a brand new person or novice how to lead a horse? Can you guess?

The answer: Position number two!

Everything else is highly inappropriate for new horse people. But for years I've watched as trainers teach novice people to lead while positioned at the horses neck or shoulder (position number three). This is NOT correct for novice people, because it can be very dangerous. It may impress the judges, but safety must come first. Unless the horse is super calm, at all times, standing by the horses shoulder can progress to injury, because the horse does not have to focus on the leader exclusively and novice trainers might not be able to read the body language from that position. I see it all the time. The horse can check out and leave you broken or standing in the dust. However, once a horse and trainer learn basic safety positions, and how to manage the horse's attention, then any position can be taught. 

The most correct or appropriate way for any new person to learn to lead a horse is to stand at the horses lead line (position number two). Stand near the tip of the horses nose, at a distance of about two to four feet to the side, and with a slack lead rope. This forces the horse to stay connected visually, with both eyes, but not stand so close. This position is also perfect because it gives the leader a chance to watch the horse, in case of sudden changes in his expression or position. A horse that knows this position well, is the kind of horse ANYBODY can lead. Even my little ten year old girl. It's easy to teach as well. All one must do is, position the horse, then relax. If the horse leaves the position, simply re-position him or her, and relax again. It can take time, but it's worth it.

All other positions leave the leader too vulnerable in the early stages of development. Remember: Position one (leader in front), can make the horse invisible to the leader. Unless he or she walks backward while facing the horse. Position three, four and five, leave the leader in a position where they can only turn one direction easily. The horse can easily step on the leader or bolt away and kick the leader from these positions. And that is why position number two is the most appropriate position to lead a horse. But you don't have to call it "position number two." You can simply call it, the "correct" way to lead a horse for a novice horse person. 

I'll be making a short two part video for you to watch about this, if you want. The first part would demonstrates the six positions. The second part teaches you how to lead the "correct" way for novice horse people. In the second part, I'll actually show you how to train the horse to lead in this position. If you want access to the upcoming video, comment below and I'll send it to you as soon as it's up.

Also... If you haven't yet, buy my book "Leadership and Horse" and Learn to communicate like a master!

Thanks for reading.

PS. What not to do! Remember you're leading your horse, not dragging your horse or being dragged by your horse. Keep some slack in the line. Not too much to get tangled in your horse's feet, or your feet, but not too tight as to keep the horse in a mindless position like a mindless animal.

(Like all things... these are guidelines. Certain situations require different procedures. But in general... keep safe, keep the horse in mind and make sure he or she is keeping you in mind. With these principles in place, you'll become the leader your horse deserves.)

7 Responses

Darlene Judd
Darlene Judd

July 19, 2018

I really enjoy the information you share with all of us. This was a great post about leading horses and I appreciate you talking about how it could be dangerous for a beginner to lead at the shoulder/head area of the horse. I teach children the first method as beginners and feel it is much safer. I never thought of riding as leading but after thinking about it, I have to agree! Thanks again for your thoughtful posts!


February 25, 2018

Thanks Don. Would love to see your video!

Eileen Coe
Eileen Coe

February 22, 2018

I love position number 2! I feel we are walking together- and by keeping it consistent- I feel like I am a good leader. In a therapeutic riding program- consistency is so hard when you have so many different volunteers. If they are al trained to do position #2 – I imagine the horses would be a lot happier! I am looking forward to your video!

Loretta Huibregtse
Loretta Huibregtse

February 21, 2018

Thank you for clarifying the correct way to lead your horse. Looking forward to the video.


February 21, 2018

Am familiar with all six positions but would like to see your video. Always good to have other view points. Thank you.

Sue Jones
Sue Jones

February 20, 2018

I have an 8mth foal that is going to be big so I need to teach her well so that I am safe and anyone else is too when she moves around. I look forward to seein gyour videos. Thank you for this very clear article.


February 20, 2018

Very good! This really lays it all out there. Even though I’ve been practicing natural horsemanship for quite a while, this was still very helpful. Especially if I need to explain it to someone else who was learning.

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