Teaching your horse to handle a rope

Getting your horse used to having a rope thrown around is a helpful trust-building tool that helps teach your horse not to panic in certain situations.

Introducing your saddle horse to a lariat rope and getting him comfortable with it can go a long way in training him to be a safe, solid equine citizen. Even if you don’t plan on roping off of your horse, having him desensitized and comfortable with the rope around his body could keep you out of trouble. It can also be helpful when attempting to pony another horse, or even if your lead rope or mecate falls down around your horse’s legs while riding.

Here are four things you can do to start the process of getting your horse comfortable with the lariat rope around him.

1. Become handy with a rope

How well do you handle a rope? Are you comfortable with it in your hands? Are you able to build a loop? Can you coil up a rope, naturally and smoothly, without kinks in it? I’m not insisting that you have to be a great roper. However, you should get handy and comfortable with the rope in your hands. If you are not able to handle a rope well, it will be difficult to get your horse comfortable with it.

2. Introduce the rope with groundwork

You’ll want to begin by desensitizing your horse to the feel and sound of the rope on his body. Begin to use the rope on your horse’s body just like you would a brush. It would be as if you are grooming your horse with the rope. Be smooth and use rhythm with your movements. Start at a part of his body where he is comfortable and work toward those areas where he might be more ticklish. If he is touchy about the rope around his legs, rub him on the shoulder with the rope and move down his leg and back up again – before he gets bothered. This method of approach and retreat in these areas helps a horse grow braver and more confident. Take your time — these are things you want to check out and make sure your horse can handle.

You can also build a big loop, drape it over your horse’s hindquarters and lunge him in a circle. You want to make sure your horse is not worried and is comfortable with a rope dangling around his hind legs. This is where it becomes very important to be organized — you need to be able to handle your lead rope and lariat rope efficiently to keep your horse out of trouble. If he gets scared with this exercise, jerks away from you and runs off with a lariat rope around his legs, you’ll shatter what little confidence you established with him. Be sure and do all this groundwork equally on both sides. You want your horse to be comfortable dealing with the rope out of his right eye as well as his left.

3. Handling the rope while mounted

For the novice rider, just managing the reins and controlling the horse is a fulltime job. You need to be able to control your horse and handle the lariat rope simultaneously if you are going to carry it while riding. If your horse is apprehensive, you might find it beneficial to be in a smaller area, such as a round pen, during the initial stages. If your horse feels he needs to move his feet, you should direct him in small circles while moving the rope across his body smoothly and with rhythm, rather than pull back on the reins. Allowing him to move his feet will help him feel less trapped and get comfortable.


4. Building a loop

When your horse is comfortable with a coiled rope while mounted, you can build a small loop in it to show him that the rope can potentially grow. Hold the coils in your left hand, along with your reins, and build a small loop in your right hand. Passing the loop from the right to the left and back again is important. Begin to extend your arm out to the side and back again so your horse can get comfortable with the varied movements of your body and the rope. Now begin to swing the rope just a time or two. Not over your head, but off to the side and back behind your body. He’ll be less bothered if the loop is not swinging up by his eye. You can also place the loop right over his rump and allow him to walk in a few circles.

Again, it’s important to stay organized. You need to make sure you can remove the rope at any point and that you don’t get it up under his tail. Throw a few feet of your rope on the ground while holding the remainder in your hand. Begin to walk a circle around the rope, allowing your horse to look at it with his inside eye and get comfortable with its movement. Now you want to be able to coil your rope back up while mounted and build another small loop. Swing the rope once or twice and toss it out on the ground again. You need to do these things repeatedly until your horse becomes acclimated and comfortable with all kinds of movement with the rope.

While using the rope mounted, it’s important that you’re able to let go and get free of the rope at any time. If your horse gets scared and you feel he’s panicking, drop the entire rope to the ground and regain control of him. If this happens, it’s possible you got ahead of the game and asked for too much too soon. Now you need to go back a few steps and rebuild your horse’s confidence. This might mean revisiting some of the groundwork you did at the beginning. As one horseman said, “Take the time it takes and it will take less time.”

As mentioned earlier, you might not have any intention of actually roping off of your horse. However, there are many competitions that might ask you to pick up a rope, build a loop and swing it over your head. There are also classes that ask you to drag an object 20 or 30 feet. Whether you are a competitor or not, these lessons can pay big dividends. Mastering these techniques will build confidence and trustworthiness and make your horse a better-rounded equine partner you can count on.

Dragging objects while mounted

When your horse is completely comfortable with all the steps in this article, you might consider teaching him to drag a small, light object. This might be a tire, a pole or something similar. If the object is too heavy to pull with just your hand, it is probably too heavy to begin this part of the training. Never, ever tie the rope to your saddle while asking your horse to drag an object. This is a recipe for disaster. As mentioned in the article, it’s important that you can let go of the rope and regain control of your horse at any time.

Follow the same procedure you did when you were introducing your horse to the end of the rope on the ground. Walk him in a circle around the object, allowing him to see its movement as you give and take the slack out of the rope. At this preliminary stage, this circling method will keep the rope from getting behind your horse’s rump and scaring him. As your horse becomes more confident, you can begin to travel in straighter lines and eventually start moving in the opposite direction with the rope rubbing against his rump.

When your horse sees the object move on the ground, he can become very apprehensive and scared. It is certainly appropriate to go back to groundwork and acclimate your horse to the object’s movement before you get back on. Remember, this is a building process. Each step should be thoroughly mastered before attempting the next. Some horses become acclimated and comfortable with the roping procedure very quickly. Others take much longer and numerous sessions are needed to get to that place.

Previous articleSelecting a saddle pad
Next articleHeart disease in horses
For over 35 years Richard Winters has dedicated himself to honing his horsemanship skills and to passing this knowledge on to others. Richard's horsemanship journey has earned him Colt Starting and Horse Showing Championship titles. Obtaining his goal of a World Championship in the National Reined Cow Horse Association became a reality in 2005. He is an AA rated judge. Another of Richard's horsemanship goals was realized with his 2009 Road to the Horse Colt Starting Championship. Richard has returned as the Horseman's Host for five consecutive years. Being a Top Five Finalist at the Cowboy Dressage World Finals was a great way to end the 2015 show season. wintersranch.com