Leading a Horse: What’s Wrong with This Picture?



Leading may seem like one of the least complicated activities to do with your horse but it is the cornerstone to your horse’s relationship with you and isn’t without risk. How your horse behaves and responds on the end of the lead reflects her level of trust, responsiveness to your cues, and confidence in your abilities as a leader.

Help your horse see you as a kind and competent leader by facing forward and looking in the direction you want her to go. Give her slack in the line so that she can discern the difference between pressure that she should respond to and the removal of pressure that tells her she’s doing what you’ve asked. Hold your hand several inches away from the clip when your horse is relaxed and leading well and choke up whenever you need more control. Holding tightly all the time will quickly desensitize her to your cues. The constant sensation of confinement will also make it difficult for her to move forward comfortably because horses use their head and neck for balance. If a snug lead makes her feel more vulnerable, it could create emotional and physical tension and make her more difficult to handle.

Walk with certainty about where you are going. If you are distracted or unsure of yourself, your horse may dive for bites of grass or feel insecure. Be consistent to help your horse know what to expect whenever the two of you go for a walk. It will go a long way to improve her behavior and confidence on the end of the lead. Always lead your horse from the same position relative to her body. Her head can be slightly in front of your shoulder, but her shoulder should never pass you. Being able to see her head lets you monitor her expression – a change may indicate that she’s becoming concerned about something. The sooner you can redirect her attention, the less likely it is that you’ll find yourself dealing with a spooking horse.

If she were to pull away, move with her instead of planting your feet and trying to wrestle 1000 lbs of flight-motivated horse flesh. Most importantly, make sure the lead rope isn’t wrapped around your hand or attached to your body in any way. A tangled or coiled lead can lead to a disastrous outcome. Instead, lay folded lengths of your lead rope across the palm of your hand, with the looped ends outside of your grasp. Hold the lead securely but with a relaxed grip.

It’s easy to become complacent about such a seemingly simple task as leading your horse. However, it’s important to be mindful when you and your horse are on either end of the lead rope for your safety and hers.

Dale Rudin is a CHA-certified riding instructor and clinician with a mindful and balanced approach to horsemanship and riding.



  1. My mare walks with her head in front of me but never her shoulders…l was told unless she walks behind me she doesn’t respect me…but she will go anywhere I want her to..am I doing it right or wrong???

  2. I wonder the same thing, Carol, because I am short legged and my horse walks fast, so it is hard for me to keep up with her. Just her head is in front of me. Sometimes, I have to stop her to keep up.

  3. hey carol and PKL,
    I don’t think it is that big of a deal as long as her shoulder is not in front of you, I am no expert but when I lead a horse I prefer to have her head where I can see it by me so that if she starts getting upset I can see the early signs (white of her eyes, ears flicking back and forth, ears pinned back etc.) As long as your horse is being well behaved and goes where you ask her I don’t think it matters if her head is in front or not. Again this is just personal preference, I am not an expert.

  4. This is a great video, as for some questions I saw on here, your horse should always walk the same pace as you, you should never have to keep up or have to pull your horse along.
    The horse should ideally be beside you though also be respectful of your space.
    Happy Trails

  5. I never liked the idea of walking in front of my mare. I want her to feel equal to me and not a lesser being. But that’s just my opinion. If her shoulder is ahead that is where I cross the line. But she does respect me as an equal.

  6. I walk all my horses, and donkey included as if we’re in a showmanship class, but I always and in showmanship too have at least a foot of slack from my hand to their halter. I don’t want the horse ahead, where they can drag me, and I don’t want them behind me where I could be run over in case of a bolt!

  7. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your thoughts and concerns.
    In answer to your question about having a horse directly behind you: That’s often how horses follow each other, especially along a narrow trail or path. However, whether or not that’s a sign of respect is anyone’s guess. The fact is, we aren’t horses and we need to handle our large friends with our own safety in mind. I wouldn’t want a horse walking directly behind me at any time. At the very least you’re likely to get a hoof clipping the back of your boot. At the worst, your horse spooks and runs you down. A horse that leads at your side where you can see his or her face is the safest.

  8. Dale – this is a great article – your point about offering feedback to a horse through tension in the lead is so important. Horses cue off body language and they see poorly straight ahead so beside but not in front is exactly where you want them to be – if you start to turn left the horse will cue as you move into their space to go left as well – do the same thing with the horse behind you and you either need to turn and look to check that they are following – which sends body language cues that you are not sure where you are headed – or you and your horse could end up going different directions. Great Leadership Lesson.

  9. I STRONGLY recommend wearing gloves whenever leading your horse or working on the ground. It will only take one bout of “rope burn” to learn why if your horse bolts. I also prefer cotton leads rather than nylon for this reason.


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