Line Work Reasoning
Case Study: Leo
Leo was a six-year-old, 1400-pound Warmblood gelding that had just
arrived from Germany after being purchased by a local dressage
trainer. While a beautiful mover, his ground manners were simply
non-existent. It seemed that no one had spent any time teaching this
horse ground manners and respect. He was big, aggressive, and
In the case of Leo (and horses like him), round
pen work is my preferred training exercise to get the breakthrough
and attitude adjustment needed to continue other work more safely.
However, if you don’t have a round pen, line work offers the same
principle benefits as round pen work – it’s also about controlling
space, and establishing the respect and leadership required to have
a desirable relationship with your horse. And with a horse that
really needs to learn respect, the lead line actually gives you
additional control for more effective use of pressure and release.
However, while the principles are the same as round penning, the
application is different.
For most horses I typically begin with a
twelve-foot lead line and halter. This gives a fairly safe working
distance, while allowing for a high level of control. The shorter
the line, the more control you have (back to pressure and release
101). However, with a horse that is extremely emotional, out of
control or just plain aggressive, I will start out with a twenty-two
foot line, and then work back to the twelve-foot line as the
My initial goals for the line work with Leo were
pretty simple. I wanted him to move forward in the direction I
asked, when I asked. I wanted him to stop his feet when asked. I
wanted his eyes and his overall focus on me. I wanted him to start
seeing me as the center of his life; to be looking for me to give
him direction rather than to anticipate. When these were
accomplished, I knew I would have gained his respect. Also, this
line work exercise is a true cornerstone of foundation training. For
example, this training cue sets the stage for trailer loading and
crossing objects, just to name two very common issues that can be
easily resolved through foundation training.
So step one - I asked him to move out clockwise
around me. Depending on the training and emotional level of the
horse, you can use whatever “pressure” is required (a verbal cue,
rope, lunge whip, etc). The trick is to use as little pressure as
possible, but as much as you need to get his feet moving in the
direction you ask. And no matter what, stay with it and follow
through until the feet are moving. And then the instant the feet are
moving release that pressure to reward him. Only reapply it if he
stops again before you have asked for a “whoa” or halt.
I had him circle around me several times
(anywhere from four to twelve rotations), then I asked for the stop.
To teach a horse to stop his feet, you remove the slack from the
line and maintain the pressure until he stops. Now of course when
you are just beginning to teach this, (especially to a horse with no
manners and no regard for pressure like Leo) you will have to do
more than just take up the slack. You will likely need to start with
twenty, thirty or more pounds of pressure to get that horse to stop
his feet. Just like when asking the horse to go forward, the key is
to use only as much as you need, and never more than that…along with
the immediate release of the pressure as soon as they stop (give).
Your eventual goal is to have the horse stop his feet as soon as you
simply remove a bit of slack from the line… lighter and lighter.
This takes time and lots of practice. We don’t expect success up
front, and even this initial lesson could take up to three or four
Once Leo had stopped his feet, I paused for a
moment. The pause is very important for several reasons. First, it
is a reward in itself – a respite from pressure, and as horses are
by nature lazy animals, no movement is a reward in itself. Second,
it helps teach them to look to you for what to do next – not to
anticipate. Third, you are training another fundamental building
block lesson: the “stand.” Your horse needs to learn to stand well
to be mounted, at the wash rack, for the farrier, to be groomed, for
lots of every day activities, and this is where it begins.
So after a five-second pause or so, I asked Leo
to do it all over again. Clockwise go forward several circles, ask
for the stop, pause, (praise as needed), and all over it again. Do
not go on to something else or change direction until the horse is
moving out and stopping his feet well, along with keeping his
attention focused on you. Once those are happening consistently and
the emotional level has come down, then you can change direction and
start all over again, but going counter-clockwise this time.
For correct change-of-direction line work, which
is a gymnastic as well as mental exercise, you should be attentive
to the following indicators to measure your success.
Pay attention to the nose. The nose should
always be in toward you (even if just slightly). This means your
horse is paying attention and focused on you. If/when the nose
goes away, pick up lightly on the line - just enough to get the
nose back in – and then immediately release the pressure. You
may have to keep doing this, but do not give up until the nose
is in and stays in consistently.
Balance. Always look for a slight arc through
the body as your primary physical goal. For example, you do not
want the shoulders either in or out; during line work the horse
must be balanced at all times. For the proper physical
development of your horse, it is critical to be aware of how
your horse is using his body while moving. If your horse is
balanced he will neither be pulling on you, nor dropping his
shoulder inward. Balance typically begins once his is relaxed
during the exercises.
Relaxation. A key sign that your horse is
looking to you for respect and leadership is when your horse is
conducting the exercises well in a relaxed posture. Common signs
that your horse is relaxed include a consistent gait that is not
frantic, lowered head, licking and chewing, tail swinging.
Now the real beauty of this exercise, once
well-established where your horse truly understands the cues, is
that you will be able to use this as a fundamental tool to calm him
down and get his attention any time and place you have that need.
Whether for trailering, shows, anything new or spooky; this will
become a reliable way to calm your horse and center his mind back on
Once you feel your horse understands the change
of direction exercise, you can then move on to Landings. This is
what I did with Leo. Landings are a fantastic exercise to teach the
stop cue, teach giving to the halter and bit; encourage a horse to
be soft and responsive, and also greatly promotes self-carriage.
Landings are asking the horse to move out to the
end of the lead line (about 10 feet only). You start by having him
do a full circle before asking for the stop. Once he has mastered
that, you then send him out for just a three-quarter circle before
asking for the stop. Again, once that is being done well, you work
down to a half circle and finally just a quarter circle. You work
the horse on one side repeatedly, and you keep at it until he is
doing three things: keeping his eyes on you the whole time, stopping
when asked, and NOT walking back into you. The goal is to have him
stop and stand at the end of the line when asked. If he comes in to
you, send him out right away and then immediately pick up the line
to ask for the stop. It is critical that you make certain he
understands the lesson and landings at each stage before moving on
to the next.
I should mention also, when you first start
working with a horse and bonding with it – it is fine to have him
walk in to you for praise, affirmation, a bit of loving. However,
please stay focused on the need for the horse to respect and listen
to you! So once the bond is established – you need to be able to
begin asking for (and expecting) your horse to stand away from you
and not be jumping into your back pocket. You have to keep raising
the standards as you progress with your training.
You may have to practice Landings over and over
again until the horse really “gets” it. I probably did three hundred
repetitions with Leo before moving on to the next side with him.
Seriously. And the tricky thing with Landings (this is handler
training), it is easy when you start doing these to apply too much
pressure when you pick up the line to ask for the stop, and then
accidentally pull the horse into you. It also takes a lot of
practice to release at the right time. Like all of us, horses start
a stop before actually coming to the halt. Reward for the behavior
not the mechanics. When they start to stop, that’s the time to
Landings are also a beautiful foundation exercise
for doing figure-eight line work on a thirty-foot lead line – which
is really elegant training work. It teaches your horse to engage,
really builds the topline, and promotes giving to (lighter and
So back to Leo, the horse that had no concept
whatsoever of giving to pressure, dangerously invaded space, and was
well known for taking his handlers dirt-skiing! Leo, a fairly
valuable second level dressage horse that had competed well in
Europe, but was such a nightmare to work with that few trainers
wanted to deal with him.
After about three hours of these line work
exercises (with breaks in-between)¾exercises I performed
consistently and with a lot of assertiveness¾Leo was significantly
lighter and more responsive. His owner remarked that there was at
least a forty-percent improvement in his riding performance. He was
much lighter, more attentive, and looking for guidance. He had begun
to respect humans and to accept us as leaders.
Since line work is a bit more complicated, let’s
review two common problems that can arise.
When doing Landings…
If when you send the horse out he is still
pulling rather than coming to a stop, continue on that same side
until he does not make contact on the rope at all and is giving you
his eyes. When both start to happen give yourself a big pat on the
back because you are doing great.
Backing up rather than going forward
Horses will often back up in confusion. Maintain
asking them to go forward (with the end of the line, a whip,
whatever you need). Do NOT release the pressure until they take at
least one step forward, and then you immediately release. If they
keep backing and you release while they are still backing… well,
guess what you just taught your horse to do? Also ensure you are
standing behind the withers, but in front of the hip when asking for
a go forward. Standing behind the withers drives them forward (in
general), but too close to the hip and you in a dangerous position.
Every one of you can get fantastic results from
line work. It can be harder for the handler to learn than round pen
work because in addition to having to focus on the critical timing
of the pressure and release, you are also handling more equipment
(usually a lead line and whip of some type). It feels very clumsy at
first for everyone. No matter how awkward it feels, though – do not
give up! Just keep working on the basics until the equipment feels
more natural in your hands. If you continue to feel especially
awkward, I have videos that show the proper positioning of hands and
equipment during these exercises.
So why have we spent two issues talking so much
about ways to make sure your horse respects you? Because respect
equals love in the horse world! Your horse will not love you because
you bring carrots, brush him all day and board him at the nicest
barn in town. We have to understand the horses’ world and, most
importantly, how to communicate in their language. Learning to do
this is one hundred percent the responsibility of every horseperson.
Once you are fluent in equine communications, you can really begin
to enjoy the training process and discover how truly fun horses are.
The lasting relationship you build by earning your horse’s respect
will bring all the love and laughter you had ever hoped to find!
Until next month,