The Invisible Connection

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How cool would it be to have your horse walk beside you as if you were leading him with an invisible lead line? It's not really magic. It's simply good horsemanship that leads you to this kind of relationship with your horse. To get there, you'll need to perfect several separate horse training lessons.

Developing an invisible connection is a matter of fine-tuning certain signals until they are second nature to the horse and to us. Because the training depends on developing specific cues, you can do this training whether you have a round pen or just a small corral. Being specific enough is key.

You're going to "talk" to several spots on the horse's body. When we talk to the horse's hip, we're telling him to move forward. When we talk to his nose or shoulder, we're telling the part of the horse to either come toward us or move away. If you can control the hip, nose and shoulder, then you can position the horse anywhere.

Halterless Leading

  • Talk to the horse's hip, nose and shoulder separately.
  • Work on making perfect half-turns to the outside and inside at the fence.
  • Use a series of outside turns to teach the horse to walk with you.
  • Train your horse to come to you, using inside turns.
  • Smile and walk proudly beside your horse, realizing that it will take practice before you can show off.

Communication Tools
We're going to use the same cues that we did when we taught the horse round-pen language. In fact, being able to have your horse go to the left, go to the right, stop, face you, and move away from you on cue are prerequisites for halterless leading. We'll review the cues, and then fine-tune them, until they seem invisible.

With the horse loose in a round pen or small corral, look at a spot about the size of a quarter on the top of your horse's left hip. Using your body language, a kiss and perhaps the movement of a lariat, tell that spot to push the horse forward, going to the left around the pen. Only use the amount of stimulation necessary to get the response you want. The moment the horse begins to move or to speed up, relax your posture to tell the horse that he did what you wanted.

If you need more speed, ask again. This pressure and release-of-pressure will become extremely important when you're communicating that you want the horse to step up when he's beside you.

Just as you put pressure on a spot on the horse's hip to get him to move forward, you are going to talk to quarter-sized spots on your horse's nose and shoulder. When you put pressure on the nose spot, you psychologically block the horse's forward motion. As you increase or maintain that pressure, the horse moves away from that pressure and begins to make an outside turn. As he begins to make the turn and you back off, relieving that pressure, he learns that pressure on the nose means, "outside turn."

Sometimes a horse will travel around the pen with his nose to the outside of the pen. That's when you have to talk to the spot on his shoulder, further blocking his forward movement and telling him, "Move the shoulder away from me." Again, release him the moment you see his shoulder begin to make the turn.

You are going to use the same language to ask for a turn to the inside. With the horse moving forward, put pressure on his nose by getting out in front of him to block his forward path. But step away, to invite him to make the turn toward you.

If the horse begins an outside turn, try to cut off the "wrong" turn and ask again for the correct one. It is helpful if you say out loud what you want, and focus your eyes on the part of the body that you're talking to: "Nose to the right." By trial-and-error, the horse learns to match your body language with the correct move. Don't get too hung up on formalizing your body language. Just be yourself, and it will be much easier for both you and the horse. Use the kissing sound to tell the horse, "Move something."

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Outside and Inside Turns
When teaching the round-pen basics, you were in the middle of the pen. As you fine-tune the signals, you'll move closer to the horse, though be sure to stay out of kicking range. Begin by asking the horse to go to the left around the pen (counterclockwise). Next ask for an outside turn (to the right). When he's about halfway through the turn, block that outside turn and ask him to turn left, to the inside. When he returns to the rail, ask him to go forward, as you did initially, allowing him to continue around the pen to the left.

During the turns, he's likely to get excited ("Whattya mean?"). But just repeat the exercise, making sure not to add intensity that will rattle him. The exercise is the same as you would have done when he was first learning the turns, and got it wrong. As you practice, your horse will understand that he has it right-you're now asking for two moves-an outside half-turn followed by an inside half-turn.

You're going to repeat this exercise many times, asking the horse to make a partial outside turn, then to turn inside. It is the foundation move for asking the horse to come alongside you, so you'll want to be thorough. You're not going to get every turn perfect. In fact, at first, you'll have more misses than hits. But with practice, your timing and your horse's understanding of what you want will improve.

Next, we'll fine-tune the inside turns. Tell the hip to move the horse forward to the left around the pen. Then cue the nose and shoulder for an inside turn. Allow the horse to complete the turn and to walk halfway around the pen to the right. Ask for an inside turn. Allow the horse to complete the turn, but this time only allow him to go a few steps before you ask for another inside turn. Continue the exercise, making the distance between requests shorter. If, at any point, he gets too sluggish, go back to the beginning and get him moving forward.

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Walk With Me
With the horse's right side parallel to the fence (but a few feet from it), go stand beside his left shoulder. Both of you should be facing forward. Step backward so that you're by your horse's barrel and kiss to him, asking him for an inside turn. He should at least turn his nose so he's looking at you. If he makes the full turn to face you, pet him. If he merely looks at you, kiss to him again to ask him to step forward, so that he completes the turn and ends up facing you. At first, you may have to ask him for each part separately-inside turn, step forward, complete the inside turn. Pet the horse, so he knows that he's on the right track.

Practice that exercise many times until you feel that you're ready for the next step, which is literally a next step. When the horse begins to turn to face you, kiss to him to ask him to make another step. As you kiss, step back and slightly to your right, inviting him to step forward. Settle for one additional step at a time, and praise the horse.

As you work through this part, you'll find yourself backing in a small circle, and the horse continuing to turn as he walks toward you. As the horse improves, your position should change. Move closer to the shoulder, so that the horse is walking more with you, and less toward you. If the horse seems to stall out, remember to talk to the hip to get the horse moving. When he responds well with you "leading" him by his shoulder, then ease yourself into position by his head, as you would if you had a lead rope in your hand.

When the horse responds perfectly in a tight circle, you can begin to enlarge the circle. That is the next step toward being able to move in a straight line. Remember to cue the hip to get him moving, and the nose to ask him to turn toward you. You're likely to get excited at this point, thinking that you have the horse leading invisibly. Though you're on the right track, he'll learn to lead coming out of the outside turns, not the inside turns, as you'll see in a minute.

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Sooner or later, you'll lose the horse. He'll move away from you, as if he's done playing. When that happens, move him around the pen a few steps at the walk or trot, and begin again. Don't scold him at any time.

Next, you'll use the outside turn to get the horse to turn to the right. Begin by standing about 6 feet from the horse's head, at about a 45-degree angle from it. Kiss to him, and step toward him to ask for one step to the outside. Try to make your cue subtle, so the horse doesn't feel chased away. You want the horse to step onto his right front leg, not to step forward. If he gives you more than one step away, cue his nose for an inside turn. Eventually the horse will stop turning to the outside when you stop cueing him, rather than you having to depend on the inside turn to bring him back into position.

Continue working with that, until you can move closer to his head and still get the response that you want.

Now we'll use the outside turn to get the horse moving forward with you. Position yourself beside your horse, and ask for an outside turn, as before. Continue asking for one step, and then another and another. Initially you'll have a tight circle, but when you feel that you can, enlarge the circle, even adding a few straight steps before returning to the outside turns.

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Come to Me
We'll now go from the advanced class back to round-pen basics to teach the horse to come to you.

Cue the hip to tell the horse to move forward to the left around the pen. Move ahead of the horse so he's coming toward you. He'll continue walking a step or two before stopping. Walk up to him to pet him, turn and walk away. He might follow you a step or two. If he does, that's fine. If he doesn't, that's fine, too.

Repeat the exercise, making sure to ask the horse to look toward you, so that he doesn't anticipate an outside turn. Now, instead of petting him every time, pet him every other time, or just now and then. Congratulate him for any small improvement, such as walking three steps toward you, instead of two.

When you ask him to move forward, do so with a light cue, and vary the timing. You don't want him to get the idea that the pattern is to stop, then hurry away.

As the horse improves, you're going to ask him to walk toward you. When he stops, step to your right, and ask him to look at you, as if you wanted an inside turn. Kiss to him and ask him to step forward. Take another step to your right, and kiss again, quite like you did when you were working with inside turns. Eventually, you'll get the turn and most likely one step toward you. That's a big breakthrough.

Continue working from both the left and right, until the horse will come on cue. Remember to do things one at a time-cue his hip to get him moving, then ask the nose to move in the correct direction.

Now you can combine the elements, making it look more like a dance. Ask the horse to come to you, then ask for a few inside turns, make the circle slightly larger, then an outside turn, then a larger outside circle, and so forth.

Leading your horse without a halter is one of the most rewarding things you can do with him, and you'll be tempted to leave the round pen to show off. But you'll need more practice before your horse will obey in a different classroom. When your horse performs 100% in the round pen, you can start to introduce small distractions. When you take him outside the pen, his performance will drop to about 50%, so getting this down pat will require plenty of practice. The good part is that practice is fun when you're working on perfect ground manners.