Train Your Horse to Tie Safely

Train Your Horse to Tie Safely

By learning from experienced horse trainers, you can be confident that your horse knows how to tie safely.

Photo: The Horse Staff

We all take tying our horses for granted. But if you've ever owned one which you can't tie, then you know how inconvenient and even dangerous he can be. You don't have the luxury of tying your horse and leaving him, even for a moment. You have to schedule time or pay someone to hold your horse for the farrier or veterinarian instead of cross tying him. And you can't tether him to a trailer at competitions, as an escaped horse is the last thing any show organizer wants.

Many people feel, and rightly so, that a horse which doesn't tie is useless. But whose fault is it? Standing tied to a stationary object is not natural for a horse. Running away from danger is a horse's first defense, and standing tied takes this choice away. Staying to fight is his next defense, and fighting while tied isn't safe for the horse or anyone near him. This well-adapted flight or fight response is what has kept the equine species (as prey animals) around for so long.

Tying Safety Tips

  • If your horse does sit back, don't try to stop him. Stay calm and wait for him to calm down. "If a horse has panicked and you run up to try to jerk him loose, chances are you are going to get seriously hurt," Hilton cautions. "A horse that panics throws his body everywhere. Wait it out."
  • Don't tie your horse to a horse trailer that is not hitched to the tow vehicle.
  • It's not a good idea to tie your horse to a movable object like a jump standard. If he panics, he'll drag it behind him and severe injury can occur.
  • Don't tie your horse to a flimsy fence or anything that your horse can uproot and take along with him.

Sharon Biggs Waller

Your horse is not stupid if he doesn't understand what tying is all about; it just means no one has ever taught him properly. The good news is that it's not too late. All horses can be trained to tie.

Test Your "Trained" Horse

Are you absolutely sure that your horse will stand tied? Most horses will be perfectly fine when all is calm, but how will he react if his environment changes? Will your horse remain calm if:

  • He accidentally gets the lead rope over his head while he is tied?
  • He steps on a trailing lead rope, rein, or longe line?
  • He's tied and something spooky comes along?

If you've answered no to any of these scenarios, chances are your horse only stands tied when all is well. Take the time to review these tying basics and keep your horse and yourself safe.

Pat Parelli, internationally known horse trainer (and handler), says, "At nearly every demonstration I have given, the question inevitably arises, 'Why do horses pull back?' Almost everyone involved with horses has had to deal with this at one time or another. Not only is it frightening, often it ends up with the horse, the equipment, the handler, and/or the thing to which the horse is tied."

Wendy Hilton, owner of Cornerstone Ranch near Dallas, Texas, is a certified John Lyons trainer who specializes in helping clients work out problems in a calm, safe manner. She says that learning to teach horses to tie is a common request.

Why Do They DO That?

Parelli says that owners should look at the natural horse and try to see things from his perspective. "Horses are prey animals, which means they are hunted as food by predators that sneak up on them, then trap and kill them. Consequently, horses are always on the lookout for dangerous situations and signs of trouble. When a horse feels trapped, he doesn't think. He reacts.

"For example, if a horse gets startled, pulls back, and finds he's restricted by a halter and lead, he instantly feels like he has to fight to save his life. At that moment he doesn't realize that he is not being attacked or otherwise in danger. He just knows he needs to run for his life, and he has to get away from whatever is stopping him.

"When teaching a horse to tie safely, it's not just a matter of teaching him he can't win (the bigger tree, stronger halter, and rope method)," continues Parelli. "We have to teach him how to yield to pressure and to think his way through situations, instead of getting worked up into a blind panic. We need him to become calmer, smarter, and braver so he can deal sensibly with all the different situations 'humansville' will present.

"Pulling back is actually pushing against the pressure they feel on the back of their heads when haltered," added Parelli. "This is called the Opposition Reflex. It's a survival strategy as much as anything else. Unless we can teach our horses that they don't need to oppose us, they will become frustrated, hurt, and potentially dangerous. We have to reprogram our horses to yield to pressure and the earlier we can do this, the better."

What NOT to Do

The following "training" concepts should never be an option, according to Hilton. They go against the horse's fight or flight nature and do far more harm than good.

  • Never tie a horse to a tree or post and let him fight it out. This is a training practice with the idea that a horse will resist until he understands that fighting gets him nowhere. "You are risking your horse's life and your own safety by doing this," says Hilton. A horse will not learn by exhausting himself.
  • Never teach your horse to tie by securing him with an inner tube or another stretchy object. "You'd be surprised, but many people will teach their foals to tie in this manner," Hilton says. "Your goal with a horse that sits back (pulls back) while standing tied is to teach him to yield to pressure--it doesn't make a lot of sense to let him sit back to teach him not to sit back."
  • Do not use a bungee trailer tie. "If your horse sits back, the tie can break and since it's a bungee, it's going to act like a rubber band; it can spring back and the broken snap can hit him or any bystanders," she says.
  • Do not use training halters (halters designed for additional control) or chains. "These kinds of devices create such torque when a horse sits back that injury is common," Hilton warns.
  • Do not use breakaway halters or lead ropes. "To me, the breakaway halters are more made for turnout into a pasture or for horses that tie fine already."

Training Tips for Tying

"Would you leave a claustrophobic person in an elevator?" asks Parelli. "When teaching a horse to tie up safely, I don't start the lesson by tying him up! The overall objective is to help him become calmer, smarter, and braver. I start by giving him a number of tasks designed to teach him a few basics:

  • "I am a friend, not a threat, despite looking and smelling like a predator;
  • "I am 'number one' in his natural pecking order; and
  • "I will help him get through any confusion or fear by being passively persistent in the proper position.

"The last thing I want to do is put a horse in a sink or swim situation," says Parelli.

Parelli uses his Seven Games training to make sure the handler and the horse have a sufficient relationship that will allow the horse to accept being tied without panicking (see "Naturally Parelli" on

Once Parelli has worked a horse through the Seven Games, he will use his special halter and 22-foot lead rope for a learning situation. He cautions that the following training exercise should only be done if you have studied his training methods and understand your role and goal.

"You'll need to do some preparatory work on yourself and your horse to make sure you have the level of knowledge and skill it takes to produce good results," cautioned Parelli. Here is the learning situation as he directs.

"I find a sturdy rail, and I bring the horse close and take a turn around the rail with the lead rope. I get out of the horse's way. To stimulate the pull-back situation, I need something to bring out a reaction in the horse, causing him to try to pull back. One of the best things I have found is what I call a 'flag.' I make a flag by attaching a plastic bag, with the end cut open, to the end of my Carrot Stick (another special Parelli tool). When I shake the flag, it sounds like a predator sneaking through the undergrowth.

"This noise alarms the horse and amplifies his instincts to flee. As soon as he jumps away, I allow the rope to slide out slowly while still shaking the flag. This provides a little resistance for the horse, but allows him to drift backwards. If you lock on and try to prevent the drift, the horse will flip over in his panic and learn nothing. He may even hurt or kill himself.

"Using the flag as a stimulant accelerates the learning process for the horse because it heightens his reaction, but ends up, in his view, not being dangerous. He learns that he can live through scary situations and, with repetition, he finally starts to think, 'This really is no big deal!'

"So, when I shake the flag, the horse jumps and runs backwards until the point where he feels he is safe. I stop the flag when he stops--not before or he won't become desensitized. Then I reel him back in with a nonchalant look on my face. And I do it again and again until the horse learns not to panic and to give to pressure.

"You'll find the horse improves each time," says Parelli. "He'll run back less distance and without as much force or panic. He'll come back in easier and easier, until finally you can reel him in very close, shake the flag, and he won't put any pressure on the rope at all.

"Watch the way his mind starts to work," concluded Parelli. "Every time he learns something, or his brain shifts from right (instinctive) to left (rational), he will lick his lips. Give him a few moments to do this. I also make sure that I can rub the horse all over with the bag, once again proving to him that there is nothing to be afraid of.

"Remember that this has to become a program," added Parelli. "Do it for a minimum of four days in a row, then a couple of times a week until you can see that the horse has been reprogrammed and his first instinct becomes 'don't just do something...stand there.' "

Remember, said Parelli, "Try not to look for quick fixes, and don't resort to mechanical devices and force."

By learning from experienced horse trainers, you can be confident that your horse knows how to tie safely.

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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