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.
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.
After the horse responds perfectly at the walk, then speed him up, and repeat the exercise. It's more difficult at the faster gaits, and it doesn't look as pretty. In fact, it can be downright awkward, and you may feel that you're frustrating the horse, asking him to go, then stop. But you are simulating a situation in which the horse might be tempted to pull so he learns to give, even when he's somewhat wound up.
Practice this exercise for at least three to four sessions before going on to other lessons. Be sure that you can have the horse going at a good speed (canter) and turn him with just two pounds of pressure on the lariat.
Lesson 2: Follow the Pull
Up until now, every time you've asked the horse to give, you've been pulling the rope toward you. So the horse has learned to look to you when he feels the pull. But when he's tied to a post, he's going to have to give to that post. So we'll use these next exercises to teach him to follow the pull, not you.
With the horse standing still, bring the lariat around the right side of his head. Walk along the left side of the horse toward his hip, allowing the rope to drape along his right side, as you see me doing in the photos. Continue walking, around his hindquarters until you are on his right, and pull the rope, asking him to turn toward you.
The horse will be confused initially. He'll feel the lariat on the right, yet he knows you are on the left. He will most likely back up as he tries to turn toward you. Move with him as he backs. The lariat shouldn't have any tension until after you've passed around his hindquarters. It just prevents him from turning toward you. About the time you get around his hindquarters, he'll have realized that neither backing nor turning left is working for him. When you pull the rope and he gives, release the pull. Walk up and pet him. Switch sides and repeat the exercise.
When the horse does that well, repeat the exercise. This time stay on the horse's left side. Bring the rope around the horse's head to his right side, and then along his neck as before. Then bring the rope across his back to you. Step away from his left hip to give him plenty of room to turn and so you remain out of kicking range. When you put light tension on the rope, you want the horse to turn to his right and come all the way around to face you. The moment he begins the turn, release the line. Settle for getting one step at a time at first. Be sure to keep the rope at hip level or higher. Don't let it get down by the horse's legs or under his tail. Switch sides.
If the horse gets stuck, you may have to kiss to him to get him to move. Or you might have to step behind him to get him to look at you with his right eye, as you did before. When he gets the idea, then try the exercise staying on the left as before.
Next we're going to add the first two steps together. Put the rope on the far side of the horse, and send him away. When you're ready, pull the lariat gently. The horse's normal tendency will be to turn to the inside to face you, or to back up to make that turn. You want him to turn to the outside and eventually end up facing you, while following the pull of the rope.
Work with that exercise until you can send your horse out at all speeds with the rope on the far side and have him turn in response to the pull.
Lesson 3: Dragon Ropes
Have you ever seen a horse chased through a field by a dragon? A "draggin' lead rope," that is? We've all seen horses break free and get scared by the lead rope that seems to be chasing them.
This next exercise is an important pre-step to tying the horse, and it helps him overcome a fear of dragons. Depending on your horse's fear level, this part of the exercise may be a no-brainer-or it may require a lot of work.
As in the first part of Lesson 2, bring the line along the far side of the horse's body. Give it some extra slack so the rope bounces down around hock level. (Be sure that you are not in position to get kicked or jumped on should the horse startle as he feels the rope touch his legs. Actively manage the rope so it does not get under the horse's tail.) Pull the rope. As the horse turns, he releases himself and that also takes the rope away from his legs.
Next, send him out as you did initially, as if you were longeing him. Walk somewhat behind the horse, allowing the line to droop, but not to drag on the ground. The idea is to get the horse familiar with something following him. Then do the same thing, with the line running along the far side of his body. Work with it until you can let the line drag onto the ground without the horse becoming worried about it. If you sense him becoming worried, pull the line so he turns to face it, rather than feeling chased by it.
In a perfect world, I'd do a lot of exercises to get the horse comfortable with dragging ropes. By the time I do this lesson, I've normally done extensive round-pen work with the horse, and I'm confident that I can control his turns and have him stop. I have sacked the horse out thoroughly and have him saddled. I'd send the horse around the round pen, and toss the lariat ahead of him, and behind him, and let the rope graze his legs. Because of our previous work, he would know that I'm not attacking him, and he would not likely panic or run into the fence.
Several more exercises in this sequence of getting the horse comfortable with ropes are covered on the DVD, My Horse Pulls Back. Each has its own prerequisites, which are too much to cover in this lesson. The DVD also includes information about getting the horse to give to the rope when it's around his body or legs, and to stop when he gets entangled. That lesson is extremely helpful for trail horses or any horses who might get caught up in brush or wire.
Lesson 4: Give to the Post
If the horse has done great in the previous lessons, he's ready to graduate to this one.
With one end of the lariat attached to the horse's halter, pass the other end behind a fence post inside the round pen, as you see in the photo on page 34. Do not wrap the lariat around it, or tie the horse in any way. Be sure that the fence is smooth and there's nothing that could injure the horse if he brushes against it.
Stand facing the post, about 10 feet from it, with the horse to your right, also about 10 feet from the post. Pull the line just enough that it puts light pressure on the horse's halter. The moment the horse looks toward the fence post, put slack in the line to reward him. After a moment, pull the lariat again, encouraging the horse to take a step toward the post, or to at least "give" toward it with his head. Again, relax the line as soon he does. Repeat the exercise until you've "led" the horse to the fence post with the lariat.
If the horse doesn't move forward, kiss to him or use gentle body language to encourage him to move. If he backs up, let the rope slide enough that the pressure stays the same as he backs rather than having it intensify as it would if he were tied.
If the horse pulls hard or gets upset at any point, you can let go of the rope. You do not want to get into a fight with him. The horse won't have gotten away with anything. It just tells you that you have more work to do before trying that exercise again.
Change sides, repositioning the horse on your left, and repeat the exercise. When the horse responds perfectly each time from a standstill, then you're ready to incorporate the lesson one exercise with this one.
With you on his left, send the horse away to the right at a walk. After he's gone several steps, pull the lariat. The horse will likely either stop or turn and walk toward the fence post. When he does, put slack in the lariat, walk up to him and pet him. Allow him to relax a moment before changing sides and repeating the exercise. Work up to being able to send him away at a trot, when you feel that he'll respond correctly.
Just as with the ropes exercise, I carry this considerably farther than we can describe here, including startling the horse while I'm holding the lariat. But I'll also have done a lot more groundwork than we can detail here. The bottom line is to do everything you can to condition your horse to respond to the pull of the rope so that he won't pull back when he happens to get upset while he's tied.
Ready to Tie
All of the work we've done up until now has had forgiveness in the line-if there was a problem, the line gave. When you tie your horse to a post, there's no forgiveness. It's the horse's job to give. So you want to have thoroughly prepared him for this moment. If there's any question in your mind whether he'll pull back, don't tie him.
When you're ready to tie him, clip a lead line to the halter, just as you did the lariat. Tie the horse to the same post where you've been practicing, using a quick-release knot. Allow him about 2 to 3 feet of line. Pet him and step away from him, letting him relax. He may think that you're going to send him out, as you did in the previous exercises. After he stands quietly a few minutes, untie him and lead him away. Repeat that, extending the time that he stands tied, and tying him in other safe spots.
If at any point the horse pulls back, release the line and return to previous lessons. Be sure not to tie him-especially in a trailer-until you're sure that he'll be solid in his response. If your horse has had a pull-back problem, you may have to repeat the lessons many times. Take advantage of a few minutes here and there to give him a mini give-to-pressure refresher. Try to make it fun, congratulating him when he gives. Before long, you'll forget that he ever had a problem, and you'll be proud of how well he stands, and the good job you did training him.