Develop Lightness on the Ground - Part One

Developing Lightness on the Ground - Part One appeared in the July 1998 issue of The Sentinel, The Voice of the Horse Industry in the Midwest.

(Note: To the extent practical, Bill’s conversational style of teaching is preserved throughout the book and in this article. Where clarification might help the reader understand his explanation of a concept and use of terms, Leslie has filled in. In the book manuscript, her contributions will be in parentheses. In this article there is no visible distinction between their voices.)

26d407fb91Life itself, along with the desire and ability to move, is the source of lightness.

If you want to experience lightness and true collection when you ride your horse, then you must prepare the horse to understand what you expect from him. The easiest way to achieve this is to develop his respect and responsiveness to your feel, and to preserve in the horse the lightness that he was born with. Lightness is the foundation of willingness and the hallmark of true collection, but much of this is often destroyed in the horse in the course of routine handling on the ground before a saddle is ever placed on his back.

There is an easy way to bring out the horse’s potential for lightness, because it is already a part of his natural way of going. While lightness is his birthright, we still need to teach the horse to be light to our feel, which is to say... to be responsive to what the human means by what the human does. This refers to actual physical contact with the horse, and also to a person’s affect on the horse’s space. Interaction with human beings is not natural for a horse so, for our part, we need to observe how the horse responds to us really carefully. By doing this we learn when and how much to adjust our responses and actions towards him in a way that brings out the best in him. When you have established the best possible connection with the horse on the ground, through feel, there is a good chance of having this lightness carry over when he is under saddle. This is important because carrying a rider is not natural for the horse either. It’s just something we want him to do. If it were up to the horse, he’d be off grazing or maybe standing in the shade somewhere.


So many of the problems that horses have are the direct result of being confused by riders who are confused themselves. The horse cannot know what is expected of him unless, and until, the rider understands how the horse needs to have information presented to him so he understands what he is expected to do. This is especially true when it comes to lightness and collection. Actually, this is good news because most horses--if they could only understand what you want--will do whatever that is right up to the limit of their physical capacity.


This horse (left) would look about the same way coming downhill by herself as she does here with someone on her. This is a natural position for a horse, and one that is desirable to preserve. A horse that travels this way is fun to ride because she is easy to control without force.

No matter what you do with your horse, or what breed he is, the exercises outlined below will help you prepare your horse for a future that combines his respect for you, his responsiveness to your feel on the ground, and lightness throughout his body that is available when you ride him. These are described in an order that should be followed for the best results. Be careful in any of the work you do with a horse that you don’t get stepped on, kicked or bitten. To begin, you will need a 12'- 14' rope and a halter. You’ll plan to maintain some float in your lead rope whenever possible.

A Few Common Questions and Answers

  • What is a float in your lead rope?

Float refers to slack, which is quite a bit less tension than it takes to straighten the rope out.

  • Why do you want to have float, or slack in your line?

So the horse can learn, through feel, to operate with lightness in his whole body without resistance to the pressure presented to him by a handler or rider. To teach a horse to be light to our feel, he needs to learn that he can come off pressure--wherever it is--on his own. Your job is to help him learn that he can do this. If you can ease off on the tension you put into the lead rope just as close as possible to the same instant that he eases the pressure off on himself, then you are building a solid foundation in that horse that will be the basis of his responsiveness to your feel. This, in turn, will lead to a dependable lightness in your future together.

  • How do you fix it so there is a float in the line?

You do as much as you can not to take the float out of it in the first place (see photos below), and you do this by going with the feel of the horse, as long as it is safe for the two of you. You let him drift a bit, you ease off the pressure. And as you learn to maneuver his body by following his feel without excess pressure on his head, he will begin to search for a body position that releases pressure on himself--wherever it exists. This is the beginning of his capacity to get with you by following your feel.

  • Why does this work?

Horses enjoy being comfortable, and it is their natural curiosity and searching frame of mind that causes them to feel for meaning in what you do.

The ideal way to learn this is to handle a horse that already understands what’s expected of him when there’s a float in the line. This way, you can get acquainted with the feel of it in your own body. It’s also helpful to have supervision from someone who can demonstrate how this is done. But even if you don’t have access to this, you can get it built back in to your horse and enjoy what it brings the two of you from then on. This takes a strong desire to learn and plenty of time for practice.

Exercises that will Help Develop Lightness

Here are a few things you can do to help your horse become more supple and flexible at the poll, which is necessary if he’s to become responsive to the light feel that you present to him through the lead rope and, later on, through the reins. Note: These exercises are not practical to apply when using a stud chain or a whip to try to keep the horse under control.

#1 Lowering the Horse’s Head

We’ll assume the horse is just standing there, and we’ll assume you are standing on the left side of the horse between his head and shoulder, but not directly in front of the shoulder by any means. You’ll put your left hand on the lead rope pretty close to the halter knot, approximately six inches from his head. Your right hand will be on top of his neck right at the poll, and then you’ll pull down on the halter knot just a little bit. You won’t push with your right hand, just have it there without much weight on it at all. The horse isn’t going to know what to do at first, and he’ll probably lift his head up. This is a common occurrence, and it is also the reason you want to keep your own head far enough back--so if he swings his head towards you a little bit and comes up quick, the top of his head won’t bump you in the face. Just go up with his head if it comes up, and don’t try to hold it down. Keep both hands in place, as described, without adding any pressure when his head goes up. You just go up with his head, follow the movement up with your hands. Then take a new start.

book1 03Effective position for the hand on the halter knot, with the thumb down.

Give him the feel to lower his head again, just a little, and when he drops his head a little, take your hands off his halter and neck. That is his reward. Wait a few seconds, and then start the procedure all over again. Sometimes, when you miss the chance to reward his efforts with your well-timed release of pressure, it can take a long time before he’s ready to try that same move again because he’s already pretty sure--because you didn’t reflect a change when he did--that it wasn’t what you had in mind. This causes the horses to search in other areas to see what you expect him to do. He wants to know because it is his nature to want to get along. Just stay real observant for any little changes in him that are in the direction of what you want, and reward him by easing off on the tension you put in that rope right away. Don’t get discouraged if you miss the timing on this at first.

It may take several times to recognize a try when he makes one. No matter how little he does in the beginning, reward him, because this will give him the confidence that he’s doing what’s expected of him. If the horse is released from pressure, on time and each time he happens to hit on the desired response, he will adjust his future responses to your feel in a way that requires less and less pressure from you to produce swifter and more accurate results. When this starts to happen, a bond between the person and the horse begins to form.

5bc11dc38ac8604f8927As you present him with the feel to lower his head and neck, the horse will search for the meaning in what you do. Your well-timed releases of pressure when he makes the slightest try will encourage him to put more effort into understanding what you mean by what you do, through feel. (See photos above.)

This approach to the horse’s mind is an essential element of truly good horsemanship and will lead a person to the ultimate privilege: the experience of reciprocal feel with the horse. Reciprocal feel begins to develop when force and haste are replaced with patience and the release of pressure at the slightest acknowledgment of your intent--in this case to lower his head. That is how a horse learns to "feel of you", and that is how he learns to derive meaning from your physical touch or presence.

After he lowers his head, watch for him to let his breath out, lick his lips, and chew or yawn. Those are all good indications that you and he understand one another. It’s rare to observe resistance between a horse and a person when this chewing and licking is going on.

After he will lower and raise his head without any resistance, put your hand right on the halter knot under his lower jaw, or chin--depending on how big his head is and how his halter fits him--and offer him the feel to bring his head towards you without moving his feet. Try this on both sides, bringing his head very slowly from side to side. There is no hurry in any of this. You need to be out of his way when you bring his head in your direction, and try not to crowd his shoulders or push against him in any way when you tip his nose all the way over in the other direction from the place where you are standing.

For best results, these exercises should be tried in the order presented and not rushed. It will fit most horses not to use any sort of force. If you can help him to understand what you want, your horse will do these things willingly. When you can move his head left and right using the halter rope and leaving his feet still, experiment with moving his head in your hands.

Offer as little as it takes to get a change, and always ease off the pressure when he makes the slightest try to understand the meaning in your feel.

It might take a few minutes, or a lot longer, for the horse to understand what you expect him to do. You’re in hopes that he’ll follow your feel for him to be flexible at the poll and let you put his head and neck about anywhere it’s possible for him to move it with his head in your hands.

Sometimes a horse will hear or see something that interests him and it will take his attention off you and the job you have in mind for him. The feel that we’re looking to develop in the horse, which is his responsiveness to your feel, will be easier to build into his foundation if you get with his feel first.

In the photos below, the person is following that horse’s head up and to the left because that’s what a person who was building feel into a horse would do when this happened. The person would follow the horse’s feel, just going with that horse if he needed to drift a little, so that horse could follow the person’s feel and after awhile practicing at this, they’d get to a place where they both were getting along good together and having the same idea about things at the same time. There isn’t any room for force and speed when you’re teaching this part to the horse, because with those things in there, he won’t learn. It’s that place where your feel and timing meet up together that helps to get the foundation laid in there real solid for some other work that you’d have for him later on. That foundation you get laid in there on the start is what he has to rely on if there’s some trouble that develops on the job. Without that, he just has self-preservation and some guesswork to fall back on, but that’s not always the best.


cec82c94ad c2dd54118f 41c2bf7be5
9e8be61aa6 3576653f00 6a1fe6f6b8
3f9b179079 a93f501127 6fb0b99b9b
f790d85ec8 ff81ad8cd4  

You’ll continue this until the horse learns to drop his head down any time you present him with that feel. Experiment with your presentation to the horse to find out what he requires in order to refine his responsiveness and respect for your feel. You’ll take that to a point that he will drop his head down when either hand gives him the feel to lower his head...whether it’s on his neck near the poll, or on the halter rope.

You want to be sure you can raise and lower his head, and have him turn loose at the poll when you present him with the feel to do that, like these photos below are showing. You’d be sure to practice this on both sides so he’s flexible in either direction.

edf37598cb 7db60e8680
fb8e78a6fd 896a72deeb

The payoff in this comes later on when you can lower his head, or place it anywhere you want to, from his back. Now that he understands your feel to lower his head when you are on the ground, it is a lot easier to help him understand the same thing using the feel of your arm movements that he picks up through your snaffle bit and reins. Each lesson has its proper order in the foundation you are building in your horse. When he understands what you want, he will do it.

#2 Leading Up Real Free and Backing Slowly

A horse that doesn’t lead up well when you want him to is not going to be reliable to ride. When you cannot control the timing and placement of his feet in response to the feel you present with the lead rope, your intent won’t be clear to him through the reins either.

Your smooth, firm pull off to one side, from both sides of the horse, will help him understand that he is supposed to prepare to move his feet and go with you when the slack comes out of the lead rope. Be sure not to snap the slack out of the rope or yank on him. This is not meant to be a punishment. (See photo series below, which show two perspectives on taking the horse off to his right with a firm and effective pull. There is no snap or jerk in the line when this is done properly.)

8d0f8a1a05 a3e5b7486d
f0dae5ace6 976ea40128
b222867113 c8856e83b4
f676ee1a87 87d7a04978

The reason for teaching the horse to lead up real free is that he’s learning to feel of you, and that’s what this whole thing is based on--feel. And when the horse has learned to feel of you, then it’s a lot easier for him to know what’s expected of him. If the horse doesn’t lead up too well, face him, then get a little bit off to the side, about 45 degrees off the shoulder and about 6 feet down the rope. Add quite a bit of firmness to your pull on that lead rope. You want to present a smooth, firm pull that has no yanking or snapping action to it. And just as you give that firm pull, your hand opens up real quick to remove all pressure from the horse’s head...but you still have the rope in your hand, held loosely. For this pull to be effective and the release to have meaning, you’ll need to cause his feet to move towards you, and that may take a couple tries to understand what’s required for this to happen.

The two pictures below illustrate how to make a pull effective. When it is applied correctly to a horse that won’t lead up freely, this way of teaching a horse to lead works right away and does not cause the horse any pain or upset in his mental system. It’s important to remember to do this from both sides. After awhile, the horse will start to arrange his body so he can get his feet moving before the slack comes out of the lead rope or the snaffle bit rein. This is real helpful because it carries over to your mounted work when you’re handling those reins.         

529f9389bb8bbae57729After a little practice at this, and working with feel at all times the best you can, the horse will begin to understand what you expect from him and he’ll lead up real free when you take off right ahead of him. On the start, it might take a try or two to get him to lead up real free. When it’s built in there on a good foundation like we’ve been speaking about here, he won’t get the idea to bump into your back or even to crowd you. That’s because he’ll have learned to feel of you and there’s nothing about leading a horse that would cause him to think it’d be all right to do that--not if he’s been taught to feel of you. We’ll say that if he is doing that, then he’s not feeling of you and it’d be a good idea to go back down the line a little. You’d work with him there until he was prepared to lead up real free, and without crowding a person before moving on.


This may startle the horse a bit, so you want him to have a few seconds to settle before asking him to lead up again. You’ll repeat this, on both sides of the horse, as many times as it takes...until he moves his feet in your direction before the slack comes our of the rope. In this way, you actually teach the horse to follow your feel without any resistance between you. Rather than be dragged along behind you like so many horses do, your horse will learn to lead, as he should, with a float in the line and confidence about the placement of his feet and their distance from you.

This leading up exercise will have quite a lot of value later on when you need to maneuver the horse’s feet left and right on the ground, and from his back. Because he’s already learned how to respond to your feel, and to move his feet freely with some float in the line, the horse is apt to get the message easily about your intentions for lateral maneuvers through your feel, and without resistance. With the preparation just described working smoothly between you, the horses can usually pick this up right away.

476439daa5A horse that’s been taught to put his head and neck down and to raise it up, and to move it just about anywhere you want, and to lead up well--through feel this sort of horse can be lead just about anywhere, anytime, by the forelock.

. . . Backing Slowly

Next, to back him up, which is also something he will do in response to your feel, tip his nose over whichever front foot happens to be in the lead. Give him the feel through that halter rope to back his foot up. The instant that he does, ease off the pressure momentarily, and then tip his nose over the other front foot (which is now the forward most foot) and step it back. When you lead him up, the front foot that is farthest back will be the one you bring forward.

To back the horse up one foot at a time, offer as little pressure as it will take for him to shift his weight back without taking a step. When he can rock his weight back and forth without moving his feet, offer just what it requires to move a foot back a little, any foot is all right on the start. Right here you’ll be real careful not to push against his body in any way with any part of your body, because that causes the horse to get other ideas than what you might be thinking about.

After that, you’ll build onto that understanding until he moves a diagonal pair of feet--just one step--and you want him to step down solid, without offering to go anywhere. It’s real important to build that in on the start. In time, he’ll pick up your feel to step forward and back without resistance, or taking over and doing more than you asked for either. Remember to do this from both sides. (See photo series below.)

b56ed85685ed8374d9b7739ee0bf74As you experiment with moving the horse slowly back and forward, one foot at a time, you’ll be able to place those feet pretty much anywhere you want to, without resistance and with very little tension on the rope. The feel you’re developing in this exercise is the foundation for the lightness you hope to experience when you’re riding.

#3 Bringing the Head from Side-to-Side

Stand just a little bit ahead of the shoulder and ask the horse to bring his head around towards you, to one side or the other. Now, at first, he won’t know whether he’s supposed to give his head, walk towards you, or just what. But what actually happens depends on the horse and each one is different, so you don’t go at this with any set ideas about what he’ll do. If he follows the feel of that rope in your direction, ease off on the pressure you have applied right away. You’ll reward him quickly for his first effort to ease the pressure on himself, even if it’s just the littlest bit, because your release shows him he has the right general thought about what you have in your mind for him to do.

Make sure to release his head before he moves his feet because, for now, you want his feet to be still. It is the timing of your releases, combined with the effectiveness of your body position, that educates the horse about your two intentions, which are the point of this exercise: 1) bringing his head left or right by bending laterally at the poll without resistance, and, 2) keeping his feet still at the same time. If you don’t release his head when he gives to the feel you present, or, if you ease off the pressure too late, he will become confused about what you had in mind. He might think that he should move his feet to get you to release his head instead, and he will try to. At that point, you need to get his feet stopped and take a fresh start.

If he starts to search for your release of his head by moving his feet again, this is a good indication that he is not clear about what you want. It might take him some extra time to figure out that the feel you offered to him was intended to reposition his head, not move his feet. Take another fresh start. Take as many fresh starts as you need to.

Once the feet are stopped and his head is still held around to the side, wait until he moves his head towards your hand to take the pressure off himself--then ease off your tension on the lead rope! Your release should enable him to put his head and neck back to a normal posture, so he’s standing straight once more. To do this, be ready with a long enough coil of rope in your hand to let go of so you don’t catch him up suddenly with a short, tight line--right in the middle of the reward he’s enjoying for doing what you asked.

Note! It is important that you do not release the head just because he stopped his feet. In the beginning, it will be difficult to remember this. Be aware that when you do accidentally release his head for stopping his feet it will give him the wrong idea altogether. Don’t worry about this, just refresh the picture in your mind of what you mean to do and have another go at it. Eventually the two of you will get this sorted out.

Taken together, and in the sequence presented, these exercises develop the horse’s natural ability to distinguish between several meanings at once. You need to help him develop this quality. As you practice together with an approach that is marked by your gentle consistence and patience, the responsiveness that you are developing in that horse on the ground through feel will soon take on the appearance and qualities of lightness, and this will carry over directly to your mounted work.

In Part Two, read about exercises 4 - 8 in the sequence. These exercises will help you to continue building feel into your horse’s maneuvers and preserve the lightness that he was born with . . . so you can enjoy it when you ride!