Today I want to talk about halters. I read a blog from another clinician stating their view of rope halters versus web halters and I disagreed with it so much that I feel compelled to bore you with my take on the subject.
The horse world is split into three camps when it comes to having a view on which is better, rope or web halters. People get hot under the collar on this subject as if they are starting a religious war. There is the pro web collar brigade that believes that these are kinder and gentler devices that cause less stress and minimize the potential for harming a horse.
Then there is the fraternity of brothers and sisters who pray at the alter of the rope halter every day believing that any other form of head gear is anti-training.
And thirdly, there is the fellowship of non-worshippers whose motto is “who gives a damn.” I proudly belong to this brotherhood.
Both web and rope halters have their pros and cons and to argue that one is better than the other as a training device is ludicrous.
Let’s look at the differences.
The best thing about a web halter is they will break when under a lot of strain. Every buckle and clip is a weak point in the structure and if a horse pulls back hard, the halter comes apart. This is a huge advantage if a horse is tied to something solid and puts all its effort into pulling. It’s much better to have a horse on the loose than a one with spinal damage.
In this regard, rope halters don’t break. There are no weak spots in their structure because the entire halter is one continuous piece of rope. If I knew a horse was likely to pull back when tied up and it was wearing a rope halter, I would loop the lead rope around the post or use a sliding clip (like a Blocker tie) to ensure the rope gave if the horse pulled. I would never tie a horse with a known propensity to pull back to something solid, using a rope halter.
Web halters tend to be less abrasive, but rope halters can rub the skin and cause abrasions. Again, the weak spot on a web halter are the buckles and these can create skin rashes if badly fitted or used violently. But most rope halters are made of rope that is pretty abrasive and it doesn’t take a lot of friction to peel a few layer of epidermis off a horse’s face.
For the fashion conscious, both web and rope halters can be bought in a huge range of colours and designs. I’ve got rope halters in red/white/blue, green/red, purple, black/white, yellow/black and I even have a rainbow coloured halter. The rainbow halter was a gift from Ben and Sari in England. It doesn’t get used much because I’m waiting for when I have a rainbow coloured unicorn to match. So as far as choosing a pretty halter, there is as much choice in the rope halter range as there is in the web halter.
Web halters perish. They will break down in the sun and from use. Rope halters last forever. I still have the same rope halter that I used when I rode across the Red Sea after Moses parted it. They last forever!
Everybody can make a rope halter. There are a million sites on the internet showing, with diagrams, how to turn 22 feet of rope into a halter. It just takes a little practice to get the dimensions right. But web halters are not so easy. They require some hardware and sewing skills.
I prefer to not use clips on my lead ropes because they are heavy and can whack horses quite severely during moments of high activity. Instead, I choose to either tie a lead rope to a halter or buy a lead rope with a spliced loop on one end that can be attached. Web halters are designed so that the lead rope is attached with a metal clip. A person can use a rope with a spliced loop instead, but most people use clips. On the other hand, rope halters often come with lead ropes and no clip, which I believe is a better option.
Finally, we come to the crux of the argument between the web halter loonies and the rope halter nutters. The debate is which is more effective in getting a change in a horse.
Those that hate rope halters argue that because the rope is small in diameter, the forced exerted by a feel on the lead rope create inordinately stronger pressure on the horse’s head. The wider strapping of a web halter means that for the same force on the lead rope, the horse experiences less pressure. Remember, pressure is the force divided by area. Therefore, if the force is the same, then the area of the halter that is in contact with the horse determines the pressure. The larger area of the web halter produces less pressure than the smaller area of the rope halter.
Fans of web halters think this is a good reason not to use a rope halter and rope halter zealots believe it is the best reason to use them. But for me and my fellow brethren from the “who gives a damn”, camp, we understand that the pressure the horse experiences is actually in the hands of the primate holding the lead rope.
A halter sits on a horse’s head and does nothing. It offers no feel or gives no intention as to what is expected of a horse. It just sits there. Whatever communication a horse receives via the halter is the result of somebody putting a feel in the lead rope. Therefore, irrespective of what type of halter a horse is wearing the pressure it experiences can be adjusted at the behest of the handler. If you are afraid that a rope halter is capable of applying too much pressure, then don’t apply so much force on the lead rope. It’s that simple.
And for those people who like the idea that a rope halter gives them more control, I suggest you stop using them because no good horse person relies on out muscling a horse to control it.
Lastly, this is to anyone who believes that either a web or rope halter is the only choice (including the trainer whose blog I read). You don’t get it.
If you believe a piece of flimsy material sitting on a horse’s head will make the difference between your horse going well or going poorly, then you’re an idiot.
Photo: Until I get my rainbow coloured unicorn, Riley is lucky fellow who gets to wear the rainbow halter and lead rope.
When you bring up the topic of trailering problems most people immediately think of a horse that won’t load into a trailer. But there is a percentage of horses that are fine to load, but terrible at travelling. Broadly speaking I categorize them all as “scramblers”. Not because they all exhibit the same behaviour, but because the cause of the unhappy traveler stems from the same place.
The sort of behaviours that I apply to the category of scrambling include running up the walls of the trailer (see photo), weaving, stomping, kicking, striking, rocking back and forth and leaning against the trailer wall. These are all an expression of the same problem. No matter the behaviour, it all is derived from anxiety associated either with the insecurity of standing on an unstable, moving platform.
I find scrambling in a trailer to be either one of the most simple or most difficult problems to resolve. This is because for some horses the solution is simple and for others the solution is complex.
My experience tells me that the problem of a horse’s balance in a trailer is a really common cause of scrambling. There are only two reasons why a horse might have trouble balancing in a trailer (assuming the horse does not have a neurological problem). The first reason is bad driving habits by people and the second is trailer design and setup.
I don’t want to go into detail about driving habits except to say the people need to be super aware than any change in speed or direction needs to be seamlessly smooth. Most people know this, but some people forget when towing that a trailer is several metres behind the position of the car. For example, when cornering people will accelerate the car after it comes out of the corner and is pointing straight. However, the trailer may still be coming around the corner when they accelerate, even though the car is heading straight. This inevitably causes a horse to lose balance. So people should be aware of balance issues within the trailer they are towing and not such much in the vehicle they are driving.
But in regard to trailer design, let me state horses have a distinct preference. Analysis of indicators of stress in horses has shown that horses are much more relaxed when travelling at an angle and facing backward. I’ve seen this myself when horses are allowed to be loose while travelling in trucks. They almost all face backward at an angle. I really think aligning themselves in this way allows horses the best opportunity to find their balance and smoothly adjust to the motion of the trailer.
The next least stressful configuration for a trailer is to have a horse standing at an angle and facing forwards. And the least comfortable option is a straight load trailer, which also happens to be the most common form of trailer design in Australia.
In my experience, it is unusual for a horse to scramble when travelling in an angle load trailer. The couple of times I have witnessed this is when the length of the trailer bay was too short for the horse and the horse risked colliding with the wall with its face. In both cases, the problem was overcome by changing the angle of the bay (through re-positioning the divider) to make the bay longer and give the horse more freedom to choose how it wished to stand.
There is no doubt that straight load trailers are the worst culprits for inducing scrambling behaviour. Being forced to stand aligned in the direction of travel seems to make it more difficult for a horse to balance and adjust to changes in the angular forces. This creates both a fear of falling over and a lot of muscular effort to stay upright. So the stresses are both physical and psychological.
The easiest solution to scrambling is to replace your straight load with an angle load trailer. It’s an expensive solution, but it has helped overcome the problem in every case that I know where the trailer has been replaced. There are alternative straight load trailers that allow a horse to spread its legs wider for better balance, but I have no experience of these.
However, if you are stuck with your straight load trailer and your horse shows signs of being a scrambler there are a few things you can try.
My first option has always been to either remove the divider or fix the divider so that it is at a diagonal angle. This turns the trailer bay from straight facing to angle facing. You might also have to alter the side that you tie your horse. In Australia we drive on the left side of the road and tie our horses to the left side of an angle load, however, this makes no sense because it means that most of the horse’s weight is on the left side too (60 percent of a horse’s weight is on the front end), which is the low side of the camber of the road. It is both safer and generally more comfortable for them to be tied to the right side of the trailer to coincide with them facing the high side of the road camber (ie facing uphill).
Sometimes, removing or changing the angle of the divider makes a huge difference and a horse will settle nicely after a few rides. But sometimes, it makes no difference. The reason can be that a horse is so fearful of standing on an unsteady platform that it freezes and is unable to move its feet to find a good position to balance and feel comfortable. On the few occasions that this has happened I discovered it helped to stand in the trailer with the horse (if safe) and teach the horse to yield its feet. Basically, I did a little ground work while in the trailer. When the horse was free and comfortable about giving to my feel with its feet, I had somebody drive slowly while I again ask the horse to move its feet. After I’ve had success with getting a horse to relax and unlock its feet, I have left the trailer and repeated the process with the horse in the trailer by itself. I have to admit that I have had success with this approach on about half the horses and the other half it seemed to make no difference. However, if you are going to try this tactic, please be careful because being in a trailer with a horse on the verge of panic is obviously extremely dangerous.
If you have a straight load trailer and a horse with a scrambling problem, a side effect is that it becomes almost impossible to be able to trailer two horses simultaneously because of the extra space needed to spread the horse’s legs.
I believe there are other factors that go into determining a horse’s comfort in a trailer – trailer size, divider design, suspension, airflow, windows, noise, light etc. But I can’t cover these topics here.
Suffice to say that scrambling is a problem that I don’t have all the answers to. The only reliable success I have had is to transport a problem horse in an angle load trailer or truck. Perhaps some of you have discovered a novel and workable solution for this issue.
To me, the real mystery about scrambling is that there are not more horses suffering the problem. It is a constant reminder how amazing horses are that they walk into a tin box on wheels in the first place!
Photo: This photo shows the tell tale signs of a classic scrambler that climbs the wall and/or divider of a trailer.
My wife, Michèle has suggested that I should hold clinics at our property on the northwest slopes of New South Wales, to negate the need for me to travel so much. We live in a place where to go anywhere to teach a clinic is a long way. It usually means that I am away from home for several weeks and sometimes even a couple of months at a time. So one solution to this problem would be to have people come to me rather than me to go people.
At the moment we have decided against this idea mainly because our property is not set up to host people and their horses. We have no horse yards and no accommodation for students. But more than that we are reliant on off-grid solar power and rainwater and the cost of expanding those systems to fulfill the needs of a clinic is out of reach for us.
However, we do have a few advantages that I don’t often see in my travels. One of the big benefits to having people here is that they can immerse themselves in days of living and breathing horses. The distractions of normal life are left at home so their attention to the learning process is uninterrupted.
But more importantly than that is that we don’t have an arena! I love not having an arena with square corners, soft manicured surface and a fence to smack into. What I do have is an 8ha paddock that is even with a gentle slope, sandy soil, tough Coolatai grass and a smattering of trees. It is the best non-arena I have ever had the pleasure of working in.
Firstly, the soil drains brilliantly and it never gets muddy or dotted with puddles. Even with 50mm of rain, I can ride on it immediately after. And the Coolatai grass holds up well no matter how much pounding it takes. I couldn’t have designed a better or safer surface. So from the point of view of a teaching arena, it is close to perfect.
But the second advantage is the best thing I like about my non-arena. It is big. It is so big that one could gallop endlessly around it without worrying about negotiating tricky corners. If a horse needs to move, that’s no problem in my non-arena. I know some people like smaller working spaces in case their horse has too much energy. The fences give them a feeling of security that they don’t get in large, open spaces. However, I believe this is a false sense of security. When a horse needs to move, confinement only leads to more worry. Having the latitude to move somewhere can make the difference between a small amount of anxiety and a wreck.
Of course, I can also make my non-arena an arena by riding as if it were a dressage ménage. I simply use markers in the paddock as my corners. This offers the advantage of practicing my dressage movements with some precision as well as ignoring the markers to help my horse when needed, without being confined within the borders of a fixed fence.
The third plus to come out of riding in a large area routinely is that it better prepares a horse for trail riding and the great outside world. It is my experience that horses that are ridden a lot in a fenced arena often have anxiety the moment they are introduced to large open spaces. The fenced arena can become a crutch that supports the routine of their ridden work. This can be just as true of riders too; whose confidence disappears the moment the arena gate is swung open. Getting a horse and rider use to and comfortable with, riding in an open area before heading out into the great yonder can be very helpful.
Lastly, in my experience, the lack of fenced arena with square corners and a large expanse requires me to be more focused on a plan. I have to be more mindful of where I am going, how straight my horse is and the rhythm we are traveling. In addition, I have to be thinking two of three movements ahead. Having no arena and no corners and no markers also means a rider is less prone to falling into the trap of having a routine. It makes it less likely you’ll always be halting at the same place or circling at the same marker or asking for extensions in the same corner. The workout becomes less predictable to the horse, which is a good thing because it reduces the risk of a horse anticipating your signals.
I am not suggesting that people who don’t have a large open area to use for an arena are at a great disadvantage or that a person should stop riding in their arena. I’m not even saying that riding a lot in an open a space is going to make your horse problems go away. However, if you have a large working area with a great surface why would you even build an arena? I have been involved in the construction of several expensive arenas in my life and I can say that my non-arena paddock is the best I have ever used. And all it cost was the price of fuel to slash the grass with my tractor. If I ever hold clinics here, I’m keeping my non-arena.
Photo: Ben Moxon from England is having a lesson in my non-arena. Ben is riding my thoroughbred gelding, Riley.
Some people talk about training equipment in terms of its ability to communicate an idea in a soft or harsh way. For example, some people think of bridles with bits as being harsh and bridles without bits as being gentle. But experienced people know that the severity or otherwise of any training device is mostly in the way it is used. A bit is not severe until somebody pulls on the reins too strongly.
But let’s be clear here about what it means for our training to be harsh or gentle. When we describe training in these terms we are not so much describing the amount of pressure or the amount of discomfort. Instead, we are really talking about how the horse perceives our action and the anxiety it creates. We often view our actions as gentle or harsh by the way we imagine how they must feel to our horse. But our perception is largely irrelevant. It is the horse’s perception that is the determining factor, not ours.
This brings me to the topic I really want to discuss, liberty training. A lot of people are attracted to liberty training because they perceive it as gentle and an indication of a special relationship between horse and human. But let’s be clear about this. All liberty training began as non-liberty training. To get a horse to a stage of education that it can be worked to a reasonable degree of performance (not just hooking on) requires initially using non-liberty techniques.
I have seen a few videos lately of horses being worked at liberty. They are either being ridden bareback and with no headgear or worked on the ground without ropes or halters. Sometimes the horseperson uses whips, flags, food treats to direct the horses, but sometimes not. Some people work in small-ish yards and other people work in large open spaces. Sometimes multiple horses are worked together and other times it is just one horse. The variety of maneuvers that are performed is almost limitless from flying changes ever stride to several horses galloping side-by-side on a beach.
Nearly every time I see these videos or watch demonstrations at horse expositions, the overwhelming consensus of the general horse-loving public is “wow”! People are amazed at the bond that must exist between horse and human for the horse to perform such stunts without the need for equipment to control them.
To begin with let me say that in my mind the biggest positive to working a horse at liberty is that it reveals all our flaws. When we screw up in our liberty training, it’s obvious to the entire world. This is especially true in the early stages of training. In the later training, it may not be so obvious because most horses have learned enough about their job to fill in for our mistakes. But when a horse is still figuring out what is being asked, it doesn’t take much screwing up on our part for everything to unravel very quickly.
The second aspect of liberty work that I like is that it is fun. It’s lots of fun for us. I don’t think it is necessarily more fun for horses than non-liberty work, but it is lots of fun for us. I think that’s an important reason for training at liberty because after all, working with horses is meant to be fun.
The only other plus of liberty work that I can think of is that there is less wear and tear and expense on gear. But for somebody like me who has never owned good or expensive equipment, that’s not a big advantage.
But there are downsides to liberty work too – big ones. In my experience, it is rare to see horses working well or contented when performing liberty work. It’s rare enough to see when the gear is used, and almost unseen when the gear is not used.
I believe it is because most training (of any ilk) concerns itself with obedience. But gear is designed to provide clarity to a horse. So when the gear is missing two things can go wrong. The first is that when we are training a horse with the aim of performing at liberty we tend to drill obedience at the expense of okay-ness. By its nature, liberty work requires a high degree of obedience (because the gear is not available to impose obedience), which means we tend to value the movement more highly than the emotions that accompany the movement.
The second issue relates to what I described above as the biggest positive of liberty work. Having no gear available when a horse makes a mistake does show up our flaws, but it also makes the job of correcting a horse’s mistakes more difficult and often a lot less subtle. Look at the video below. Notice the woman scrambling with the whip to correct mistakes her horse makes. If she had a lead rope and halter or long reins, corrections made with the rope or reins would be a lot more subtle and present greater clarity because she would be directing her horse’s thoughts. But with the whip, she is just chasing away which end of the horse she wants to move. The training is about micro-managing the movement of the feet and shape of the body with no attempt to get a change of thought.
One of the statements I hear a lot from people impressed with liberty training is “but the horse could run away if he didn’t like it.”
It is tempting to put that sort of thinking down to people thinking like humans and not like horses. But in truth, it is not people thinking like people, it is people not thinking at all.
The reason why we can ride horses is because our training makes their mind so malleable that we can convince them of most things. This includes believing that at liberty they are trapped in their performance just as much as if we were using the harshest bits, the biggest spurs, strongest ropes and highest fences. If you don’t believe me, think about all those poor women trapped in abusive relationships. They feel trapped with no possibility of escape. It’s a very real and tragic phenomenon. And for some horses, this is how liberty training can feel.
I’m not suggesting that all liberty training is abusive, just like not all non-liberty training is abusive. But I do believe there is nothing so special about liberty training that it should be looked at with blind awe. Bad training or bad riding should not get a pass just because it is done at liberty. There is no point in liberty work if it is not held to the highest standard we would use for judging non-liberty training.
I am far more impressed by a trainer who can ask a horse to offer a relaxed and balanced trot or canter irrespective if the horse is wearing gear or not, than I am of a trainer who has taught a horse fancy movements that are incorrect and accompanied by worry, but with no gear.
Video: These are horses in the early stages of liberty work on the ground, so I am not concerned at the accuracy and correctness of the movements. But watch how the trainer trains. There is a lot that can be discussed about this clip – both good and not so good. – that relate to what has been said in this post.