The easiest way to train a young horse to lead perfectly is to start with a foal. While it isn’t too difficult to train a yearling or older, training a weanling is safer and simpler. If the mother is well-trained, the best way to start is just by putting a weanling halter on the foal while it’s with its mother. The halter should be left on only when a handler is not far away in case the halter gets hung up on something. Soon enough, the young horse will not even notice the halter anymore.
Note: If the weanling has already been separated from the mother, you can still use the same processes described here. Just start with the first steps in the weanling’s stall until it is ready to be led out to a larger space.
As soon as the foal is accustomed to the halter, you can take a shortened version of a regular lead rope and hang it from the halter. Nylon will work but cotton is softer and offers a better grip. Cut the lead rope down to about 12 inches and snap it onto the halter and just let it dangle. The foal will get used to that very quickly as well.
When you are ready for the next step, start by taking both mother and weanling to an arena or round pen. The weanling will follow the mother so there is no need to have the little one on the lead until you get to the training area though you can leave the halter and the hanging lead on while you go. The foal will also benefit from seeing the mare being led.
For the first session, all you want to do is get the foal used to giving in to pressure on the halter. You may have seen inexperienced handlers trying to pull an adult horse by a lead and meeting with stout resistance. An adult horse may easily weight 1000 lbs or more, so it’s silly to try to drag the animal by the lead.
The horse doesn’t like the feeling of being yanked around, but it also has a natural urge to resist, so it can become a useless tug of war. This is true of almost anything you do with a horse given their strength and size. It is much better to teach them how and why to give in to pressure than to try to win a fight.
To get your foal used to pressure, start by hooking a finger gently under the halter and just tug repeatedly and very gently. The moment the foal moves its head toward you the slightest amount, release, pet and praise. If you can move a horse’s head, its feet will eventually follow, so leading begins with any movement at all. Put pressure in various places on the sides and front of the halter and get the foal used to giving in.
Then put a bit of sideways pressure on the dangling lead rope. Don’t make it a firm pressure, use a repeated tugging motion. When the foal moves its head where you intend, immediately release, pat and praise.
Some foals will become very comfortable with this phase in less than an hour and some need longer, but you may be better off to just do the work in 15-30 minute phases at first. End every training session on a good response. Don’t try to lead the foal back to its pen or stall on the first or second day, just let it follow the mare. You want the foal to enjoy the interaction and have time to process the experience.
By the third day, the foal should be very willing to move any way you tug and will probably already be taking a step if you’ve applied a little extra pressure. It doesn’t hurt to offer a little carrot or another treat now and then. Assuming things are going well on the third day, keep up the tugging until the foal moves a step or two in the direction you are tugging. Release, pet and praise after the feet move. If you continue to extend the training each session, your foal will soon follow you very willingly with just small amounts of pressure.
You should never have to keep the lead tight, the foal should follow you on a slack lead with small tugs. If the foal ever resists, go back a step and maintain training for another day or two. By doing this with your young horse, you have the foundation for an easy to catch and easy to lead adult horse for life.