Unfortunately, many tools still commonly used for communication with horses pretty much date back to the same era as the tin can telephones. They are designed to lead a horse from point A to point B, and then tie to point B, or to control the horse with pain to make him submit.
We may use antiquated tools and yet tend to blame the horse when they don’t do what we ask. Instead, consider the possibility that it’s difficult for them to understand with tools that are heavy, uncomfortable, have no release and are not designed for the subtle communication horses are capable of perceiving.
With such inappropriate tools, many horses learn to just tune us out and keep trying to do what they want to do rather than what we want them to do. And why shouldn’t they? Dragging us over to that little patch of grass has very little consequence with a wide web or leather halter and short six foot rope.
The good news is that you can minimize most of this confusion and frustration by using tools designed for communication with a horse.
Comfort is a priority for horses
Horses are highly motivated by comfort so if we think of equipment in those terms, it’s obvious that material and design play important parts. Think pressure and release – a common natural horsemanship principle.
The same concept applies when communicating with horses. The instant the horse moves away from the discomfort (pressure), he moves back into the ‘comfort bubble’ and learns that this is where he wants to be. The design and material of equipment needs to be soft enough to be comfortable when the horse is doing the right thing, firm enough to cause discomfort when doing the incorrect thing and able to easily transmit your cues.
1. Thin is in; hand-tied rope halters
We know comfort encourages horses, so if we can think of the inside of the halter acting as a ‘bubble of comfort’ in which the horse learns to stay inside, everything will change. Of course, the edge of this bubble needs to give the horse enough reason to want to stay inside of it. That’s why a thin rope halter makes such a big difference.
The thin design gives us more of an advantage as it is less inviting for the horse to lean into, but is not cruel or designed to use pain as a motivator. This is similar to me asking you to lean against the palm of my hand with your shoulder… you could lean all day, couldn’t you? Now lean against my fingertip. Ouch! It didn’t hurt, but you wouldn’t lean on it very long, would you? That’s the comfort motivation behind a rope halter made from yachting braid material that also resists water and salt (sweat).
2. Lead ropestools of versatility
Now we come to the lead rope. Far too many people use a six-foot cotton rope which not only hinders your ability to communicate, but also limits the ground work you can safely play with your horse. By making a simple change to a longer line made from the proper material, a whole new world of communication will open up.
For material, I prefer a 1⁄2 II yachting braid material that will transmit a very subtle signal to the horse with clarity similar to fiber optics! People are always shocked when they can feel the very slightest movement in one of these ropes compared to their old cotton lead.
Another factor is the length of rope. I recommend at least a 12-foot line, which seems like way too much rope to handle, but if you fold it once in half, it becomes a six-foot lead again. The advantage is that you have more options for safety when the horse spooks, rears, jumps, etc. I’ve been glad many times to have a horse farther away when he ran into a problem!
This length of line gives you a lot of versatility too. Horses always welcome leadership games, and 12-foot is a good length to begin playing these games. As skills advance, I recommend moving to a 22-foot length line to expand your communication and challenges. You’ll find the longer distance will help you gain even more respect, have more fun and prepare for liberty work.
3. A 10-foot arm, instantly
I also use a communication tool I call the ‘equalizer.’ It’s my pet name for a training stick which instantly makes us as big and fast as another horse.
Believe me, horses know that we’re smaller and slower. They have the physical advantage and use it every chance they get. . . not because they’re being naughty, but because they’re designed by nature to play leadership games with their herdmates. Guess what? You’re their herdmate!
Please note that this stick is not a whip, only an extension of your arm which can give comfort in the form of a scratch on the withers or discomfort, which might be a tap on the rump.
A thin six-foot string at the end of the ‘equalizer’ plays an important role as well. When attached to the stick, it extends my reach to 10 feet, allowing me to communicate with a horse from a safe distance without needing to move towards the horse.
I keep a string in my back pocket at all times and use it for a variety of needs from catching a loose horse, tying a gate open in the wind, driving rude horses away at feeding time, and the list goes on.
4. Get a bigger bit… of knowledge!
I make the transition to riding with a soft rope hackamore. The communication I’ve established ‘playing on the ground’ transfers directly to the saddle as the feel of material is already familiar to the horse. This rope hackamore is essentially a rope halter with a 1/2 inch thick lead line tied with a special knot to form reins and a 10-foot lead rope.
Another benefit is that if/when a horse becomes confused and runs into pressure, I’m not inside their mouth with a piece of metal, which can contribute to a defensive response to pain. I actually get more done at these early stages of teaching because I can be clearer to the horse without them getting worried about a bit.
As the horse gains more confidence and trust, I transition to a loose-ring, sweet iron snaffle. The loose ring allows for the bit to remain steady as the ring turns with the lift of the reins. D-rings and other fixed-ring snaffles will cause the bit to turn inside the mouth, adding unnecessary information that can cause confusion to a horse.
5. Weight = quick release
The value of weighted reins is well known, but not always understood. Horses are motivated by comfort, so it’s important to release pressure quickly. A weighted rein (heavy yachting rope reins and rein leathers) tells the horse something is about to change while the reins are being lifted… even before pressure is felt on the mouth. This gives the horse the opportunity to respond to just the shift of the weight on the rein, offering lightness to the hands of the rider.
Refined communication – The finished bridle horse
Training your horse is a lot like going to school; when you obtain a certain level of knowledge, you progress to the next grade. As this level of understanding increases, the tools also change.
When my horse progresses to this stage, I advance him into more engaged, collected maneuvers, transitioning to a wide, rawhide bosal, and eventually adding a shank bit and smaller diameter bosalito. You can tell a properly finished’ bridle horse when there is only a signal bit with shank and weighted reins designed for a very high level of communication between horse and rider.
Please know that it takes from four to eight years to properly finish a bridle horse. Demanding vertical flexion with a shank bit before the horse is mentally and emotionally prepared causes a horse to lose trust in the rider. And we all know that once we’ve lost trust in someone it’s extremely difficult to get it back.
Rebuilding trust – Horses are very forgiving
If you realize that some of the trust issues you have with your horse may be from using the wrong tools, don’t worry. Horses can tell when we’ve gained more insights into their world and are making adjustments to further improve our communication with them. I am a firm believer that horses appreciate our efforts and are extremely patient and forgiving as we progress in our journey of horsemanship.
There’s a saying that you can tell a horseman from the tools they use and won’t use. After over 18 years of using tools designed for communication, I can assure you your horse will feel the difference and appreciate your effort to be clearer in your request. Why put yourself at a disadvantage when a simple change in tools may make all the difference?
Enjoy the journey!
HINT: It’s common to get frustrated using new tools. Remember playing tennis or snow skiing for the first time? But hang in there because the rewards are great. The key is practicing without your horse first; spouses or friends make great “practice horses”.