New York State Horse Council ...NYSHC

Why to use a Halter AND a Lead Rope

Why do you have to use both?

By Erika Eckstrom
Painted Bar Stables |
EquiTravels | - Schuyler Equine Conference

Consistency breeds consistency. Every time you are within 10' of a horse you are either training or un-training them.

It seems to be human nature to take shortcuts. One of the most common errors that I see in barns (and that I even take part in) is leading a horse without proper restraint.  There is a plethora of excuses that we can devise to justify shortcutting the halter and lead rope: "I was in a hurry;" "This horse is so good I can just lead it with a rope around the neck;" "I know this horse." And while all of this may be true, it's still a shortcut.

When you use a halter AND a lead rope you have a secure and safe horse. The horse in the halter is captive, and because of the lead rope they can walk themselves and carry their own head yet be reminded of their manners.

Un-Training: why leading is so important
Every time you (or anyone else) leads your horse you are training it. When not led properly you are teaching the horse bad manners. Horses should be a passive follower when being led. Leading skills are the foundation of all handling and riding.

Because leading isn't considered an advanced skill or a test of sophisticated training, we often do not prioritize how we lead a horse and how a horse behaves while being led. However, leading a poorly or ill-trained horse can be one of the most stressful parts of your day, so setting yourself up for success is key. While we generally put up with less-than-perfect manners, figuring that we can live with the occasional "invasion of our space," every time we lead a horse improperly we are training the horse to lose one of their most valuable skills.

Without both halter and lead rope, you lose the ability to communicate clearly with your horse. As a result, the horse will take it upon themselves to make choices. You will find that your horse will most likely no longer walk just behind your shoulder following you, but side by side with you. This is a "promotion" in authority whether your horse knows it or not. Over time they will potentially develop annoying habits, become pushy, learn how to get loose or even begin to downright disrespect their handler.

Good manners happen when the horse is secure in knowing what is being asked of them and has practiced doing it. If they get in the routine of this (or sometimes even if they are led improperly just once) they will be worse behaved for pretty much everything you do, even if you are doing things properly in the future. Once they learn they can, you are endangering anyone else who works with them too because of these bad habits. Even if you are an experienced handler and you don't personally mind a slightly pushy horse, you never know who else will have to handle him, so creating an environment where the horse is habitually empowered to lead politely is better for all concerned. Marginal leading manners are more dangerous than you might think.

Personal Space
A big part of training horses on the ground is teaching them to respect personal space.

Harm and Memory: bonking your horse in the face
As mentioned before, while a halter offers restraint, the lead rope offers the ability for the horse to carry themselves. Many of us are prone to tossing a halter on a horse and holding onto the nose band. Beyond the obvious safety issues for the human (getting fingers stuck, dislocating shoulders, getting dragged around) there's actually a lot of harm that can be done to a horse as well. They will be more likely to develop habits of head tossing when led and even pulling back when tied because of hyper-sensitivity in their face - and it is your mistake that trained them to do that.

If you have a halter but no lead rope, you are pulling on the horse's face. Even if you don't think you are pulling on their face, you're pulling on their face. Without the give in the rope, the horse is constantly being bumped and torqued by you when you have no lead rope.

A great example of how much we can affect the horse's head when leading is the importance of lead rope skills during lameness trot-outs. If you do a trot-out with a taught rope, you pull their head with every step and you can actually make them look lame even when they are not. So, imagine the effect without a rope and just your arm?
This torque can really upset a horse. Not just is it uncomfortable, but it can really affect behavior and biomechanics. This is because when you lead by the halter without a rope, your bumps and pushes will cause them to brace their neck to prepare for the torque. When they brace, not only do you lose the softness that we strive for in all interactions with horses, but we actually force the horse to put their body into stress positions. When a horse's head is low, below the withers and relaxed, there is actually a release of endorphins that cause the horse to become more relaxed and happier. As they brace, they will hold their head up higher, locking the muscles in their topline and stemming the flow of endorphins. Even within the moment you will notice a change in the horse's demeanor, but over time you will notice a general dislike of being led in general - even with the rope - and this stems back to the physical and mental discomfort of being jerked by the halter.

The Ill-Fitting Halter
Every time you put a halter on a horse, make sure it fits. We've all been there - we need to catch a horse and we already have a halter and rope near at hand so off we go. We put the halter on and it's on the last hole and it's too big, but we only need to lead the horse a couple dozen yards so we don’t bother to tighten up the halter. Maybe we don't even bother to clip the throatlatch either.

If the halter is our main restraint for the horse, we just handicapped ourselves and gave our horses a reason to not listen. When a halter isn't properly adjusted, not only are you at risk of your horse slipping their halter and escaping, but we also caused discomfort for the horse.

A properly fitted halter has four main components.
1. The crownpiece should sit across the horse's poll near to the ears without touching them. Often adjusting the crownpiece will change the angles and distances of the rest of the halter.
2. The noseband should hit halfway between the horse's eyes and their nose with the hardware sitting below the cheekbones by a width of 2-3 fingers.
3. The throatlatch should rest comfortably where the neck and jowls meet and you should be able to slide 3-4 fingers under the throatlatch.
4. The cheek pieces should run parallel and below the cheekbones.

When a halter is too big or loose, the noseband will be too low which can lead to impaired breathing or slippage over the nose. The crownpiece will also have more room to move and potentially slip over the ears. If there is too much space in the throatlatch, the horse can potentially get a hoof caught in the halter when grazing, resulting in catastrophic damage.

When a halter is too small or tight, the throatlatch will be too tight affecting how the horse can breathe and preventing them from swallowing. The cheekpieces, if too high, will rub against the facial bones of the horse and cause irritation.

All of this presents problems for a horse while being led or at liberty, but the issues are often magnified when a horse is tied with an ill-fitting halter.

Adjusting a halter is often an easy task that takes mere seconds and is an easy solution for solving many risk and training issues.

The Loose Horse
When you walk a horse without both, you are always at risk of losing the horse. When you lead a horse it is key to have control of the horse's nose. Without a good hold you have significantly, very significantly, less control of the horse. Horses follow their nose and having the halter to provide security and the rope to provide control, greatly increases your ability to communicate with and restrain a horse.

A loose horse is a veterinary bill waiting to happen. Whether the horse is scared or naughty, running around in an uncontrolled manner opens up the opportunity for cuts, sprains, and beyond. And all of the humans chasing after them doesn't exactly help.

Furthermore, a loose horse is not just dangerous to the horse but can be dangerous to EVERYONE in the vicinity. That loose horse may interact with other horses (always!!) and potentially get other horses hurt. Or run over a human (common!!). Or break things (yep!!). Or even end up in the road and a car might hit it killing the horse and driver.

Restraining a horse properly not just reduces the chance that all of these mishaps can be avoided, it also reduces your liability. If you do everything right, and the horse still gets loose, at least you did everything right.

How to Lead a Horse
So how do you lead a horse properly? This may seem incredibly obvious but because it is so important, it should be said.

To lead a horse properly you need a well fitted halter and a lead rope. You should always have the halter unbuckled and prepared and have the lead rope connected to the halter prior to putting it on the horse.

You should hold the horse with a loose grip in your right hand giving the horse a distance on the rope so that they can relax their head, but short enough that you can easily correct them when needed. You should not need to hold onto the rope with a death grip. If the horse requires a firm hold it is an insult to you as a leader and an insult to the horse as an intelligent. Your goal is for your horse to synchronize with you, not for you to drag it around.

The remaining rope should be folded, not coiled, in your left hand so that you do not trip on it and so that it cannot get wrapped around your wrist.

While leading, you should be about 12 degrees to the left of your horse and your horse's head should be even with your right shoulder. You want your horse to maintain this distance out of respect. They should not touch you or nudge you in any fashion.

You want your horse to be a passive follower, staying just to the side of you and keeping their mass behind you. You do not want your horse to be ahead of you or positioned with any authority. Nor do you want them directly behind you, unable to see you and potentially able to bowl over you if they spook.

 If your horse isn't able to do this, then you still have training to do. So why not use every time you lead them to their stall as a chance to train them without any extra time added to your day?

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