Tying Horses 101

Tying Horses 101

Standing quietly while tied is necessary for our domesticated horses, both for convenience and safety.

Photo: Thinkstock

Tying a horse is such a basic part of owning a horse that many of us take it for granted. But if you have a horse that won't stand nicely while tied, or if you're training a youngster to tie, then you've probably realized this is as much a learned skill as, say, sidepassing or spinning. Maybe more so, since standing tied to a solid object is not something a horse would naturally do.

But standing quietly while tied is necessary for our domesticated horses, both for convenience and safety. Luckily, even if your horse doesn't yet have this skill mastered, he can learn the ropes with some patience on your part and a few smart reschooling strategies.

The Root of the Problem

Pulling back is the most serious and probably the most common tying misbehavior. That's not too surprising, since a horse's first reaction to any kind of trouble (real or imagined) is to run away. But if a tied horse tries to leave, he hits the end of the rope and feels pressure from the halter on his head. When a horse doesn't have the right training, that can lead to panic and struggling against the "trap." Ultimately, the horse might break the halter, the lead rope, or whatever he's tied to. He might also pull muscles or even flip and seriously injure himself or the person trying to "save" him.

Other less serious—but still annoying—misbehaviors associated with tying include pawing the ground, fidgeting and restlessness, and chewing nearby objects. These habits usually trace to impatience and/or anxiety. But from pulling back to pacing, all tying troubles really have their origin in a lack of training, says trainer Bev Barney of Ithaka Bridge Farm in Nottingham, New Hampshire.

Cherry Hill—an award-winning horse book author, trainer, and former judge—agrees. Hill, who resides near Fort Collins, Colorado, notes that tying problems are specifically linked to a horse's "lack of confidence due to inadequate exposure to the sights, sounds, and things in the tying environment, lack of lessons in restraint, restriction and pressure on the poll, (or) from the owner using poor equipment and not having a strong, safe place to tie." In addition, she says, the horse might not have learned to halt on command, to ground tie, or to stand quietly on a long line. Nervousness and anxiety might also play roles.

The solution to correcting these problems lies in retraining your horse so that he understands being tied is not a threat to his safety and is not something to fear. In short, it's your job to help your horse build the confidence he needs to stand quietly and calmly whenever and wherever he's tied.

Into Rehab

Tying rehabilitation starts at square one, as if the horse has had no tying or even in-hand training, says Hill. That means teaching your horse essential ground skills. Most importantly, note Hill and Barney, these skills include:

Giving to pressure—When a horse pulls back while tied, he creates pressure on his poll and nose. His natural reaction is to keep pulling back in an effort to escape that pressure. You need to retrain his thinking so that he learns to move forward to release that pressure. In a nutshell, you do this—with the horse not tied—by applying light, steady pressure to the lead rope, asking the horse to either move toward you or to move its head downward. As soon as you feel the horse begin to yield, even a small amount, you immediately release the pressure. Repeat until the horse responds quickly to relatively light pressure. Cement the skill by repeating the exercise in more distracting situations.

Stopping at "whoa"—This teaches the horse obedience, patience, and the cessation of movement, says Hill, who adds that these are all essentials for calm, relaxed tying.

Moving forward on cue—This skill is handy if your horse backs up when tied, then is too excited to yield to pressure, explains Barney. By telling the horse to go forward, you help him release pressure. The cue can be useful in other situations, from trailer loading to crossing trail obstacles.

A tied horse often pulls back or fidgets when he's startled or anxious about something going on around him. To help him create confidence, Hill recommends sacking him out. Begin with objects he can see, working from all sides of his body. Then move on to objects actually touching him. Ultimately, he should learn to stand quietly or "spook in place," a skill that will come in handy not only for tying, but also for many in-hand and under-saddle situations.

Safety Dos and Don'ts

When your horse has the above steps mastered, he's ready to move on to actual tying exercises. Before you begin, however, study these safe tying dos and don'ts:

Don't use a breakaway halter or panic strap—Hill and Barney prefer high-quality nylon or poly halters that have little or no hardware, plus lead ropes that have no hardware. Avoid weak or poorly made equipment that could break if the horse does pull back. "The idea is that once you have done all of the homework, you do not want the horse to break free," she explains.

Adds Barney, "Our hope is that (the horse) will be unsuccessful in efforts of pulling and will yield to the pressure. If we put things that break easily on them, we are creating a safety hazard for everyone around us. We are teaching our horses that if they pull long and hard enough they can get away. When horses break this equipment, they have in effect been rewarded because the pressure has been released. So in subsequent circumstances, they will look for the 'reward' in the same way."

Don't tie to twine loops—Once a standard safety measure in many barns, twine breakaway loops are not a sound teaching tool, agree Hill and Barney. The problem is that the twine loops break under even moderate pressure, landing you in the same situation as above, where the horse learns that pulling back leads to freedom.

Hill and Barney recommend using quick-release knots instead. "The difference between twine and quick-release is that the trainer makes the determination when it's time to activate the quick-release vs. the horse making that determination by breaking the twine," explains Barney.

Another option, says Hill, is to use the Aussie Tie Ring. Endorsed by natural horsemanship clinician Clinton Anderson, this gadget allows the tie rope to slip through the ring to a certain degree when a horse pulls, thus releasing pressure and forestalling panic without giving the horse total freedom.

Think twice about stretchy ties—Hill advises against bungee-style ties. "I like the idea of the 'give,' " she says, "but I don't like the idea of the snap back forward." Instead, she and Barney prefer tying a regular lead rope to a loop of stiff rubber tubing (like an inner tube from a truck tire).

"It is strong enough that it doesn't break, yet it gives just enough to get the horse to stop panicking and listen to the go forward cue and step forward," says Barney. "When the horse steps forward, the pulling pressure is then released. The horse learns that by pulling back, the ties don't break, and that there is reward/release in standing in the proper spot." And, unlike bungee ties, the stiffer rubber material doesn't present the danger of a "spring" effect when the horse does step forward, notes Hill.

Tie your horse to a safe, sturdy object—This ideally is a hitching post that's designed for tying horses and won't break, says Hill. Again, you don't want your horse breaking free. But you also don't want him to have a scary experience while tied. "I've seen people tie to the most bizarre things, like door handles, bikes, panels, and BBQ grills," says Hill. "Just imagine how terrified a horse would be if he pulled off a handle and it hit him in the head or if a BBQ grill chased him."

Tie high—Tying low lets your horse get good leverage if he does start to pull, says Hill. "Always tie the horse at the height of his withers or higher," she advises. "And tie the rope so that it is a comfortable, safe length for the horse. If it is too long, he will get in trouble; too short, and it will be uncomfortable."

Think about your horse's comfort—"The more comfortable the horse is, the less anxious he will be," says Hill. So if it's hot, work in the shade. If it's fly season, use bug spray. And stick to areas with safe, comfortable footing, such as rubber mats, rather than slick concrete. Consider psychological comfort, too: During tying rehab, work in an area familiar to your horse, where he can see other horses.

In the Interim

Obviously, you won't be able to train or retrain your horse to tie quietly overnight. So what do you do while he's learning? Basically, you're left literally holding the rope or asking a knowledgeable friend or assistant to do the honors in any situation where you'd normally tie up, such as for grooming, bathing, or a farrier appointment.

Another in-between step that Cherry Hill, an award-winning horse book author, trainer, and former judge, considers a must-have skill for a horse is ground-tying. "It is the beginning of developing communication and control with your horse and comes in handy everywhere from the barn to the back country," she says.

Trainer Bev Barney agrees that ground-tying can be helpful not only in place of tying, but as a lead-in step toward quiet tying. "When I'm teaching a horse patience and standing still, I ground tie," she explains. "The moment the horse moves, I put the horse to work doing an exercise that he is already familiar with, and then ask him to stand again quietly."

However, Barney does not believe in ground tying away from her property unless the horse is in an enclosed area and there are no other horses or people around. "We all need to remember that these are very large animals with a certain degree of unpredictability," she states. "One should always err on the side of caution. Other peoples' lives are endangered by loose horses."

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Tying Tips

When you're ready to start tying your horse to a solid object, Hill suggests first tying the horse "either using a long rope run through a tie ring, holding the end of the rope so you can give the horse a bit of slack if he panics, or using an Aussie Tie Ring or inner tube." In other words, make sure the horse has a safe way to find relief from pressure if he does pull back.

And if he does pull, don't interfere. Wait calmly, stay out of reach of the horse's body, and give him time to figure things out for himself. If he doesn't step forward and relax soon, give the go forward cue. Only if that fails and it seems that his panic might escalate should you step in and release the tie yourself. If you must do this, be extremely careful, because your horse won't be watching out for your safety.

Only when your horse is consistently standing quietly while tied should you move on to more advanced lessons. This can include gradually lengthening the amount of time the horse is left tied and tying in environments with more activity, more distractions, horses closer by, and so on. You can also move on to cross-tying after your horse has mastered straight tying. Hill suggests ground tying the horse in the cross-tie area first, so that he can get accustomed to the sights and sounds of that spot before you add the cross-ties.

The Question of Assistance

Throughout the training process, says Hill, "Take your time. Be thorough." And if you don't have the skill, confidence, or patience for this task, don't hesitate to enlist professional assistance.

"Teaching a horse—and especially re-schooling a horse—to tie can be quite emotional for both the horse and the owner," says Barney, who strongly recommends the use of a professional trainer. "There is no question that we all have the best of intentions when starting a training lesson with our horses." But when an owner runs into problems, it's too easy to relax expectations, and that's when holes develop in your horse's training.

An alternative to sending your horse to a trainer is to enroll your horse in a suitable clinic. Just realize, says Hill, that clinicians often don't teach tying skills at these events. But they can help your horse learn the essential ground skills that create a sound foundation for safe tying.

The bottom line is that, as Barney notes, "Tying is one of the most important skills we teach our horses. It is used in our everyday interactions with them, and they need to know how to tie well."

So whether it's you or a professional doing the work, don't skimp when it comes to expending time, energy, and even money to create a horse that stands quietly, calmly, and, most of all, safely while tied.

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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