Take a look at why an “invitation and reward” approach to training is kinder – and more effective – than one that involves pressure and release.
I learned the “invitation and reward” approach to training from the lead mare in my herd of 16 horses. When she walks through the herd, it is as if the water parts. She kindly and softly focuses on any body part that’s in her way, using clear intent. Through observing these gentle but effective movements, I’ve learned how to incorporate them into my own work with horses.
In the beginning
At the beginning of a training session, I start with nothing but a halter and loose lead. I ask my horse to move her hind end by walking out to one side of her and focusing on the part I want her to move. Sometimes I need to gently swing the rope towards her hind end, or even touch her lightly with the end of the rein. When she takes a step with that hind foot, I walk off, accepting that she is following me in the same curve I create with my movement. Because horses prefer to move in curves (look at any horse path to see this) she will usually not pull back but happily follow me as the leader. After a few steps, I stop and reward her verbally. I say “gooood” and also carry a waist-worn money belt with either some black oil sunflower seeds or baby carrots.
Reward, don’t bribe
Next, I continue to walk ahead with a loose lead line so I am not pulling the horse but teaching her to follow at liberty. By doing this, I maintain the lead mare position, and the horse will eventually see me this way just through my body language. It is important to ask your horse first with words and body language, and not reward until after she does what you ask. You don’t want to bribe her to follow a carrot, but instead reward after she has done the exercise.
Have a non-verbal conversation
Try to look at the whole exercise like a first date. Spend time walking and talking, asking simple things with a loose lead while traveling in curves and de-sticking her hind end with only your focus.
Have fun together
You can also incorporate various fun exercises for your horse to enjoy throughout the session. Some horses like using their mouths, some their feet, and some both.
I have colored cones and hula hoops that are fun to use. We start by walking toward the objects with me slightly ahead so that the horse is constantly perceiving me as lead mare. I notice what my horse prefers and might ask her to touch a cone with her nose or pick it up. Not only does this add some variety to your sessions, it also works to de-sensitize your horse to things she might be fearful of.
Take what she offers
Another great activity is to ask your horse to step both her front feet into a hula hoop on the ground. When I do this, I always reward my horse for offering any sort of response. Some horses will get creative and pick up the hula hoop in their teeth or even throw it over their heads. Epona, one of my mares, picks up the cones and puts them in a hula hoop, or she’ll pick up two hula hoops at a time. She can also spell her name using foam letters. Whatever a horse offers, take it and offer praise. The purpose of the exercise is for you both to enjoy an interaction that is about invitation and reward. This is how we treat our friends or family, and is definitely preferred by horses or pets over stern commands and harsh discipline.
Liberty play to riding
After having your horse follow you on a loose lead for a while, you can take it off and she will do the same at liberty. You have become her friend and lead mare, and she enjoys being with you. All this translates into riding. When I start a young horse, I first teach her on the ground as described and give her verbal cues like “walk-on”, “whoa”, “back”, “good”, etc. This way, when I first get on her back, she not only looks to me as a trusted friend and leader, but I can direct her from her back with the same commands.
I take all this invitation and reward training to the place where I eventually ride at liberty, or at the very most with a rope halter and clip-on leather reins. When your horse trusts you as a friend and leader, it is all you will ever need.