Leading is much more complex then it might seem at first glance. It involves a lot of small lessons that help to lay a good foundation. The concept of space is one, the ability to focus is another and then there is impulse control, these are huge and carry over to many other areas of our relationship. I prefer to do leading at liberty to start. It really makes it clear that they mentally understand these concepts. The choices they make when they are working at liberty gives us an enormous amount of information. Using equipment to facilitate leading can actually inhibit their understanding of space since we often rely on the equipment instead of teaching them to use their minds to truly think through the process. When they have it solid at liberty, then they will be really solid when we do use the halter and lead or if something goes awry.
In the video answer I talk about using the target. However, sometimes I forget that not everyone is familiar with the target or how to use it…that is what happens after 30 years of target training! I have had tremendous success using the target to teach them to maintain a comfortable distance when walking together. If you aren’t familiar with the target or bridge conditioning (clicker) you can learn more by going to my blog post entitled “Getting your horse off to the right start for clicker training”.
Since they learn to follow the target I hold it out to the side to create the distance I want. I reinforce them when they are maintaining that space, at first for short distances and then I like to build duration. I am trying to develop a strong reinforcement history with the correct behavior. I also want to draw attention, via positive reinforcement (reward) to the transitions while leading at liberty. When they get the idea to stop with you, walk slow, speed up, and eventually trot with you then I begin to fade the target. As the target gets faded they begin to focus more on what you are doing since this is now the cue for what to do. This is the beginning of a very good habit…watching you for information.
As they are learning this new skill they may not have a clear understanding of what is expected, even though they seem to be good on the halter and lead. They may want to turn to face you when you stop or cut you off as you walk with them. If they try to cut me off I tend to just keep on my track and may walk into them. I think it is important to mention that I don’t do it in a confrontational or brusk way, I am soft and a bit slow but keep going. If they don’t respond by correcting their position with this then they probably need more time with the target. So take a step back and go a bit slower. Remember, one of my mottos is: “Slow down, you’ll go faster”. Also, they probably need to be stronger with the skill of keeping their head to themselves when just standing next to you (bridge conditioning 101). When they are well versed in the art of standing politely next to you, they will assume that position when you stop. Then they start to create this situation in the leading exercise as well. It becomes a concept that they understand. So if you walk toward them, they will want to maintain this space so they begin to yield, not to the pressure but because they are choosing to get lined up in the correct position. That choice is the best part of liberty work, they can stay or walk away.
The target can help to make the lesson clear for them as we begin to shift from the standing to the moving. This shift in context ups the ante, since they may have to relearn the criteria in the new situation. The target will help set them up for success so that we have something worth rewarding. It is up to us to be sure that our horses understand what we are asking of them. The target can also help to direct them as we teach them to stop next to us, nice and square but not on top of us. By holding it out to the side we can help to direct where their heads and shoulders go. Okay, I think that covers the things that I forgot to mention in the video. By the way…I apologize for the poor lighting in the video but it gets a little better than it looks from the screenshot. It is hard to monitor that when you are the director as well as the subject!