I was one of the presenters at an Instructor's Clinic on Saturday. My session was to be on teaching the youngest and most novice riders. Learning about clicker training and TAG teaching has really helped me to learn how to break behaviors down into manageable steps as well as be clear with my cues and instructions. Many of us who are instructors were never actually taught the basics- we learned them by trial and error and by watching others. But people new to horses, whether children or adults, really benefit by learning a consistent way of doing something as simple as leading a horse.
Before you can begin to teach a person how to lead, you have to have a pony who has been taught a consistent method of being led. We all take these things for granted but if you think about going to a new barn and leading horses, often it takes time for you and the horse to learn about each other so you can handle him comfortably- sometimes you learn his quirks, sometimes the horse learns yours. As I told the instructors on Saturday, you see two things when kids lead ponies: either the kid is dragging the pony or the pony is dragging the kid! And many knowledgeable, experienced horsemen can be found dragging horses or being dragged by horses!
I teach my ponies to walk at my side. Safety dictates that having the horse next to you is safest for the handler. You can see them to gauge their emotions and if they are spooked and shoot forward, you are not going to be run over. I begin by teaching my ponies that a slight pressure on the lead means walk forward. Some people like their horses to move off when they do, but that becomes problematic when you want to walk around in front of your horse and they step forward when you do, right into you. I prefer to have them (especially the lesson ponies) stand until asked to move. So I put a slight pressure forward on the lead and immediately release the pressure and C/T when they step forward. Learning in this way can teach even the most dead camp horse pretty quickly that there is an advantage to stepping right off when asked. As soon as they become prompt and light about stepping off, I wait for two steps to C/T, then three, etc. This way they move off promptly, have their attention on the handler, and are motivated to keep up. Once they are solid at this, I make sure to C/T them sporadically when they are right next to me as I lead. They learn that if they are in the proper position, they may get a random C/T.
Having ponies who know the cues, I can then teach kids and adults the cues to get this behavior. This is harder! People need lots and lots of reminders to leave slack in the lead rope. They want to keep a death grip on the lead, again, either dragging or being dragged. Horses respond to this by pulling back and a tug of war results. Few people think about the fact that you can actually teach horses to stay next to you without constant tugging, just like a dog on "heel". They think that by pulling them and then pulling again and then pulling again, they are teaching them. But they do the same thing day after day after day- the horse has learned nothing, except perhaps to tolerate being pulled. This just makes them dull to pressure on the lead, whether the horse is out front and you are pulling him back or whether he is behind and you are pulling him forward. A horse who has truly been taught will stay next to you of his own accord.
Because this clinic was not a Clicker based group, I focused on the release as the reward method for teaching. "Release!" is one of the comments coming out of my mouth most often when I am working with people. Whether I am teaching leading and handling on the ground or people under saddle, people need to learn to release as a way to reward the horse, even if they never know anything about clicking and treating. Horses are very very sensitive animals who can learn to respond to the lightest of cues...as long as they are rewarded for doing so. If they never feel a release, whether from a rope cue; or rein or leg aids, they learn to ignore those aids and just to endure the pressure on their heads, mouths and sides. And that inspires the person to increase the pressure to get a response, which, if never released, just teaches the horse to endure more pressure. It becomes a vicious, escalating series with spurs, whips and harsh bits being added in unnecessarily.
I got some positive feedback from people at the clinic which was rewarding to me. Of course, some people are as shut down as horses and can't open their minds to think that there might be a different approach. But I could see light bulbs going on in the eyes of some. I hope I have planted some seeds for people to consider and that horses and ponies will benefit.