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How to Tie a Horse

It may not look like it, but sacking out and getting a horse comfortable with things around his head and legs are preliminaries to teaching him to stand tied.

Learning how to tie a horse requires skill and safety. Most people assume it's safe to tie their horses because they've never seen them pull back. Or if a horse suddenly pulls back, breaking the tie or fighting against it, the horse owner blames the distraction that got the horse upset. Yet whenever a horse pulls back, it can have significant-possibly even lethal-consequences for the horse and anyone around him.

Learning how to tie a horse is important because it is one of the most potentially dangerous things you can do, unless you've specifically taught him to give to pressure. Our goal is to learn how tie the horse safely.

Importantly, we can't start the training by tying the horse to a fixed post or a trailer. The risk of the horse pulling back and injuring himself is too great. A post won't move. And although some people advise letting the horse fight it out, the horse will lose the fight. Even if he's not permanently injured, he will end up traumatized.

To avoid the problem of tying the horse to something that won't give, some people tie using a hay string or similar rope that breaks easily. The problem with that is, the horse learns any time he'd rather not stand tied, he has only to raise his head and pull back just hard enough to break the string. So while the horse doesn't get into a major wreck, he isn't tied, and he's been rewarded for using the very behavior we want to eliminate.

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Not tying the horse, or teaching him to stand ground-tied, isn't a total solution either. Sooner or later, someone will assume that the horse stands tied, and they'll tie him.

Instead, we'll set up a series of exercises in which we control the release of the rope. We begin by introducing the idea of giving to pressure in a very low-threat, comfortable situation, such as the bridlework and leading exercises we worked on last month and in prior parts of our "Perfect Ground Manners" series. When we're sure he has the idea, we practice it to build his confidence. The plan is to have the horse do it right once, then condition that correct response so it happens automatically every time the horse feels pressure on his head. After that, we raise the bar, asking him to "give" in more stimulating situations.

Take Tying Seriously

  • Teaching your horse to stand tied safely includes at least four major lessons, even after you've taught him to "give to the bit."
  • There's no quick fix to the pulling-back problem, but it is fixable.
  • Use everyday opportunities - a few minutes here and there - to condition your horse to give to pressure on his halter.
  • Work in a round pen or small enclosure to limit the horse's tendency to pull away, which will help him learn faster.
  • Reward each give with a release of the line. You can lead him, step by step, in that way.
  • If the horse gets too upset when you're working at the fence, let go of the rope.

Nearly any horse will stand tied if there's no reason for him to move. But when the horse gets startled or wants to move away and discovers that he's trapped, he's likely to get upset. The more upset he gets, the more likely it becomes that he'll pull back frantically. So we do the basic training with him calm, and then we allow him to feel more sudden and dynamic pressure, such as he'd feel if he pulled back excitedly.

Finally, before we tie him, we get him accustomed to ropes around his legs, and we startle him while he thinks he's tied, but while we can release him before he fights the rope. If he's already dealt with getting worried in that situation, he's much less likely to panic and pull back. So when we tie him the first time, we'll have trained him to give to pressure on the lead, but we'll also have done all we can to teach him to be confident when he is tied.

As you can imagine, that's a tall order. This article will give you an overview of that training sequence. But don't get the idea that doing the training is an afternoon's work. Depending on the horse's prior training, and how fearful he is, it may be a weeklong project, or it may take many separate sessions.

It's best to do these lessons in a round pen or small enclosure. That way the fence can limit the amount the horse can pull away. The less the horse is tempted to pull away, the quicker he'll learn the lesson.

Lesson 1: Sudden Stop
Attach a lariat or longe line to the horse's snaffle bit or halter, and send the horse off at a walk to the left. After he passes you and you are out of kicking range, pull the line. You want him to stop and turn to face you. As he turns, he'll automatically put slack in the line. Be sure that you allow him that slack. Gather up the line, walk up to him and pet him. Send him off to the right, and do the same thing from the right.

Continue the exercise, varying the distance the horse travels before you pull the line. Change sides frequently. Horses learn patterns quickly, and often they turn to face you when they see you preparing to pull the line. That's not what you want. You want the horse to actually feel the pull and respond to that pressure, not your body movement.

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