The War Between Web and Rope Halters

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.

Scrambling

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.

The Pros and Cons Of Laying A Horse Down

I get quite a few emails with questions from readers. A recent one asked for my thoughts on laying horses down. It was timely because I have been in discussions with another trainer who highly recommends the practice and uses it often in her work. So I’m going to rehash what I had to say on the topic from a couple of years ago because I have found no reason to change my views since then.

 

From the start I want to be clear that there is a difference between teaching a horse to lay down on cue using standard pressure and release techniques and forcibly laying a horse where there is no room for a horse to search for an answer. For the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about laying a horse down by immobilizing it against its will.

 

Laying a horse down is still widely used by trainers. Many of you probably saw Robert Redford do it in the film, The Horse Whisperer.

 

A few trainers make it a routine practice that every horse must endure. For others, it is used only on those horses that have problems. And yet other trainers reserve it for the rare and special cases where other approaches have failed and laying a horse down is a last resort.

 

Whatever the thinking behind laying a horse down, it is used almost exclusively to eradicate an unwanted flight or fight behaviour. It is not used to teach horses to pick up their feet or perform flying lead changes for example. Its function is purely to instil submission in a horse – nothing else. This is not the same as teaching a horse to lay on the ground on cue, which has an entirely different purpose.

 

There is a long history of laying horses down that goes back to ancient times. Many more modern-day trainers, such as John Rarey (1827-1866) and Professor (Jess) Berry (1861-1945), used laying down techniques to tame horses that otherwise could not be subjugated and to make a reputation for themselves.

 

There are several issues about laying a horse down that are argued by people on both sides of the fence and remain unresolved. I’m not able to cover them all in such a brief article, so I’m going to focus only on my views based on my experience and research. If you are interested in a wider perspective, there are plenty of articles on the internet discussing the pros and cons.

 

It is probably only fair that I declare that I have taught some of my horses to lie down. Just like I have taught them to lead well and halt softly. It’s fun and it gets them working with me. But as well, I have also forced a few horses to the ground in my life – maybe two or three special cases (it was a long time ago, so I can’t be sure how many). I have also seen it done many times in my life.

 

When a horse is laid down, it almost always becomes immobile. There is sometimes (about 50% of the time) an initial struggle for a horse to immediately get to its feet again, but if the trainer blocks this; the horse will lay still and quiet. It’s this stillness that a trainer is looking for because it signals that the horse has stopped the fight and will accept whatever the trainer has in mind. At this moment, a trainer tries to make the horse accept the human’s dominance and submit to its fate, without the horse thinking that fight or flight is an option.

 

Why does a horse accept its fate and not continue to fight?

 

There is not a lot of research done with horses, but work with other species has given rise to the theory that forcibly immobilizing some animals leads to a catatonic state called tonic immobility (a natural state of paralysis). When an animal is in a state of tonic immobility and then subjected or exposed to stressful stimuli it leads to a state of learned helplessness, which is when an animal stops fighting a situation because it feels the futility of flight or flight. In other words, when an animal is forced to lie down, it can feel so helpless that it just gives up.

 

Many species exhibit this behaviour. You’ve probably all seen the nature shows where a lion attacks a zebra. The zebra fights and kicks until it is forced to the ground, when it then just lays still while the lion eats it alive.

 

An example of this is seen with horses. Often when they are laid down it is very difficult to get them to their feet again. The tonic immobility makes them emotionally paralysed and sometimes a trainer has to get quite violent in order to wake the animal out of its stupor and get it to its feet again.

 

One trainer, who uses laying down methods on most horses, argues that it is a kind and gentle way of starting the breaking in process or helping troubled horses. He even used a heart rate monitor to show that horses that he laid down had lower heart rates and argues that this was proof that laying a horse to the ground was a less stressful approach for the horse. However, if he had studied animal physiology he would have learned that tonic immobility-induced stress is associated with bradycardia (lower heart rate). Not all stress causes an increase in heart rate. So his heart rate monitor test actually indicated that the horse’s he laid down were more stressed because their heart rate decreased.

 

I believe that forcing a horse down is something that should only be preserved for extreme cases. For the average horse I feel it does psychological damage because it takes away a horse’ right to say ‘No’ and express its feelings. That means that the true feelings of a horse are hidden away from an owner and puts the chance of having any sort of relationship better than a master/slave beyond reach.

 

Having said all that, I do think there are rare times when laying a horse down has a place in training. But they are rare. It happens when a horse is beyond emotional reach. It’s when a horse is not thinking and just reacting. It’s when a pattern of aggression has been formed and a horse is not able to search for an alternative behaviour because its emotions block its ability to process and think through a situation. Laying a horse down in this situation can reset the emotions to zero, which creates a window of opportunity to break the pattern.

 

I also believe that the success of creating change in a horse after it has been laid down is dependent on the quality of the work after it gets to its feet again. Dropping a horse to the ground has no long-term benefit in itself. There is no learning by just laying a horse down. Nothing changes unless what comes after it gets to its feet again changes. Laying a horse down only creates a window of opportunity to have a conversation with a horse. In itself, putting a horse on the ground does nothing to change things in the long term.

 

Lastly, I want to also point out that laying a horse down is not the only method for inducing tonic immobility and learned helplessness. Anytime a horse is put in a situation that it feels is helpless and resistance is futile, you can induce the same stress of tonic immobility.  For example, many forms of desensitization where a horse is tied up and flooded with stressors, imprint training of foals, hobbling or tying up one leg, tying a horse up until it stops pulling back, collar roping hind legs, and wheat box training (used for starting horses) can work on the same principle of removing a horse’s ability to escape a stressful situation and inducing a sense of helplessness and submission.

 

Forcibly laying a horse down is a skill that some professional trainers may use a few times in their life, but it is not a skill most owners will ever use. Nor is it a skill they should have because it relies on psychologically traumatizing a horse in a way that has the potential to do long-term damage to a relationship.

 

Video: Paul Williamson is an Australian horse training who works in the racing industry in Japan. Paul uses a laying-down method routinely in his training and offers a different perspective on the practice. Hear what he has to say, consider the points I have made and then you decide.

 

Always Leave Them Wanting More

When I was a young man and began dating, my dad offered some fatherly advice.

 

“ Son, the Jacobs charm is a powerful thing. It is something all males in the family are born with and must learn to use responsibly. Its power is greater than any power mere mortals should possess and that’s why the world is fortunate that only the Jacobs men hold it. In our hands, the Jacobs charm is a soothing balm that brings joy and promise to everyone around us. But you must learn to control it and use it wisely.

 

“I want you to remember these words when you go out on a date with a young lady. A little bit of the Jacobs charm goes a long way. But the most important thing of all is when you say goodnight to your date always leave them wanting more. You know it’s time to finish the evening when they want more.”

 

My father was a wise man and he obviously knew what he was talking about because it worked so well in winning over my mother.

 

Even though dad is long gone, I think of his advice often. Not in regard to dating women anymore because I think my wife would kill me. But I think of it in terms of ways to incorporate dad’s wisdom into my work with horses.

 

“Always leave them wanting more.”

 

There are two aspects to my father’s advice that we should consider when working with a horse. Firstly, we need to find a way to present the work so that it is enjoyable to a horse. We could have a vigorous debate about this subject. It’s not clear and obvious that horses can enjoy working with us and many people on either side of the debate have strong views. However, what I do believe is that even if you take the stance that it is not possible for work to be fun for a horse, I think we can all agree that it does not have to be a bad experience. Work or training does not have to be something a horse dreads. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, and for most purposes, I am convinced that it’s good enough in order for us to get along well with a horse.

 

The second ingredient hidden inside the phrase, “always leave them wanting more,” is the idea that whatever it is that we are doing we should stop doing it while it still feels good to a horse. If we continue past the point of a horse feeling okay and into the realm of “I’m over it,” not much good will come out of the experience. If you finish after the moment the horse’s good feelings begin to wane you have missed an opportunity to achieve maximum benefit from the work.

 

The ability to judge when to leave a horse wanting more is the result of a rider having great feel and balance. These two elements equip people with a sense to know how much is too much and how little is too little. I suppose some of you reading this think of a rider having balance as their ability to keep their centre of gravity as close as possible to the horse’s sense of gravity. However, in the context of this discussion, I am really referring to balance as the balance between too much and too little, between too strong and too soft, and between too early and too late. This is an aspect of balance that does not get much attention from instructors and clinicians, and it is intimately linked to feel.

 

You might think that the concept of always leaving a horse wanting more is mostly about not over working them. Not stressing our horses to the point of hating the work. But it is much more than that. It should be incorporated into nearly all aspects of interacting with a horse.

 

The most obvious one that comes to my mind is the way we reward a horse for work done well. The idea of a reward is to both let a horse know it found the right answer and to motivate it to repeat the response the next time we ask. Therefore, how we offer a reward should be done in a way to maximize the process of learning.

 

A lot goes into achieving maximum benefit from a reward (discussed in detail in The Essence Of Good Horsemanship). We need to consider how to reward, how long to reward for, when to stop rewarding and when to apply pressure for the next task. Some horses liked to be touched; others don’t. Some horses are particular how we touch them and where. Some really appreciate a relief from pressure and some are oblivious to it. Most horses like food, but some are fussy about the treat and how much.

 

Today I rode my mare, Six. After I returned her to her paddock I scratched her in front of the wither. She really got into it and wanted more. But I walked away after about 15 seconds even though she probably would have booked me for an hour of scratching if she had a choice. When I walked away she followed me all the way to the fence line even though her friends galloped to the other end of the paddock. When we reached the fence and just before I crawled through, I gave her another scratch for 5 seconds then left. I walked away with her wanting more and hopefully feeling good about the next time she sees me.

 

Good horse people often say, “If in doubt, do less”. If a person does too much, it is over and done with and can’t be taken back. But if you do less, you can always do more if you need to. This concept is incorporated in the idea, ”Always leave them wanting more.”

 

My father was not a horseman, but he had many of the skills and understanding that a lot of horsemen would benefit having.

 

Photo: Mum and dad on their wedding day. If my dad could win a woman as amazing as my mother, it’s a dramatic example of the frightening power of the Jacobs charm.

Looking Up Or Looking Down?

Last week I received a question about the issue of a rider not looking ahead. They have noticed that many riders tend to look down these days, which was the opposite of what they were taught by years of instruction.

 

I referred the person to a post I wrote nearly a year ago and thought it was worth repeating here.

___________________________________

 

Somebody recently asked, “Why do so many of the great masters ride looking down?”

 

This topic also came up for discussion at the clinic in Canberra last weekend.

 

I don’t know if it is still widely taught, but when I was a kid there was a lot of shouting at students to “look up where you are going” and, “keep your heels down.” They were the two most repeated mantras that instructors pounded into their students. I was clearly a poor listener as a student because I strayed far.

 

So here is my take on looking up or looking down.

 

I think there are two reasons in favour of looking up – one is a good reason and the other is not.

 

The action of looking up tends to help straighten the rider’s back and align the spine more vertically rather than round the shoulders and pitch the upper body forward.  So it can help to maintain a steady and more correct centre of gravity for a rider. However, this is not automatically true. A rider can tilt their head down and maintain a good position of the spine and centre of gravity. The classical dressage master, Nuno Oliveira was an excellent example of somebody who appeared to do all the wrong things, yet was able to maintain excellent balance with the horse. So while looking up can help a student rider avoid getting into bad habits of misaligning their spine and balance, it is not a rule that the first automatically causes the second.

 

The second reason that I was told you must always look up was incorporated into the phrase, “ you must look where you are going.” The inference was that if you looked down at your horse you would not be able to see where you were going and you ran the risk of running into things or worse creating crookedness in your horse. In my view, this is a weak reason for requiring riders to look up. Most riders who tend to look down know exactly where they are and where they are going. Both the horse and rider know what’s ahead, behind and to the side and rarely run the risk of collision.

 

When it comes to looking down there are two ways of doing it. The first is for the rider to tilt their head downward, and the second it is to look down while keeping their head level. For example, Nuno Oliveira often tilted his head forward to look at his horse, whilst the modern darling of competition dressage, Charlotte Dujardin is an expert at looking down while maintaining a level head position.

 

As I said above, it is possible for a rider to look down and still maintain a good position and know where they are going by maintaining spatial awareness. Nonetheless, some people find that looking up and forward is easier for them to achieve these things. If a rider can ride effectively when looking up or looking down, the choice to do so should be personal and between them and their horse.

 

But in my opinion, the decision to look up or look down when riding a horse should be determined by the rider’s ability to focus. A rider can learn to stay balanced and be aware of where they are going no matter where they are looking, however, the ability to stay focused and attentive to the horse under them is often influenced by where they are looking.

 

I find by looking down at my horse I can feel a lot more than when I am looking up and ahead with all the distractions that come into my field of vision. Looking at something like the neck of my horse allows me to be much more aware of everything else about the horse. My ability to feel and be aware is magnified because the horse’s neck becomes a point where I can shut out distractions. If I look up and ahead there is so much visual information being taken in that I struggle to filter it all out and focus on my feel. Nevertheless, there are a lot of riders who are able to be very focused and aware when they look up. For them, looking up is a much better option.

 

In summary, I no longer believe it is important for a rider to “look where they are going.” I think as long as our horse approves of what we do, who cares?

 

Photo: This must be one of the “great masters” that the person who posed the original question was referring to.