All Tied Up

It’s not about teaching a horse to stand tied; it’s about teaching him what to do with his feet when he’s worried.

One of the most common problems I run into is horses that pull back when tied. As with anything else horse-related, there are a lot of ways to help a horse through this. Several different ways will be effective. I’m looking to find ways that are effective and that are a good deal for the horse.

There are many reasons a horse might pull back. Something might legitimately scare him and he’s trying to run away, he might be claustrophobic when he feels the pressure from the halter on his poll, he might not have been taught to give to pressure from the halter, he may have been napping and startled himself when he woke up … the list goes on and on.

Most people would be surprised to know that their horses are not really well halter started. They are taught to “follow the human” instead of “follow the feel” that’s sent down the lead rope. If a horse has been halter started well using feel, he’ll be less likely to pull back when tied.

I work with a lot of horses who pull back when tied. I don’t really concentrate on the tying aspect, but more on helping the horse understand how to follow the feel of the lead rope and what to do with his feet when he’s worried.

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Before I ever head to the fence to tie the horse, I need to make sure there is some communication down the lead rope. I need to make sure the basics are in place.

First, I need to be able to send the horse out on a circle. Then I need him to step his inside hind foot in front of and across his outside hind. Next, he needs to be able to bring his front end through and begin a circle in the opposite direction. I repeat the exercise in both directions.

I’m looking for the horse to move properly, to follow the feel I’m presenting down the lead rope, to make his transitions smoothly. The primary objective is to get the understanding through to the horse that the lead rope (and later, the reins) should go through his mind all the way to his feet.

Quality equipment leads to better feel. I like to use a rope halter and a lead rope that is 12 to 15 feet long without a snap, made of treeline. (You should always carry a sharp knife that can cut through your rope in an emergency.) I like to use a horsemanship flag while doing this groundwork. The horse needs to be exposed to a flag in preparation for saddling anyway, so this is a good time to introduce it.

Once the horse has the understanding through the lead rope, I’ll approach the fence.

Ideally, I like a stout fence that is solid for at least 4 feet from the ground up, with a metal pole to wrap the lead rope on. Having a tall fence with the first 4 or 5 feet solid helps diminish the possibility of the horse getting a leg caught in the fence.

Usually, I don’t have that luxury, so I’m extra careful with the amount of pressure I put on the horse. I don’t want the horse to rear and paw the fence, or try to jump over to the other side.

I like to be on the same side of the fence as the horse and have someone experienced that I trust on the other side of the fence holding the lead rope. I take two wraps around the pipe of the fence and hand the end of the lead rope to my partner on the other side of the fence. Pay attention to how the lead rope is wrapped, so that it doesn’t inadvertently make itself into a half-hitch knot. You may need to feed slack to the horse.

There should be 2 to 3 feet of rope between the horse and the fence to start with. Too short and he won’t be able to move, too long and he might step over the rope.

I step back behind the horse and get him to look at me. I ask him with the flag to move his hindquarters toward the fence, then ask him for a step forward. (If you don’t have a flag, make use of what tools you have … a jacket or a plastic bag on a stick.)

Pay attention and be ready to move quickly to help the horse find the step forward. You’ll want to be paying attention and not end up with your flag in his face when he moves his hindquarters over. You might inadvertently push him backward. Get into position quickly to help him find the correct answer: Find the end of the lead rope, move the hindquarters over, step forward.

As soon as the horse gives that step forward, back off and take the pressure away! Then give him a few seconds to think about it.

I’ll pass behind him and do the same from the other side.

You are working to accomplish several things here. You are looking for the horse to 1. Feel the end of the lead rope, 2. Yield his hindquarters properly, 3. Step forward, 4. Allow you to move through the blind spot directly behind him, switching eyes calmly, 5. Find the end of the lead rope in a productive manner, and 6. Realize that backing up is not an option.

Each horse is different, and you’ll need to pay attention to how sensitive to pressure each horse is. Try not to get the horse excited. He’ll learn better if he’s calm.

If a horse tries to pull backward, my helper will keep a little tension on the lead rope while feeding line out. I’ll be hustling to get behind the horse to encourage him to step forward. I try to not let him hit the end of the line hard, so there’s nothing for him to pull back against. And when he steps forward, there is immediate release of all pressure on the halter and all pressure from me. As he steps forward, my helper allows the horse to feel the release, but then immediately pulls the slack back up so the horse doesn’t get a foot caught in the rope.

Once the horse begins to get the hang of what I’m asking and his movements are smooth, I’ll ask my helper to take up a little slack from the lead. I want the horse to find the end of the lead rope, move his hindquarters over and step forward, doing the dance again.

Then I’ll have my helper push about a foot of slack into the lead rope. I want the horse to find the end of the lead rope, move his hindquarters over and step forward.

I’ll do this again and again until the horse is understanding and moving smoothly and softly. Notice improvements in his posture – the roundness of his body, the elevation of his head, the rhythm of his breathing and his overall expression.

When you’re sure the horse understands what to do with his feet when he feels the end of the lead rope as he’s tied, give him a short rest and a brief pet. Next, it’s time to test your horse a bit.

I’ll change up the rhythm in my body. I might flap the flag around wildly, jump up and down, throw my hat, hoot and holler, skip, or walk in a jerky fashion, all the while making darned sure I can get into position quickly to help keep the horse from pulling backward. Any time the horse begins to respond correctly (find the end of the lead rope, move the hindquarters over, step forward) I’ll take all the pressure off and let him soak a few seconds.

The real key is for the horse to figure out what to do with his feet when he’s worried.

It’s always nice when there are folks around who are willing to help out. I like to have them on the other side of the fence from the horse. When the horse is handling the commotion I’ve been causing, I’ll have them help me by skipping down the fence line, or singing, doing the wave, jumping up and down. But they must always be ready to be completely still and take the pressure off when the horse thinks about doing the right thing with his feet.

Before too long, it won’t matter what kind of commotion is going on around the horse. He’ll calmly find the end of the lead rope, step his hindquarters over and step forward.

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When you can have slack in one of the wraps around the fence, make a commotion and have the horse move properly without taking the slack out of the wrap, you know the horse is very nearly where you want him to be in his tying education. It’s time to give him a big break and do something else for a while.

Ideally, you’d want to have several sessions with the horse, quitting when he’s understanding and moving properly. If each session is a positive experience, the horse will learn what to do with his feet and likely will learn to trust your judgment more.

Use good judgment when you start to tie your horse in different places. Be sure to set him up for success. You might ride the horse and tie him after he’s tired, instead of taking him fresh from a stall, when he’s raring to go, and tying him. It’s easier for them to stand if they are already wanting to rest. You might tie them by taking a few wraps around a post, instead of tying them hard and fast, until they’ve had plenty of good experiences under their belt.

At first, you’ll leave him tied for short amounts of time, in a safe, familiar area. You’ll stay in the area in case he needs help. As always, have a sharp knife handy. Untie him when things are going good, before he has the chance to worry about anything.

Horses who have had the habit of pulling back might need additional sessions in order to further bury their old bad habit. There are no quick fixes, and no miracle cures that will be 100 percent foolproof. But I’ve sure seen this method help lots of horses and their owners.