An Ode to the Stable Halter, part 1

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Did the ancients use flat leather or rope?  Only the artist knew for sure.
3rd-century Roman mosaic of a man leading a horse that is wearing some kind of halter or hackamore.
Archeological Museum of Sousse.
(Source: Wikimedia commons)

For part 2, click here.

When it comes to horsemanship and horse management,  I’m starting at the beginning:  the halter (or for folks who use British English, the headcollar).  While there are millions of pages written about riding and riding equipment, sometimes the simple things are overlooked.

Every horse needs a halter.  One of the first things we teach a young horse is to be led on a halter and to stand tied. The first thing we teach a new rider is not how to ride a horse, but how to lead, tie, and groom a horse.  Through a horse’s lifespan, modern horse owners often spend more time handling horses on the ground than they do riding them. Yet, we seldom realize that the ordinary, unsung stable halter is our most-often used piece of tack. We don’t think about halters much; we pick a design that an instructor told us to use, or keep buying the style that came with the first horse we bought.

That said, when the topic comes up, there can be surprisingly heated debate, at least in the western United States, whether a flat web (or leather) halter is better than a “natural horsemanship”-style rope halter.  Internationally, followers of western-style riding often assume (mistakenly) that the rope halter is an “authentic” old west design.  Each style has advantages, and I’ll explain my preference in another article.  But here I will provide some historic notes to give context to the debate.

Halters have been around a long time, most likely dating to the original domestication of the horse about 5000-5500 years ago. It did not take long before people figured out that it was easier to control a horse with a loop of rope around the nose as well as around the neck, creating both a rudimentary halter and an early hackamore. But lacking metal parts, ancient halters would not be preserved over millennia, and so we only have art and skeletal changes evident on horse skulls to tell us what gear may have been used.1

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Leather halters have historically been used on valuable horses. (Source: Accphotography,
Wikimedia commons)

Before synthetic fibers were invented, there were only two practical materials suitable for halter-making:  leather straps, usually of cowhide, or rope made of natural materials (often cotton, hemp, or a locally available fiber).  Canvas or certain types of heavy cloth could be used for decorative gear, but generally was less suitable for simple restraint.  Rope was cheap, plentiful, required little skill to make into a halter, and it was fast and easy to repair or replace if it broke.  Its primary advantage was economic.   Leather was more durable, straps could be stitched in multiple layers for strength, metal rings and buckles could be added; time and care went into manufacture.   But leather was also more expensive and more skill was required to make—and repair—a leather halter.

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Rope halters have always been cheap and practical. 
(Source: Lan Propioa. Lankide Goirritxiki, Wikimedia commons)

Thus, from the outset, there was an economic distinction between the two styles of equipment.  A good-quality leather halter was an investment. It was a tool for public exhibition, for use with more valuable horses, or if used throughout an entire stable, as a display of the owner’s wealth or a trainer’s sophistication.  In contrast, rope was practical, available to anyone, and got the job done.

The two types of material controlled horses in different ways, and either type of halter could be used gently or abusively.  When more nuanced ground training was needed, the rings and adjustability of a leather halter were very useful. If trouble started—and horses and trouble go together like peas and carrots— a leather halter was milder in its overall effect on the horse and it was less likely to cause rope burns or nose scarring if things got out of hand, such as in the almost-inevitable occurrence of a frightened horse pulling back while tied.  If strong in-hand control was desired, the lead shank (sometimes with a chain) was run through the halter rings to create more leverage (the merits of these techniques or lack thereof are a topic for another day).  Depending on the severity desired, the shank could go under the jaw, over the nose, through the mouth, or across the gum line.

A rope halter, being generally thinner, was lighter on the head but also had more immediate severity when applied; the average horse could be brought to attention with a short, sharp snap of the lead rope.  On a difficult horse, knots added at the nose or poll could create more discomfort when pressure was applied.  If a more severe form of control was desired, a piece of rope could be tied into a “war bridle”:  slipknots allowed a combined rope halter and lead to tighten over the poll or nose. Again, depending on design, significant leverage could be applied around nose, through the mouth, or across the gum line.  All of these techniques are still seen today.2

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Horsemanship traditions of the American west have roots in Spain.
(Source: ValenciaCaballo, Wikimedia Commons)

When horses first came to America with the Spanish, the “western” tradition now associated with the American cowboy was born, but its roots were in the Old World, and in particular, the Iberian peninsula. In the old west, like the Old World, economy and practicality ruled the day; therefore, the rope halter was common for everyday use.  Whether home-tied or, later, store-bought, they were cheap, and required very little maintenance; they were easy to replace if broken or rotted beyond repair.  Leather remained an investment in skill and materials:  A rancher might keep a leather halter to show off a breeding stallion to mare owners. The trainer might use leather halters to “class up” horses taken to sale or show.  When more nuanced ground training was needed, the rings and adjustability of a leather halter were very useful.  Neither style was more “authentic” in the American west than the other; each had a place.

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The “Johnson Ideal Halter” was patented in the 1920s.

By the mid-20th century, the rope halter was primarily a mass-produced item, often called a “Johnson halter” (after one major manufacturer). It was made of cotton sash cord with a metal hook on the left side of the crownpiece for quicker fastening and a metal loop under the jaw for easier lead rope attachment.  It also was held together with metal clamps at strategic locations, and while it didn’t break easily when new, it aged quickly and when it broke, it was usually where a metal part met rope.  Also, cotton shrunk when wet. These halters could not be adjusted to any great degree, though they were manufactured in multiple sizes.  Leather halters, also mostly mass-produced, varied widely in quality, from single-thickness, cheaply-tanned items that disintegrated easily and broke even faster, to multiple-thickness, pre-oiled, triple-stitched units with cast-metal rings that were virtually indestructible with routine maintenance. Save for the top end, stable halters, generally,  were at a low ebb of mass-produced disrepute.

By the 1960s, synthetic rope and flat nylon web began to replace natural rope and leather for common stable halters because synthetics, generally stronger and more durable, also became cheaper than natural alternatives.  Synthetics could be manufactured in a wide variety of colors, which added to their appeal.  Durability became roughly equivalent between flat and rope styles and so, with maintenance out of the picture, the differences between designs became a matter of individual taste though, to a less well-understood degree, each style still retains differences in how they affect and control the horse in everyday use.

Flat nylon web quickly became a popular replacement for leather in halters.  Web gave the same look, control, and versatility as leather at a fraction of the price. Its strength was greater than most leather, and the metal hardware used was the primary price point distinguishing quality.  People who primarily used rope halters out of economic necessity soon abandoned them for nylon web.  Rope halters mostly sold to buyers who still sought the cheapest possible equipment or who simply continued to use what they always had used.  Even though the Johnson design also switched to nylon rope, the weaknesses of the halter reduced its market share significantly and the design has now vanished from modern tack catalogues.

When the modern “natural horsemanship” movement began gaining popularity in the mid- to late-1980s, an older style of rope halter became new again, with no metal parts, but made from a single piece of modern “boat rope”, a flexible and strong synthetic rope material.  People could make their own or purchase one from their favorite clinician.  Rope halters remained inexpensive (other than those “branded” by celebrity clinicians), but with the weaknesses of metal fasteners out of the picture, their quality improved.

Web has never gone out of style and tack stores still carry a large selection.   On average, web halters and rope halters of equivalent quality have similar prices, though some rope halters remain significantly cheaper.  (Though prices for some designs compete with leather.) Interestingly, while the rope halter that is fastened by being tied is more adjustable, the frequent problems people have actually adjusting rope halters properly has created a niche market in the current day for the return of the metal hook fastener.

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The modern leather halter is often used for show.
 (Source:  TinaM, Wikimedia commons)

Today, a soft, supple, leather stable halter is certainly nice—but they are pricey (decent double-thickness leather halters start at about three times the cost of nylon and go up from there). They also are higher maintenance; they need to be cleaned and oiled periodically to stay soft and in good condition.  They are less durable if not given routine care.  Though used as stable halters at the top levels of the horse industry, for the rest of us, leather halters are not practical for daily use.  For many horse owners, the only leather halter they own is a show halter, and those are often an investment.

So in the 21st century, the halter is still a crucial, if often ignored, piece of horse equipment.  Modern synthetic materials revolutionized price and eliminated much of the price differential between the round and flat materials, but little has changed in design since antiquity.


Footnotes:

  1. For more on the neolithic roots of horse domestication and use, see Anthony, David W., The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern WorldPrinceton University Press, 2007. ISBN  978-0691148182.
  2. The controversial use of a rope gum line in a 2010 public demonstration went viral at the time.

Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

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