Brandon McAuslan takes us through his views on the rope halter, and its use as a tool in our horsemanship.
I regularly receive requests for help from horse owners who are having a difficult time with their horses. I try to assist with problems ranging from nipping and crowding on the ground, to bucking, rearing and or bolting under saddle. There is rarely a uniform solution to any of these problems. Sometimes, the answer is a relatively simple change in routine or animal husbandry, but often what is required is the application of a methodical process like that of starting a horse. In nearly every situation I have been called to assist with training or behavioural problem solving, the one indispensable piece of equipment I have used is my rope halter.
Horsemanship is primarily a psychological endeavour because we are working foremost with a horse’s mind. Everything a horse does is the physical manifestation of a psychological state. We are looking to adapt our horse’s way of thinking and psychology so that they offer a predictable set of behaviours from our interactions with them. This is achieved initially by the lessons we teach our horses on the ground in a controlled environment. This might be as simple as how we interact with our horses in their stable, or how we lead them to and from their fields. Or it can be a complicated progressive system of groundwork, in hand work, and ridden exercises. With this in mind, every aspiring horseperson should make sure that the one piece of entry-level equipment they possess is a quality rope halter.
In the last couple of decades, the modern rope halter has been popularised by and associated with the natural horsemanship movement. However, the knowledge of how to make rope has been with mankind since prehistoric times, and rope has been used in one form or another for the handling and haltering of livestock and horses for thousands of years.
In my view, the association with natural horsemanship has created a misconception that a rope halter is an exclusively safe, kind and gentle piece of equipment. Like many items, depending on its use or misuse the rope halter is capable of being either the most comfortable piece of equipment you will put on your horse’s head or one of the most severe. This is because the rope halter creates a lot more pressure in a smaller area of contact than the English flat nylon or leather headcollar. To demonstrate this, I usually have people go through this simple exercise:
Find yourself a lead rope and a length of baler twine. Tie the rope and twine in a loop against a fence or stable bar so that you can hook your arm through each one at a time. Starting with the lead rope, put your arm up through the loop and lean back letting your forearm support your weight. This will feel relatively comfortable, and you could probably spend some time learning like this - pulling against the lead rope would not be particularly uncomfortable. This is how your horse feels whilst wearing a flat nylon or leather headcollar. Now repeat the experiment by putting your forearm through the loop of twine and lean away from it. You will find almost instantly that the twine cuts into the flesh of your arm in an uncomfortable manner. Leaning here for any length of time will only increase your level of discomfort, and if you attempt to pull against the twine it will compound the discomfort. When you cease leaning against the twine you will find comfort in the release.
This exercise demonstrates how the rope halter operates when on and how it affects your horse. Compared to the size of a horse’s head, the rope is small enough to create a degree of un-ignorable pressure or discomfort depending on the amount of force used (and the sensitivity of the horse). However, when no pressure is applied to a rope halter whilst on a horse’s head, I believe this is the most comfortable and least intrusive piece of equipment a horse can wear. I prefer my rope halters to be of a soft rope rather than a stiff rope for this reason - a stiff rope will not conform as easily to the shape of a horse’s head or lay as comfortably when pressure is not being applied.
Benefits of the Rope Halter
One of the major benefits of using a rope halter is that it can provide several different contextual feels to a horse depending on how it is used.
There are three main areas of contact on a rope halter when applying pressure (See pic 1) - these are A - the Nose, B - the Poll, and C - behind the jaw. If I ask a horse to back away from me, I will pick the lead rope up and standing beside the horse, pull the rope towards the horse’s chest. This will create pressure from the halter at point A, but points B and C will remain slack and no pressure will be felt there. If I ask a horse to move towards me, I will pick up the lead rope and standing facing my horse I will pull it towards me. The horse on this occasion will feel no pressure at point A on its nose. It will, however, feel pressure at point C as the rope will create contact primarily behind the jaw as well as a little pressure at point B in the poll. This is good for my horse as there is no dubiety over my intentions. A horse will learn from my body language and position as well as the pressure, but having the pressure offers a unique specific context, and feel for each differing request means there is less area for misunderstanding. If I ask a horse to lower its head, I will (gently) pull the rope straight down - the horse will feel pressure primarily at B the poll, but also A the nose, and C at the jaw. A rope halter can provide a horse with numerous unique contexts, and as such, the horse will learn faster and respond quicker to my cues.
The traditional English flat nylon or leather headcollar is a very poor tool to train with. I have had little success in training a horse to listen to any groundwork cues whilst wearing a flat headcollar. The large surface area means that pressure can be comfortably ignored and therefore there is no incentive to seek release in any meaningful way. And the broken nature of the connections around the horse’s head (with metal rings, buckles, etc.), mean there is no opportunity for a consistent or subtle sensation of feel for the horse. A flat nylon headcollar will offer little feel to a horse.
When we compare the rope halter to another natural horsemanship style halter - the constricting halter (a flat halter with a double roped nose piece that constricts around the nose when pressure is applied), we can again see the advantages of the rope halter. In a constricting halter, if I ask the horse to back up, the rope will constrict around and squash the horse’s face. If I ask the horse to move towards me, the rope will constrict around and squash the horse’s face. If I ask the horse to lower its head or turn to the side, the rope will constrict around and squash the horse’s face. Using a constricting halter/headcollar is not a good deal for the horse as there is no unique pressure to associate with any feel presented. These devices are of limited use, and in my opinion, are an unnecessary gimmick.
It is possible to ride in a rope halter as an alternative to a bridle. However, I feel that not many bitless riders consider the amount of pressure and discomfort a rope halter can produce, or the fact that the limited feel a rope halter can provide from the saddle means that it will be difficult to develop a horse in the classical movements. From the saddle, it is only possible to provide nose pressure with left and right for directional steering. A hackamore or bit can offer a far superior communication and feel to a horse than a rope halter whilst ridden. However, for many years I did use a rope halter as my exclusive ridden tool for putting first rides on horses or working with remedial horses in training. These days, I would prefer to put a horse through a bitting process and begin ridden work with a bit or hackamore rather than rely on a rope halter, as this allows for a more refined training from the outset, with a foundation that can be progressed quicker and further than starting with a rope halter.
I do not like to see buckles or snaps on my rope halters. In many forms of horsemanship, an exercise is to wiggle or shake the rope in order to ask a horse to back up. Using a line with a buckle, the buckle will inevitably hit the horse in the bony area at bottom of the jaw. This is painful and unpleasant for the horse and teaches the behaviour of evasively raising the head to back up, and therefore, teaching a horse to carry itself hollow in this movement. I prefer my line to be tied directly to the halter, eliminating the need for any metal near the horse’s chin. A buckle will also create a degree of white noise for the horse in training, as the weight of the buckle will be felt by the horse with any movement made, intentional or not.
When it comes to the line attached to the rope halter for groundwork, the normal length is considered to be twelve feet. This is due to the (until recent years) unanimous use of the rope halter in western riding. Traditional western horses tend to be smaller than horses used for many disciplines of English riding. A twelve-foot line would be appropriate to use on a 15 hand Quarter horse or an Appaloosa. However, for larger horses, we need to consider a longer line. This is to allow them movement on a comfortable circle, as well as providing us with the distance to remain safe whilst working. A moments’ exuberance or belligerence from a green/young horse can easily result in personal injury. I always advise students that, in order to avoid a kick, you need to keep at least one foot outside the distance a horse can kick. Therefore, whenever we work on the ground with a horse greater than 15 hands, I recommend adding at least two-foot to the rope per hand of the horse. A good size of line to acquire for groundwork in conjunction with a rope halter is 14ft - this allows for a wider variety of sizes of horse to work with, and practical enough still to be used for leading out to pasture, etc. Ideally, your line length should be specific to the size of your horse. As an example, our 18h young Warmblood requires the use of a 22ft line for groundwork.
When it comes to fit, it is not the case that any one rope halter will fit all horses. I have a number of rope halters on my yard for the great variety of breeds under our care. It goes without saying that the halter that fits the 14.2h Connemara will not fit the 17h Clydesdale - so when purchasing a rope halter, it is important to order the correct size.
A halter should be made from polyester rope and not cotton or nylon as this is a robust material that will not suffer from rot or mould, and it is of a weight and consistency that allows a good transmission of feel through the halter and line. I exclusively use two brands of halter. The first is that of my friend Richard Winters, and can be ordered from his store at www.wintersranch.com. In the UK, my friend Mickey Gavin makes excellent rope halters and can be contacted at www.truehorsemanship.com. It is important to buy a quality item when it comes to rope halters. The ones I own have seen a lot of use in a variety of different situations, unlike cheaper halters on the market, and they will be still serviceable for many years to come.
About the Author
No matter what task we set them, it is of paramount importance that our horses can work for us whilst maintaining their natural disposition. I define the art of horsemanship in three ways; it is not simply riding - it is a holistic approach to understanding and working with horses that considers all aspects of their being. It is a language - rather than taking direct strict control of our horses, we slowly teach them via pressure and release, that there is meaning behind every interaction with us.
The horse must maintain its natural disposition - if we make sure our horses are both mentally and physically comfortable in their work, this will produce not only a superior athlete but also a rewarding partnership.