Five Steps to Put Float in Your Lead Line

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the June 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

1. Stand between the shoulder and the head and ask him to bring his head toward you. If he does, release at once. If he moves his feet, travel with him facing the rear with the hand nearest the horse, holding onto the cantle of the saddle so you stay in position as he searches for a place to stop his feet. Continue to hold his head around to the side with the halter rope until the feet stop moving. Keep his head held to the side until he yields to the pressure of your hold on the rope. He might have to work at this quite awhile before he realizes it's up to him to create his own release by moving up the line. Be sure not to take up the slack he offers you when he finally does put float in the line. Then you'll have dirty-tricked him!
The moment he comes off the pressure, you must give him a complete release so he can swing his head and neck back until he's standing straight once more. Watch for him to let his breath out, lick his lips, chew or yawn. Those are all good indications that you and he are on the same page. The timing of your release here is very important. When you are successful at this, your horse will bring his head towards you willingly, on either side, and keep his feet still. Now, you and your horse are ready for another exercise.

2. While his head is held to one side, face the horse's belly and ask him to step his hindquarters over. Bump his side with your stirrup to stimulate the correct use of your inside leg, just behind the cinch, as if you were mounted. You want his inside hind foot to reach up under his belly and step across the outside hind foot. Promptly release the pressure from the stirrup when he does. If he steps behind the other leg, steps on himself or backs up, continue to hold his head around and keep asking him to step across his outside foot with his inside foot. The moment he does, release the pressure from the stirrup but continue to hold his head around until he turns it loose. Then offer him a complete release of pressure on the halter rope. Let that soak. Practice these exercises on both sides of your horse, building on each small success. Note your timing of both releases; the first for moving the feet, the second for turning his head loose. (Remember not to release his head just because he steps his hindquarters over successfully; that will encourage him to root his head and establish a foundation for him to one day run off in search of your release. In that unfortunate scenario, the harder you pull, the faster he'll run.) Try not to drill him, or he'll come to dread your practice sessions. This time you spend together should hold his interest and have meaning for him. When this is smooth for the two of you, you are ready for the next exercise.

hrs4 3Sarah shows her friend how to step in behind the shoulder to step the hindquarters across from right to left.

3. Begin to move him around in a circle at the walk, step toward the horse at the stirrup, or at the middle of the rib cage. If he doesn't make room for you easily, repeat the previous exercise until he does. Then, standing farther back from him than you did when asking him to step across using the stirrup, use the tail of the halter rope on his side, or, if he's a sensitive horse, just swing the end of your line toward the spot where you previously used your stirrup. This will encourage him to step the hindquarters away from you as you tip the bridge of his nose toward the center of the circle. As he makes room for you there, change your hands on the halter rope and ask the front end to come across, passing in front of you, so he can move in the new direction. He may need some help understanding that he's also supposed to yield the front end away from you when you approach him at the shoulder.

4. When changing hands, remember that your old directing hand is now your new supporting hand. With it you'll bring up his energy and interest in traveling in the new direction. If he drops the base of his neck and shoulder into you, you may have to block him at the jaw and encourage him, with the end of your line at the shoulder, to follow the bridge of his nose with his forehand. This is most likely to occur when you start him on a new circle to the right, because he'll first have to tip his nose and forehand across the left before he can arc off in the new direction. The going may be rough for a while before he realizes whose space is whose. You'll both have to work at it, until it's apparent to the two of you that his days of taking over are gone. Continue to support him across the front with the tail end of your halter rope, and prepare to ask him to tip his nose in the new direction.

hrs4 2Kaity sends Gunner off in a new direction. The front end passes across to the left, before swinging back to the right. Note her blocking hand.

5. When he makes it, ask him to walk out with energy, keeping the bridge of his nose tipped in the new direction of travel, with his inside jaw tucked toward the outside of the circle. Each time he puts a float in the end of the line, offer him a slight release from your end. Wait a half a dozen strides before asking him again. In time, he'll come to search for the float and get comfortable carrying himself in a soft arc from nose to tail in whichever direction he travels. It could be that he'll want to bend himself to the left as he tracks to the right, and vice versa. This is an ingrained habit in many horses that get a lot of work on the longe line, in the show ring and packing beginners around in lessons. Fix it and wait for him to put float in the line. If he snaps his head back to the outside again, it's perfectly all right. Your job is not to punish him, but to help him understand the right place for his nose and jaw to be so his body can take proper position behind it.

hrs4 1Tim sends Fushi off to the right with a float in the line. Her nose is tipped in the right direction of travel and her jaw is tucked away to the outside.

When you have this working for you at the walk, try to keep the float in the line in both directions at a faster walk. Then try it at the trot. One day, it will carry to the lope or canter. By the time it's old hat in your groundwork, you can expect to have some success with your mounted work, as well.

hrs4 4Five year old Anna manages to get a float in the line, but the roundness in Luke's body hasn't come around yet. Here he's traveling to the left, but is bent to the right.

Note of caution: Do not confuse a float in the line with a dropped line; a droopy line; a floppy line; or a swinging, loop-D-looped, figure-eight affair that's twisted and come half alive. These deals tend to freelance their way around your wrists and ankles when you aren't paying attention and can be extremely dangerous. Be careful and think safety.