Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Weanling/yearlings: Lead rope safety

NOTE: Thanks to Rachel, who suggested more articles about baby horse experiences.
I don't remember where I first read this wonderful piece of advice--on a bulletin board, I think, maybe COTH? At any rate it's worth sharing. Attention young horse owners: Get your baby horse used to a lead rope dragging on the ground and banging against them. Do this BEFORE you try to teach him/her to lead, especially if you won't be working in an enclosure. Why? If a youngster gets loose from you he/she may run in terror from the thick "snake" that is chasing them. A panicked baby is at risk for injury, It's easiest to take a few preventive measures to avoid that situation.

What the unattributed source said:
According to the source I don't rightly remember, the safest place to introduce the "dragging lead rope" is an empty stall devoid of -- well, everything -- everything but soft bedding. Put a leather halter on the youngster, and attach a thick, soft lead rope. Then just step out of the stall and monitor the situation closely. Most likely the youngster will run around the stall until he/she gets used to the feeling.

What I did:
When Riley was a 6 month old weanling I had no access to a stall or pen. I needed to work with him on basic handling, but my only "work space" was a 9 acre field with a run-in shed and three other baby horses. If he got away from me while he was in-hand, he might run from the dragging lead rope and get himself hurt. What to do? For better or worse, I modified the technique. Disclaimer: I'm not recommending this, I'm just sharing my successful experience. I can only say that it worked with my one admittedly mellow fellow.

I used:

  • an old rein or pair of reins
  • a 6-8 foot thick, soft, heavy rope
  • a thin leather halter that fits.
My technique:
  1. I loop the rein or reins through the bottom ring of the halter (for control).
  2. I loop the thick soft rope through the bottom of the halter (not through the ring, just somewhere under the chin).
  3. I pull it through so there is about 5-6 feet of rope on the left side (the side I'll be on) and 2-3 feet on the right. If Riley spooks at the dragging rope, he is more likely to jump away from me.
  4. Standing on his left side, and holding the rein ends in my right hand, I encourage Riley to walk forward.
  5. Once Riley gets used to the dragging rope, I pull the existing rope through the halter so that it is about equal length on both sides and more likely to fall against him.
  6. I lead Riley some more and let him/her get used to that feeling.
What if Riley had freaked?
Well, he didn't. Riley was more perplexed than afraid, and after we walked a bit he ignored it. If Riley had panicked, I could have released one rein and let it pull through as he ran away. In theory, the dragging rope would pull through too, from the weight of the rope and friction of the ground. However, a quick-thinking handler could grab one end of the dragging rope and let it pull through.

The drawbacks
The stall method is the preferred method, for sure. The pasture technique? I guess it's pretty safe, with these caveats.
  • A hot-headed baby can always find a way to hurt himself/herself. I maintain that the risk is smaller than the risk of leading a youngster without any preparation of this sort.
  • If the baby panics, and the rope pulls free, the baby is at least safe, but nothing is gained.If the rope does not pull through right away, or does not pull through at all, you have a problem, but I don't think it would stay attached to the halter if the baby was really running.
  • Letting the youngster pull away/break free repeatedly will encourage/reinforce a bad habit. That's never good. I guess it's a matter of which risk you want to take -- the risk of injury or the risk of a horse that tries to break free of the handler.
  • I think leading him with a dragging rope temporarily confused Riley about leading cues. At the time he was just learning to lead, and my asking him to move forward was in conflict with the backward pressure from the dragging rope. Fortunately, you don't have to do the "drag a lead rope" technique more than once or twice.
I welcome any critiques, improvements, experiences from others. Am I overstating the risk of a dragging rope? Are there better methods? Is this too darn complicated?


  1. Thank you for this one! I lost a very special yearling filly who got away from her handler with the lead "chasing" her. She had remarkable speed until she hit the fence wide open and crushed her trachea. She died about 90 seconds later. RIP Ella. We have used a drag line in a stall or stall-sized pen to desensitize our horses of all ages ever since.

  2. Great work. Really love these beauties. Take care

  3. Of course another way to do it is simply have a cotton rope and desensitize the foal to the rope without keeping it contained. Depending on how friendly the foal is and how protective the mare is, you can work on this within a couple of days of birth, using the rope to massage the foal, drape it over its back and let it drag without any worry that it will get caught. If the foal is pretty uninterested in people, catch mama and let the foal come to you, it may take a while but the more that it gets done, the better the baby will be. Also, babies tend to have moments of explosiveness no matter how calm or friendly they are-when you are raising babies, be prepared to get kicked by little hooves ;)
    Also, babies love to put things in their mouths and then frighten themselves as the lead rope, feed bag, etc chases them which can provide for some amusement but also can be scary, so it is always advisable to have your foals in fairly injury proof pastures, arenas etc.

  4. That works if you have the baby from the get go -- I bought Riley at 3 weeks but he was 4 hours away -- didn't really own him till he was 5 months.

    That truly is the best idea yet, however, those tiny babies don't have much weight to throw around and they aren't insecure as weanlings typically are.

  5. Very true, and I realize that some baby situations are open range type deals. We helped a family friend desensitze babies but it was much more difficult than our people friendly from birth little filly for a couple of reasons: the dams were hardly in your pocket types and they were on about 5 acres of pasture. Not a walk in the park by any means. One nice thing about babies is that they typically bounce back from seemingly horrific accidents- my sister's mare had her side ripped open on a wheel line when she was a foal and the vet was able to reposition everything and stitch her back up. We didn't own her at the time so don't know what healing time was, etc. but she is completely normal and without the long scar on her side, you wouldn't even be able to tell. It is amazing how incredibly fragile equines are, and yet can sometimes heal from the worst possible situations. I do like the idea of getting them used to leading early on, whether it is at weaning (double trauma)or whenever possible. Like you said in the text you have to learn when to hold on and when to let go. We have a pony that was a habitual bolter when we got him (didn't know it at the time) He is a great teacher and I typically can tell when he gets the gleam in his eye and I know when I can hold him and when I just have to let him go. He was lame and the vet came to do a soundness test and blocked him- he bolted from the vet tech and we immediately knew that was where he was feeling ouchy ;)

  6. Interesting post! I haven't had a new-born or a weanling since I was 10 years old, so I never considered lead rope safety..., although my Hanoverian gelding is dangling rope shy and has stopped traffic while running from the 30 foot lunge line. He wove in and out between the stopped cars on the main highway, probably a half a dozen cars with me screaming "whoa", chasing him and two big dogs chasing me. This was a couple of days after I got him. What a sight we must have been...! Luckily there was no damage done, except for a few fearful folk in cars. Gimme A Dream, the horse, is a 17hh, 1400 lbs gelding. He towered over the cars. I found, I don't push him around, and I don't lunge him or use lead ropes on him. Live and learn....


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