Safe Haltering and Tying

With the right approach and a little practice, getting your horse into his everyday head gear won't feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
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With the right approach and a little practice, getting your horse into his everyday head gear won't feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

If you're just starting out with horses, you're probably amazed, excited, and a little nervous-all at the same time. Amazed at their size and power, excited by their energy and beauty, and nervous because, well, it's all new to you and you want to get it right.

For example, how do you get a halter on a horse's head without it ending up backward or upside down? And what is that strange-looking knot you've seen people use to tie their horses to a post? Although it may seem like the mechanics of haltering and tying a horse are complicated, take heart: With a little practice and a few guidelines to follow, the steps will become second nature to you in no time at all.

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Halter types
Flat nylon or leather halters. The most common type of halter is made of flat bands of nylon or leather, fastening with a buckle that's typically on the left side. There are all sorts of styles, but these halters generally consist of a noseband with a tie ring under the chin, a connecting strap underneath, a cheekpiece, a throatlatch, and a crownpiece (that goes behind the horse's ears). Models often include a snap that attaches the throatlatch to the cheekpiece, allowing you to slip the halter on and off without using the buckles. Others have additional buckles allowing you to fine-tune the fit.

When you go shopping for a halter, you'll discover that manufacturers size them by age, breed, or weight. For example, you may come across "Weanling" "Yearling" "Warm blood" "Arab," or simply "Medium-800 to 1,000 lbs" and "Large-1,000 to 1,500 lbs." Be sure you hang onto the sales receipt so that you can exchange the halter if it doesn't fit. (More about fit in a second.)

A Daily Event

  • Walk to the horse in a friendly, matter-of-fact manner, with the halter held in a non-threatening way.
  • Organize the parts before you attempt to put the halter on, noseband toward the nose, crownpiece and buckle toward the horse's throatlatch and poll.
  • Work quietly and gently, especially around the nose and ears; take your time.
  • Once you've buckled or tied the halter on, praise and pet your horse for standing still.
  • Follow all safety practices when tying your horse: hitch to an immovable post, tie wither height or higher, with just the right amount of slack, using a quick-release knot

Rope halters. A rope halter is pretty much what you'd expect from the name: a halter made from a long piece of rope. A good rope halter will be sturdy, soft, and flexible, with smooth, adjustable knots. The diameter of the rope can vary (this is important to keep in mind, because the thinner the rope, the more severe the pressure it can exert).

Rope halters are popular because they're affordable, durable, and lightweight, and they don't include any metal hardware that could break. They're often touted as being superior for use as a training tool because they apply more pressure than flat nylon or leather if the horse tries to pull away, while allowing immediate release of the pressure when he stops pulling. If you use a rope halter, be sure you don't forget about the release part. Many people don't realize how much pressure (in some cases, very painful pressure) a rope halter can exert on the tender spots of a horse's face and head.

There are also certain situations where you shouldn't use a rope halter. The first is for turnout. You should never turn a horse out wearing any kind of halter unless it's a "breakaway" model (designed with a piece that will release under pressure). And rope halters are designed not to break. Horses can catch a halter on fencing or trees or get a hind foot stuck in the halter when scratching their heads-any of which can lead to injury or death. By the same token, you should never use a rope halter to tie a horse in a trailer. In the event of a sudden turn or stop, a rope halter could put extreme pressure on a horse's head, creating friction burns or injuries caused by the horse's struggle against the pain and pressure.

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General Haltering Guidelines
Let's walk through the basic haltering process. We're going to assume that you're approaching a well-trained and cooperative horse in a stall or small enclosure. Since you're just starting, it's best to keep things simple as you learn and practice the fundamentals. Once you're confident in your haltering skills, you'll be able to move on to bigger challenges, such as catching a horse that's loose in a field, or dealing with a reluctant or headshy horse.

With the halter in your hand, approach your horse's left side in a friendly, matter-of-fact manner. You're not in a hurry here, so take a little time to hang out with the horse, letting him get used to you (and you to him). Since this is a calm, cooperative horse, he may be sleepy or curious or just patient, but now's a good time to get in the habit of watching his expression and the position of his ears (forward and interested or flattening back and suggesting unease?). The more time you spend around horses, the more important it will become for you to pay attention to their body language and their reactions to what you're doing.

Putting on a flat nylon or leather halter.When you're ready to put on the halter, you'll want to make sure you're holding it the way it's actually going to sit on the horse's head-with the noseband to front (or left) and the crownpiece to the right, and the buckle to the left. It will help if you can look at the halter off the horse and determine which parts are which before undertaking the process of putting it on the horse, so you know what goes where. This may seem obvious, but a halter can be a bit of a puzzle until you handle it enough to make it second nature.

Now unbuckle the halter and, with your left hand, guide the crownpiece (the strap that goes behind the horse's ears) under the horse's jaw and around the opposite side. Reach over and across with your right hand and take hold of the strap to support the halter. Now that your left hand is free, use it to open up the circle formed by the noseband and slide the halter onto the horse's nose. You're still supporting the halter with your right hand behind the horse's ears, so now you can use your left hand to bring the buckle up just below and behind the ear on the left side and fasten it.

If the halter has a snap connecting the throatlatch to the cheek strap, you can take a slightly different approach. Unsnap the halter but leave it buckled. Then, slide the noseband over the horse's nose with your left hand while at the same time sliding the crownpiece back over his ears (gently!) with your right hand, like you would if you were bridling the horse. Once that's in place, you can simply snap the throatlatch to the cheekpiece.

Once the halter is fastened on the horse's head, you can make any necessary adjustments to the fit. As a general rule, you want the noseband to lie about two inches below the cheekbone. You can adjust the length of the crownpiece to raise or lower the noseband. (If there's a buckle on both sides of the crownpiece, you'll want to adjust them evenly.) Don't use the show halter adjustments you see in magazines as a rule of thumb for every day fit. Show halters are generally adjusted more snugly than would be comfortable for daily wear.

Ideally, you want to be able to slide two fingers between the horse's nose and the noseband. If it's tighter than that (or if the loosest crownpiece adjustment still has the noseband pulled up too high on the cheek), you need a bigger halter. Some models offer an adjustable noseband to give you better control over the fit.

Putting on a rope halter. The process of putting on a rope halter is nearly the same as with the nylon or leather style. The main difference is that you'll be tying it rather than buckling it. You may also find at first that it's a little more difficult to sort out which part is which, especially if the rope is very soft and flexible. (A stiffer rope is likely to hold a more recognizable halter-like shape.) Begin by orienting the halter as described above-have the nose piece on the left and find the long (untied) crownpiece. As before, reach the crownpiece under the horse's jaw with your left hand and take it with your right hand, behind his ears. Slide the noseband onto his nose with your left hand and then find the cheekpiece and pull it back toward the crownpiece.

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Now for the knot.
Tying a rope halter is easy, but it's important to do it correctly. A mis-tied knot might tighten under pressure, making it impossible to untie in an emergency. To tie a rope halter, bring the crownpiece under and through the eye in the cheekpiece from behind. Pass the crownpiece to the right and then bring it under the eye, pointing left. Now just pull it back to the right through the loop you've created and pull it snug. The end of the will be pointing away from the horse's eye (to the right) when you finish.

Safe Tying
Once you have the horse haltered, you can practice tying him. There are several safety rules to keep in mind, starting with the most critical one.

1. Never tie a horse unless you know he's been trained to "give to pressure." It might seem like a simple thing to ask him: "Hey, just stand here tied to this post for a few minutes while I grab a snack." But a horse who hasn't learned to give to the pressure of the rope and stand tied poses a great threat to himself and to his handlers, because he's likely to panic and fight and pull back until someone gets hurt.

Even an experienced horse can get spooked and try to pull loose, which brings us to rule number two.

2. Never tie a horse to anything he can move. The horse world is full of stories of riders who unthinkingly tied their horses to something flimsy: a tree branch, a lawn chair, a car bumper, a fence rail. And in those stories, the horse inevitably pulls the item loose and winds up galloping away in terror as the branch, chair, bumper, or fence rail goes thumping along behind him, terrifying him even more. Make sure you use something absolutely unmovable to tie up to, whether it's a telephone pole, a tie post, or a trailer. The only exception to this is if you use a specially designed "tie ring" that allows the rope to slide free when undue pressure is exerted on it.

So we've got a well-trained horse who knows how to give to the pressure of the rope instead of fighting and pulling back, and we have something secure to tie him to-now what? To continue the safety theme, here's rule number three.

3. Tie the horse so he can hold his head at a normal height with enough slack to be comfortable-but no more. This will keep him out of trouble. The basic recommendation is to tie the rope to something that's the height of his withers or a little higher, with a couple of feet of slackness in the rope so that he isn't forced to hold his head unnaturally high, and yet he won't be able to get his head under the rope or to step over it with his feet.

The final piece of the safe-tying puzzle is the knot itself. You want to make sure the horse is tied securely, but you also need to be able to untie him quickly in case of emergency, even if he's putting a lot of pressure on the rope.

4. Use a quick-release knot. Here's how it works: Wrap the loose end of the lead rope around (or through) the object you're tying it to. Make a loop in the loose end. Make a second loop and pull it snugly through the first loop.

Once you've got the quick-release knot tied, you can test how easy it is to untie it. Just grab the loose end and pull. With a little practice, you'll be able to tie this knot in your sleep!