The importance of proper leading skills can’t be overemphasized for yearling in hand trail. As entries in this new class continue to rise, the patterns will continue to become more complex. To be really ready and really competitive for the larger shows in the fall, such as the APHA Fall Championship World Show, I would really like to have my yearling leading as nicely as a well started showmanship horse.
My method* assumes that your yearling is already skilled in the areas outlined for weanlings in the Kasino Series. The yearling should easily give to pressure from the halter…coming forward immediately if leading or dropping his head if standing still. For really good leading skills, simply take these exercises to the next step.
Some folks prefer horses to be “stuck” to their shoulders, but I like my horse to follow my hand. In the beginning, I can use huge exaggerated motions, as well as verbal cues, to make it very obvious what I am asking for. I can start a lesson simply by asking the yearling to walk off. My hands, which start in a standard showmanship position in front of me, can act as a first cue. I take my right hand and push it forward about half a second before walking off. If the yearling does not keep up, the slack will be taken out of the lead. As he catches up (as he should, since he already knows how to give to pressure,) the slack will return.
I initiate jog offs in the same manner, although I will have a different verbal cue for jogging than walking. It does not matter what the verbal cues are, as long as you are consistent. Because my goal here is to show in the In Hand Trail class, I pick cues that I can make without a tremendous amount of lip or face movement on my part. This way I can perform my pattern in the show ring without drawing unnecessary attention to my verbal cues. It is important to remember to keep steady pressure while the yearling is not jogging, but to let the slack return when he does jog off.
After these two basic exercises are learned, I simply lead my colt. How hard is that? Easiest exercise on the planet, right? When you are leading, make sure you keep proper form and remember to use your hand to lead you and your horse. In the beginning it is okay to exaggerate this for both of your benefits. I do circles both directions, speed changes, long straight lines, transitions up and down and up from jogging to walking to jogging. (By the way, this helps YOUR fitness too!!) Anytime your yearling is lagging behind, your hand should be encouraging him to catch up with it.
Mixed in with the leading, obviously, there needs to be some stopping. Your yearling might be able to jog for ten straight minutes, but can you!? When I am ready to stop, I say “whoa” a step before I mean it (your colt is not telepathic, give him a chance to hear you!), move my hand back, and I stop moving. Remember the wiggle of the snap that gets the babies to back? This is a good time to do that for just a step or two to reinforce the absence of forward motion. And then I usually rest for several seconds (see photo, right). If I am having an out of shape moment, this enables me to catch my breath. It allows the yearling the chance to stand still (also an important lesson) and learn to just wait on you for the next piece of instruction.
Mix in the leading exercises with the beginning groundwork from Yearling In Hand Trail #1. If possible, a few 10 minutes lessons per day 4-5 times works best for yearlings. But whatever works for your schedule, try your best to keep it short and positive. Yearlings learn best in short spurts. Don’t worry about how long it takes to get your yearling “good” at these exercises. They are exercises that are never “done,” and just laying the foundation for years to come. Being a light, responsive colt for the fall patterns of In Hand Trail is really just a short term goal. Keep working and note small amounts of improvement so that everyone – equine and human – stays happy and healthy.
*Please note that I have had the opportunity to watch many people over the last 25 years of my horse career, and my methods described here are a compilation of things I’ve learned from multiple outside sources and my own personal experience with my yearlings.