Sunday, January 29, 2012

Shackles and chains: Why I use chains

Thanks to sam_j98 on Flickr
One of my readers recently sent me an email asking why I used chains over both my horses, even Harv who she observed seemed "mellow" and "old." Harv might take issue with that last descriptor! He's mature.

It's true that most of the time they're pretty easy boys. The keyword here is "most."

Most, often, usually, seldom -- but not "always" not "never"
Some people don't think a loose horse is a big deal, and "most" of the time it isn't. The farm where I board is basically safe but here are a few things to think about
  • It is near a curvey, tree-lined, county road that sees a lot of traffic. 
  • There are drainage spouts (with sharp-edged PVC pipe) and holes around the property. 
  • We are adjacent to a small church where children play regularly. 
  • There are animal holes everywhere.
If this doesn't spark some dark imaginings of what could happen, I'll be a bit more explicit and expansive...
  • I have seen a horse get injured on a drainage ditch pipe -- he severed tendons on the metal corrugated pipe, and it was a career-ending injury for a spectacular working hunter. 
  • Horses that run out on the road not only endanger themselves but carloads of unsuspecting people. A loose horse can equal a lifetime of litigation.
  • Imagine a big scared horse running into a yard full of unsupervised kids. More litigation, to say nothing of psychological toll on everyone involved if a child is harmed.
 Now a bit from the personal histories of my boys...
  • The barn owners where I board are energetic, vibrant people but they are in their seventies, and they handle my horses often. One of the owners was bringing Ri in from the pasture a year or so ago, and there was a freakish event that no one could have predicted. Ri bolted and left  the barn owner on the ground with a broken arm.
  • I was walking both my horses out to the pasture one evening, and out of a treeline a herd of deer came running right at us. Riley would have been okay, but Harvey (my "quiet oldster") had a meltdown, and Ri followed suit. I dragged them back to the barn but it was scary. Had I not had the chains on they both would have been long gone.
The blog reader who emailed me was nice but in her questions there was an opinion too -- she even said point blank that a chain over the nose is a crutch. I disagree. Chains are floppy and harmless until you need them. These animals weight thousands of pounds and when they get loose you have to think about a) an injury and b) the fact that you have a galloping liability on your hands. 


  1. There are a lot of inexperienced people at the barn where I take lessons. The barn owners insist that we use chains when moving their horses - as you state - for safety reasons. Even with a chain I've had a lead rope ripped out of my hands; fortunately no people or horses were injured.

  2. I agree completely. When I worked on a farm that housed two very pricey stallions a chain over the nose saved my but many many times! I have also used a chain on my own horse since I bought him. I really enjoyed this post because a lot of people seem to be against chains its nice to know that I'm not the only one who uses them.

  3. An excellent post that I hope everyone takes to heart!

  4. Actually, I don't even have a lead at hand with a chain and I know full well I should. Most of the time now my horses are handled within fenced and gated areas, so it's a little safer than your situation. HOWEVER, all that being said, once more, your post has made me think.

    I think I need to visit the tack store. *S*

  5. I don't use a chain on my mare, but the lady I work for uses them on all her ponies for pony rides. I think it's a safe precaution that I'm often thankful for!

  6. I had wondered this myself, but then I see photos of how tiny you are and how big Riley is and I understand it's a safety matter.

    I'm interested in why you prefer a chain to a rope halter? Rope halters are generaly my go-to for any situation where control is important. A chain worries me because if the horse were to come loose and step on the lead how much damage that might do.

    I notice there's a chain across Riley's nose in the saddle test photos. What is it there for and is it connected to anything? Why wouldn't you remove it while he's cross-tied?

  7. I too garner criticism for routine chain use, but on my stallions. Yes, they lead nicely without chains. But I also know stuff happens, and with visitors and boarders the chances are vastly increased. Add hormones to the loose horse scenario and let your imagination run. I'd much rather have the chain already on, even though most of the time the lead is slack. Besides, it's much better IMO to discourage a fight than to go to the mat.

  8. I agree with you... And furthermore, as someone who handles a lot of horses of varying fitness and disposition on a daily basis, I prefer using stud chains because it does a better job of reinforcing ground manners. I would rather have a chain on a horse for one quick, firm correction, than to have them decide they feel like being pushy and have to haul on the rope to get their attention. (I also wear gloves when leading horses most of the time.)

    I do admit to not using stud chains on my own horses most of the time, though. Why? Because I spent a lot more time installing ground manners and "human awareness" on them (compared to the others I work with), and teaching them to deal with the unexpected in a safe manner. If something ever spooked them to the point of disregarding me, they would probably also be scared enough to run right through the chain.

  9. I have had people frown upon me when I use a chain on the stud stallion during servings.
    (Aren't they called 'stud chains' for a reason?)
    When I have a 500kg testosterone filled stallion at the end of a rope, I'd like to have the chain there. A loose stallion is NOT something I want to have on my hands.
    I agree that a chain is useful. Better to have it there, than to have a loose/injured horse.

  10. Thank you for this post...I haven never commented but do follow your blog. I own a stallion so of course I use a chain on him, but I also use a chain on both of my broodmares and my 9 month old colt (who is 15.3 and 800lbs). These horses are big, powerful, and DANGEROUS...why take an unnecessary risk? The chain has saved me dozens of times, and I'm sure it will dozens more. I find them an invaluable tool for any horseman.

  11. YES YES YES! I just brought my horse to his winter "time-share" for 2 months. He is by far the largest horse there. Which means he can be interpreted and/or misinterpreted as big and scary or quiet and lazy-- of course, he is capable of all of these. As the responsible party for Cosmo, I want him to have a safe reputation, with manners when handled. Therefore, chain, proper tack, no hand feeding, helmets, etc. Sometimes I feel like a prude but it's ultimately better welfare for the horse.

  12. I agree totally as well. I broke my ankle 2 years ago and now walk with a serious limp, not to mention I have weakness in that leg. My big quiet 11 year old gelding knows that I can't stop him from grabbing a snack... unless that chain is over his nose. As long as I take the time to put the chain there, I never have to use it and he's quiet as a mouse and doesn't try anything. Without it, he'll drag me all over. They know to respect it when it's there!

  13. Having come from the racetrack, I've heard it all about how those horses are so poorly treated and one big complaint is the chain. It's nice to believe that a big strong healthy and fit over the top horse might always behave themselves. That's a nice dream. As all horsemen and women know, horses have their ups and their downs. They are above all, an animal of flight. A lead rope and a nice leather or nylon halter is not going to stop them. The chain will give you the leverage when you need it. Rope halters fall in the same category as chain shanks. They are there to protect us, our horses and others in the vicinity.

  14. I completely agree. I'm all for proper ground-training, but chains are definitely a good back-up. Horses have their instinctual moments where all training is thrown to the wind, and then that chain becomes VERY useful! I use them when I take my girl places, just as a precaution, but this post did bring up some good points as our barn has no gate and you can go straight onto the busy road.

  15. Yes, chains are not evil, they are a great tool. Unfortunately not many people know how to use them properly, or why they are used.

    Me, personally, I don't use them often because I tie my horses directly to a rail vs crosstie. I instead use a rope halter, it provides a sharper feel and horses are less likely to lean into it. The only time I use a reg halter is for trailering or turnout, and that's a leather halter for safety.

  16. I'm the same as Emily - I use a rope halter for everything except for trailering (then it's a leather halter) and my horse goes naked in turnout.

    Once, before leaving for a week-long show two hours away from home, I was grazing my horse at the farm we were staying at overnight. The stablehands started turning out other horses, and Bucky decided he wanted to meet other horses, so he ripped the rope out of my hand and took off. The farm was right next to a state highway (not a busy one, but a car could have been coming). Luckily, someone jumped in a truck and blocked him off before he got close to the highway.

    It was a close call, and every time afterwards I was careful to ensure he was always wearing a chain, and I do the same with his sibling, who I currently own.

  17. Hi,

    I am not that familiar with rope halters but do they break if a horse gets caught up in something? I got one of those knotted nylon halters as a gift when ri was a yearling, and I used it, but my heart was in my throat when we worked outside (no fenced in area where we boarded. I imagined him getting loose and caught up on something. Does real rope break?

    The chains are always on the halter, and when I was taking pix of Ri's back, I was in an indoor with squirrels running around in the rafters, at night, alone in the barn. I'm the only boarder that rides at night and the nearest people are in a house about 1/2 a city block away. It's a huge house, and they don't hear ANYTHING (half the time they don't hear people knocking at the door). Oh -- no cellphone coverage either, until I walk to the road. I'm very aware of what kind of help I have if something goes wrong.

    Basically, if Ri is out of his stall, the chain is on. Is that really such a big deal?

  18. 100% agree with you. I do not use a chain but I use a thin rope halter and that does the job. It is a halter that the horse does not even feel when he leads nicely, but it is severe enough if he bolts or else.

    Horses are living being and preys, they can have a meltdown!

  19. Stacey - Rope halter are usally made with 1/4" Yatch braid. They DO NOT BREAK. Horses should NOT be turned out in them. They should also fit properly. I have my rope halters made-to-measure to perfectly fit my mare. They also should be fitted that the knots should be just under the zygomatic/cheek bones, NOT down on the horse nose!!!!

    On this website they sell and show how to fit roper halters.

    Roep halter are to be used for ground-work and everyday handling, but NO turn-out please. ^-^

  20. It's simply ludicrous of some people to think a chain is abusive or unnecessary. People = 100-200lbs average. Horses = 1,000+lbs average. In the proper hands, a chain is absolutely NO MORE abusive than a regular halter. If your horse learns to spook and bolt on the lead ... and gets away with it plenty of times ... think of what he'll start doing under saddle when you're unawares.

  21. To me this is like the prejudice against certain dog breeds. It has to do with the OWNER and the socialization period with that dog (with any dog, really--any dog can bite, y'know?) rather than the entire breed itself. Same with chains on a horse--it has to do with HOW that chain is used.

    All horses on the track are led with a chain, matter of course. If you have the chain on and are going from Point A to Point B and not making a big deal out of that chain--jerking it just to make sure others know the horse has one on and YOU know how to use it--what's the big deal?

    My horse is 18 years old, an OTTB--and on occasion he gets full of himself going from the barn to turnout. I have a chain, but it's looped through the halter ring and clipped back on itself. All I have to do is rattle the lead so the chain makes noise, and he settles. He's still full of prunes, but he's no longer "getting in touch with his inner helicopter" on his tiptoes. MUCH safer for all concerned ;o)

  22. Ah, TBdancer, people have warned me against the loop, esp if the halter is nylon. A grazing horse could put its foot through the loop.

    There are no safe methods!

  23. I did notice that you use chains on your boys, and wondered about it a bit, but figured you were erring on the side of caution. Obviously I was correct. :-) I don't blame you in the least... they may look "mean" and unnecessary, but we all know STUFF happens and you're better off being prepared!

    I have tried leading the obnoxious elephantine jerk of a WB who belongs to my friend in a rope halter, when she was in the depths of her NH phase and they were all what would do. Hated the thing. I felt like I had a T. Rex at the end of dental floss! I know how they work in principle, but I'm sorry, I'm a whole lot more comfortable with a sturdy leather halter that I can grab if I need to.

    This reminds me of people who look at me funny when they see my sweet-looking 43 lb. Springer Spaniel in a pinch collar. I myself used to think they were ugly and mean, but when the doggie threatened to drag my kids and herself into the road if she saw a squirrel, no matter how much I worked with her, well, it was a no-brainer. She actually doesn't mind that collar at ALL; she runs away from a Halti or regular chain/training collar, but get out the pinch and she's all business. Doesn't pull, doesn't hurt herself, and doesn't endanger anybody walking her. End of story.

  24. I did not mean to suggest there was anything wrong with the chain while tied up (I support your choice in using a chain) but wondered why you would do so as the pictures are not clear. (Actually you haven't posted them yet but my feed-reader shows up your pre-loaded entries.)
    You've now provided an explanation that satisfies me and I'm not sure why you responded with "is that a big deal?" It's not :-)

    And no, rope halters do not break. They are not suitable to be worn in the paddock under any circumstances, but I prefer them for any instance where I'm leading the horse, holding him for the farrier or if he's tied up at an event. They don't break, so the horse cannot get away and run down the road or cause harm to anyone else, the same reason you prefer to use a chain, but if the horse were to stand on a rope or get it otherwise caught, it isn't going to do much damage.

    There's an interesting video on leading horses that I saw recently which I'll provide a link to if you like.

    Hope that works!

  25. Ach, I accidentally pre published three advance posts! Sorry you saw the previews but no real post. THey'll be sent along in the next few days...

  26. When "out and about," I'd rather have the chain on and not using it, than having a kite at the end of a string and wishing for that damn chain in my tack trunk!

    I have two OTTBs and a FriesianX (that thinks he's a dog). They all get a chain when we're off the property, or if they are going to be handled by someone other than me or my husband. I've seen a mare break the hand of one of the best surgons at my University. Not good. Why take the risk with your trainer, vet, farrier or barn staff?

    I, too, leave the chain on, but then attach the crossites to the LEATHER halter rings (not the chain). I've seen the after-effects of a beautiful paint mare with a broken nose, caused by a chain.

    Furthermore, Stacey puts one round over the nosepiece of the halter. It's still there, but not as severe as a chain not looped over the nosepiece. In dealing with high-strung horses, I've had to put the chain over a horse's gums or through their mouth like a bit.

    If you know what you're doing, it's very good to have. I hate those stupid rope halters. My mostly grumpy OTTB-eventer-mare has zero respect for them (and yes, I know how to put one on). She's a track horse, chains work.

    I agree with Stacey, better safe than sorry! :)


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