Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The magical lead rope

No, this isn't an obscure Grim's fairy tale. The magic lead rope is a concept that I thought about when Riley was a baby. It's not especially clever or original, but it was a guiding principle for me in his early handling.

Safety, safety, safety
Riley went to his first breed show as a yearling, and I did my best to prepare him. My worst fear was that while we were at the show, he would get away from me and hurt himself. How to make sure this doesn't happen? Teach him that the lead rope is a magical, strong, unbreakable tie to me. That way no matter how scared he is, or how interesting the new sights and smells are he will think the lead rope is all-powerful. It won't even occur to him to try pulling through my hands.

There's a madness to my method
Has Riley tried to get away? Sure! But he hasn't succeeded, and he hasn't tried in a long time. Maybe Riley now believes that the lead rope is magical. The secret behind the magical lead rope is hardly a secret-- just a process for introducing restraint/control...

  • Riley's first halter was a soft, thin, single-ply leather, for safety reasons and because I figure babies should not associate humans with pain. Baby horses should think only that humans are fun, interesting, and excellent wither-scratchers.
  • When Riley became a yearling, I bought a thin nylon/rope halter with knots on the noseband (a rolled noseband would also work). I used it only to work with him in-hand, in enclosed areas, and I was plenty nervous about him getting loose while wearing nylon anything. But the "bite" of the rope really got his respect, and there were only a few, short-lived confrontations.
  • To prepare for my first show, at 18 months, I introduced a chain over the nose. To get the best effect with a chain, I used it in short light corrections, usually once or maybe 2-3 in succession, then release.
I would never have thought this would be controversial, but some people don't believe in pain-inducing restraint, like chains over the nose, for young or adult horses. It's an admirable philosophy but I don't want a horse that bolts. A friend of mine who scolded me for using a chain is now paying a cowboy $100/hour to cure her two year old's bolting habit.

I did not say I told you so. And I only gloated a wee bit.

The point of the knots and the chain is only partly for the handler to make a correction; it's mostly to prevent the horse from bolting. If the horse starts to pull away from you the chain or knots will provide a deterrent. The one time Riley really tried to bolt, he yanked me off my feet, but when he hit the end of the lead rope and felt the chain, he stopped. I'm pretty sure that was why I was able to hang on. Since we moved to our new barn, Riley and I have encountered plenty of scary things -- screeching sliding doors to the indoor, the corrugated metal flapping in the wind, and blue rain barrels. But he's always stood his ground. I guess I'll never know if he's just a sensible guy or if I did a decent job with his groundwork. I'm just glad he's growing up with good manners.


  1. A very interesting and useful post. Thanks.

  2. I know what you mean about using a chain. I've got into the "natural" movement lately, but am not necessarily completely head over heels. I love the idea of communicating with my horse in his language, and training him with love and respect. At the same time, I recognize that he is 10 times my size, and there are times he might just freak out and forget his training. And it's important to teach and expect those manners when they're young like Riley is, because habits like bolting are hard to break. Natural training is all well and good, but we have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe. There's nothing wrong with using a chain when you aren't yanking your horse's face off constantly and are using it as a tool to protect yourself only when you absolutely have to. That's just smart.

  3. I will agree that a bolting horse is not a good thing. For one, they are much stronger than you are, so unless you have that respect thing, you will NOT win the tug o war. Secondly, when a horse bolts, you never know what kind of mess they can get themselves in- get hit by a car, run pell mell into a fence, tree etc. It can be very dangerous. One of our ponies has/had a bolting problem. The irritating/interesting thing about this behavior is that he doesn't necessarily do it when he is afraid. He can stand his ground with some fairly spook worthy stuff and then bolt on a whim. We have worked with him enough that he typically doesn't do it with us but I don't think that it is soemthing you can ever completely train out. He is an amazingly bomb proof pony that is a great first jumping pony, but we do have to watch him when he is being led in hand. I will certainly use a chain on him when a child is doing showmanship, although lately, the most he does is roll after a perfect pattern- he is a grey after all! He is a very smart pony, which I think may have been what contributed to his bolting pattern- which came before we got him. I am sure that it only took a couple of times for him to figure it out. He is also the type of pony that knows when he can pull the "I only walk" stunt with someone inexperienced enough to let him have his way. I get on and, its a miracle, this pony can do halt to canter transitions. He is definitely a character. But bolting is bad, and when you have a young horse, it is definitely a plus to teach them that they cannot get away. I feel the same way (within reason) of a horse pulling back. When they figure out they can break free when they throw a fit, they typically continue to throw those dangerous, frightening fits. I say secure them to a safe, unbreakable post and let them figure out that standing calmly is a much better option. This, of course, is a little different from bolting because pulling back can be the more injurious part, where bolting is typically more dangerous than staying put.

  4. This post is very contradictory, one second you say "Baby horses should think only that humans are fun, interesting, and excellent wither-scratches." then "To get the best effect with a chain, I used it in short light corrections" basically yanking. It is a huge misconception that pain is the best way to control a horse. The horse will be tense seeking only to avoid further pain/ discomfort, what does this teach the horse-fear... . I feel devices whose only purpose is to cause pain, will damage the horse rather than develop him. Over time it will break him down completely.

    You should seek to build the horse up, to help him become healthier, more supple, more powerful, and joyful. How can pain help you do this?

    Your friends bolting horse is most likely due to her entire horse training system, not just because she did not use chains on the horse.

    One should always seek harmony when dealing with horses, and chains to not equal harmony.

  5. thanks for the baby tips ;) Mine is settling in very well!

  6. The issue I have with stud chains is that they tighten and then tend stay tight. This offers the horse no release, and therefore no reward.

    I'm not against them, as they're really useful and sometimes necessary, but mostly I prefer either a halter with a sliding rope nose like this one, or like you said, a rope halter or leather halter with a rolled nose, if I have a horse that pulls. All of these loosen when the horse stops pulling.

    Using rope halters to tie really scares me though. The amount of pressure an 1200lb animal can create on two 1/4 inch diameter pieces of rope... yulch.

  7. Nice innovative technique that I'm keeping for future reference.

    The following is a training method I learned from my farrier whose family ranched in southern Alberta for generations.

    Many years ago I leased an Arabian mare from the U.S. whose owner advised the mare would freak out if tied to anything. Not a good thing when the farrier or vet has to come round. The mare had a nylon halter on and I put a thick cotton lead shank over her poll, slipped through the ring and then tied her to my truck bumper with a quick release knot. I stepped away to keep an eye on her, and in a few minutes she backed up to tug on the rope. When there was resistance she fought the rope until she was down on her knees. She wasn't hurt and only exhausted herself in trying to escape. Thereafter she was a model of good behaviour whenever on a lead shank.

    This was a modified training method where cowboys used to tie horses to a thick post in a round pen. Another aspect to consider is horses are herd animals with a pecking order. Once a horse respects a human then the trust will come.

  8. I applaud your post. I also agree with everything Jackie said. Although we are not dealing with horses in the wild by any means, don't think for one minute that the herd leader doesn't create an uncomfortable moment from time to time to keep the youngsters in line and it usually is for that youngsters safety as well.

  9. Honestly, I've never considered a horse wanting to leave my side, lol :)
    Now if that isn't an arrogant statement!
    I've owned and worked closely with about 20 horses in my lifetime but I've never had a horse bolt on me. I had one go straight up when a tarp flew up in his face one but when he came down (almost on top of me) he never moved.
    I'm glad you have shared your experiences with Riley. I'm learning a lot.


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