We are used to putting on our horse’s halter – I only use rope halters, by the way—and clipping our lead rope to it and then walking off with our horse. It’s second nature. It should be because it’s really the only practical way to move our horses at will.
The key word, however, is practical. Because the lead rope is not a method; it’s a device. In other words, it’s a way of exerting energy or pressure physically on the horse’s nose and head to make him seek a position of lower energy. The horse thinks to himself: “If I follow you, then the pressure exerted (however mild) on my nose drops to zero.” The problem with a device is that it does not make us question our methods. Can I exert pressure on my horse without applying it physically to his face? Can we exert it virtually? The answer is “yes” but we have to be willing to explore beyond the halters and lead ropes.
That means we want a method we can apply at liberty. We cannot simply make up our minds to discard the halter and lead and see whether our horse will follow. We must do two things:
- Join up: Teach the horse to “hook on” and “join up,” as Monty Roberts puts it, in the round pen. This “join up” technique really boils down to positing energy on the horse so that he seeks to move away from it by running along the rail or the periphery of the round pen. Then we dramatically reduce the energy as the horse looks at us or, better yet, begins to move toward us. With repetition, our horse quickly learns that joining up with us at the center provides rest, trust, and tranquility. This is why horses are so keen to follow us around after we have successfully taught or reinforced the horse’s desire to be with a peaceful partner.
- Yield the hindquarters: After the join up is complete, we now have the tools to reinforce with our horse that we can begin to use our eyes and body stance to pressure our horse’s hind quarters to turn and circle with us. Now we have a method to help drive our horse to walk toward us. As our horse moves toward us, our pressure drops to zero and we walk off. After a little practice, we can simply turn to look at our horse to encourage him to follow us.
The lead rope is also symbolic of our conduct in our personal lives. Mechanical methods represent using our position, our power, our dominance to make things happen. Yes, it’s quick and practical but it’s a short cut. Liberty requires an investment of time and patience. The trainer does not make the decision to lead the horse; the horse makes the decision to follow. Working at liberty produces a heady magic where our horse willingly participates in a partnership with us. But we have to give up the lead if we want our horse to follow.