Being tied doesn’t come naturally to horses, but it’s an essential skill for them to learn.
There are many situations in which it’s important for your horse to tie well. It could be for the vet or farrier, at a show or event, or perhaps while you are grooming and tacking up. While it may seem simple enough, your horse may have quite a different perspective.
As prey animals, horses have a strong inborn desire to flee in the face of perceived danger. When a horse is tied, he can’t respond in this way. For the uninitiated or fearful horse, this can set off alarm bells and send him into a state of frantic panic, particularly if there is no breaking point or release in sight.
It is also important to recognize that horses are innately “into pressure” beings and – by their very nature – they lean into the point of pressure. This leads a horse to lean into you when you press on his flank, rump or other part of his body; or to raise his head high when asked to follow the feel of the lead rope.
Without any support, or formal trust-based training, it is unlikely a horse will automatically take to being tied. While some horses may learn fairly easily to accept being tied, others may have had experiences where they’ve broken their halters, hitching posts or worse, and have subsequently developed a phobia to tying. The good news is that no matter what his age, any horse can be taught what is expected of him if you use a kind and patient manner.
Set your horse up for success
There are number of things you can teach and practice with your horse to help prepare him for being able to tie well. By taking the time to do this work and approaching the task in an open, empathetic and supportive manner, you can create powerful and lasting results while avoiding mistakes or gaps in training that will require fixing later.
Pressure and release
One key to training your horse to tie well is teaching him to yield to pressure in situations that are stress-free, before introducing him to stressful scenarios. The first rule is to never attempt to tie without first exploring your horse’s knowledge of pressure and release.
Some simple yet essential exercises to prepare for tying include:
- Light touch head drops
- Neck stretches and yields following the feel of the line
- Forward and back rocking horse steps
- Altering gait and speed while leading
As the exercises build on one another, make sure to create times for your horse to feel somewhat restricted while being given a chance to find a way out using collaborative communication.
Once your horse fully understands how to get himself out of trouble by coming forward towards the pressure, it is time to introduce him to some surprises. It’s easy to teach him to tie when everything is calm, but you would be remiss if you didn’t prepare him for the unexpected, and provide him with appropriate coping skills for those stressful or startling moments.
Before tying a horse anywhere, integrate some in-hand, spook-busting methods:
- Desensitize to scary objects and items
- Desensitize to startling and unusual sounds
- Graduate to an in-hand obstacle course of higher learning
Another key to successfully training your horse to tie is to address the emotional and mental factors that create a “non-tying horse” to begin with. Training is essential to building the horse’s confidence in both himself and you, and will allow you to create a trust-based partnership.
This can be done over time as your horse learns to come into himself more, leave the herd behind, explore and venture off campus, and experience a multitude of environments and situations. Once he has a good foundation of confidence, you can gradually introduce him to new locations and scenarios, and increase the stimuli that will trigger fears, such as a fear of isolation. Soon, fear will be replaced with the understanding that he is safe, even when you are asking him to be restricted or isolated for a time.
Training your horse to tie
The simplest way to begin is to loop the line over a hitching post to create some resistance, and hold it in your hand while grooming! This way, the horse does not hit a rigid line and panic, which could put both of you at risk for bodily harm. Instead, your horse will be able to feel the give while at the same time making a pleasant association with tying through mindful grooming.
This same looping method applies while teaching the horse to tie at a trailer, wash rack or other location, keeping in mind the necessity for excellent footing and surrounding safety. Naturally, the horse finds himself in a pressure/release situation and you may decide to include food as a reward to enhance the situation while expediting the lesson.
You may also want to introduce the quick release knot, popular around the world. It gives a similar sense of resistance but still gives you a chance to release the horse should he panic.
Some equestrians swear by the tradition of tying to a piece of string or bailing twine on a tie-ring to ensure breakaway. Although some believe that horses can learn their own strength by snapping these strings, and that you should never allow them to break away, I have seen it save lives. While this tradition remains prevalent, its popularity is being overridden by the blocker tie ring, which provides soft resistance and safe tying without using knots.
If all else fails and your horse is truly phobic, you may decide to ground-tie him by simply teaching him to stand still when the attached lead rope is placed on the ground close by. It’s a pretty easy “trick” to start with and moves effortlessly into all you do when you ask your horse to stand!
Work with, not against, your horse
From decades of experience worldwide, I have witnessed many approaches and seen some horrendous tying styles, ranging from snubbing posts through solitary standing stalls. Although it is customary for trainers to state that their methods work, these harmful and sometimes even cruel training styles simply aren’t necessary, and reflect a fear-based, dominance style of training.
Remember that teaching your horse to tie goes beyond simply seeking a place for him to stand and wait – it is an introduction to the concepts of patience, respect, focus and a time to process.
The bottom line is to recognize that tying is not something that comes “naturally” to a horse. Choosing a style of training that supports and works with your horse’s mind, and encourages trust, not dominance, will help him find success with being tied, and will create fewer issues down the road.
Pressure and release exercises to prepare your horse for tying
1. Light touch head drops
Apply light pressure with your thumb and index finger (think holding an egg) to encourage your horse to drop his head. This kind and gentle approach teaches him to choose coming off pressure and relaxing his head.
2. Neck stretches and yields following the feel of the line
While standing at your horse’s shoulder, encourage her to follow the feel of the line, and create a 90-degree stretch for her neck. This helps you to evaluate and maintain the suppleness of your horse’s neck, and teaches her to come off pressure while building trust.
3. Forward and back rocking horse steps
Using only the line and pressure on the halter (no body language), ask your horse to back up and then come forward, repeatedly, creating a “rocking” motion. Through experiential learning, this teaches your horse to be light on the line and respond to lighter and lighter pressure on the halter.
4. Altering gait and speed while leading
Lead your horse through different gaits and speeds. This final step confirms that your horse understands and responds to the subtleties of the pressure on the halter.