An Ode to the Stable Halter, part 2

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My friend’s horse, “Barbara”, offers an opinion about people who argue over styles  of halters.
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

In part one, I discussed the history and design of stable halters.  In this article, I will discuss selection. With halters existing for millennia with few changes, most of them recent and reflecting the development of inexpensive synthetic materials in the mid-20th century, one might think that debate was long settled over whether a rope halter or a flat-strap halter (leather or nylon) was the superior design.

And one would be wrong.

The debate is usually quiet and behind the scenes, perhaps just a snarky remark, with an implication that the user of the “wrong” style lacks knowledge or intelligence.  Occasionally, the battle erupts a bit more noisily, perhaps at a public clinic. Sometimes, snark turns to hostility, implying use of the “wrong” design is somehow morally deficient.

Many western riders advocate for the “natural horsemanship”-style rope halter because they think it’s more “cowboy authentic,” but, as I noted in Part 1, rope and flat leather both have historic uses in the American west and many modern cowboys prefer using a flat web halter.  On the other hand, some folks who practice in the English disciplines—dressage, hunter-jumper, and so on—dismiss rope halters with words like “rustic” (or worse), even though the simple design has a place.

Enough already.

Each style has plusses and minuses.  The important thing is to know the differences and how they apply to the horses and style of horsemanship you prefer.

Flat web or leather

Benefits:

Bella's web halter

Bella models a flat nylon web halter.
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

1.  A flat strap is more comfortable on the horse’s head than a rope, as anyone who has worn a belt or a wristwatch can attest. Rope lays across less surface area, applying more pressure per square inch.

2.  Flat straps move less.  Rope is “floppy” when loose, and if tightened enough not to shift, it becomes uncomfortable. Note that bridle headstalls—where stability of placement matters—are made with flat straps, not rope.

3.  Flat halters are easier to fit properly (at least if you start with the right size).  They attach with a buckle, allowing quick but precise adjustment to a specific horse. Rope halters usually tie on; and in actual practice it is not quick or easy to fit them right.  The other option for rope halters,  a hook attachment from the old “Johnson halter” model, is easier to use, but not adjustable at all.

4.  A flat halter offers more range of control when leading.  When properly fitted, the ring under the jaw places the lead rope close to the head of the horse. You can take up a short lead if needed.  While leading softly to allow a horse natural movement is a nice general approach, there is a time and place for a short, steadying hold.

5.  The multiple rings on a flat halter allow many options for attaching lead shanks, cross-ties, and longe lines: under the jaw, on either side of the nose, and so on.

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A typical fitting problem with rope halters: one-size-fits-all doesn’t.  Adjusted as snugly as the throatlatch will allow, the halter still sits too low on the nose, close to  fragile cartilage. Plus, if a short hold is needed, the tie loop is too long, and as seen here, the handler is holding  the snap of the lead rope.  Several things could go wrong if this horse became upset.
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

6. A flat halter will not apply pressure when not in use. It is gentler and “quieter”.  Rope, particularly if knots or twists are added, can apply too much pressure, particularly at the poll and over the nose.

7. A properly-fitted flat halter is safer when a horse is tied.1 Any horse can be startled and set back on a rope. If that happens, you do not want the horse escalate from fright to panic.   A properly adjusted flat halter will not cause the horse as much pain as a rope halter, especially at the poll.  Pain can lead to panic.  Some people argue that the greater pressure applied by a rope halter discourages the horse from pulling back, but that is not always the case; pain can increase the struggles of a horse that is trying to escape.  (See more discussion on this below.)

Drawbacks of flat leather or nylon:

  1. Cost.  A flat nylon halter is a little more expensive than a comparable-quality rope halter, and leather is quite a bit more costly.
  2. Longevity. While all equipment should be kept clean and under cover, if you are going to routinely store a halter where it is exposed to weather, a synthetic rope halter will probably last longer than flat nylon web. Metal hardware will eventually rust, and flat web has more surface area exposed to the elements.
  3. Sizing range.  Flat nylon or leather halters are not one-size-fits-all, and the wrong size simply cannot be used on some horses. Rope halters, in a pinch, can be used on almost any size horse.
  4. Lack of severity.  A benefit is also a weakness.  A horse with poor manners can ignore commands from a simple flat halter; for serious control, a chain lead shank is usually added. A chain shank is effective, and can be used in a humane fashion to apply and release pressure, but can inflict significant pain if misused. (That said, rope is not always “kind” either; a thin, double-twisted or knotted rope is quite severe.)

The in-between features

In the “could be a plus or a minus” category,  the two halter  designs have some strengths and weaknesses that can’t really be compared; they are just different:

1. Breakage.  Flat halters hold up well, but they sometimes* will break. In a quality design, there are still two weak spots: the metal rings, which can part at their welds, and the tongue of the buckle, which can rip through the holes. However, where the alternative is a horse hanging itself up and suffering severe injury or death, a halter that eventually gives way under pressure is not always bad thing.

I’m not alone in my thinking on this;  Clinician Mark Rashid has made similar comments: “If a horse fights so hard when he pulls back that he could break his neck, then I guess I’d prefer the halter break before his neck does.”2

Rope halters are useful when it is critical that the halter not break—where escape presents a greater danger than restraint injuries. Then, a halter with no stitched attachments and no metal parts makes sense.  One example would be a life-or-death situation, such as emergency veterinary restraint in a standing stock.

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A leather breakaway crownpiece  is a necessity if a horse is turned out wearing a halter or other headgear (such as this grazing muzzle)
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

*CAUTION:  Do not turn your horse out with a halter on!  In the occasional situations where there is a legitimate reason to turn a horse loose wearing a halter,3 it needs to easily break under moderate pressure. A turnout halter with a single-thickness breakaway leather crownpiece is the way to go. Even then, horses are amazingly adept at getting into trouble, so monitor the horse. In paricular, a horse must never be turned out to pasture with a rope halter because they will not break if the horse catches it on something!

2.  Herd use:   Leather or web halters are great where you color-code the sizes (colored duct tape is useful) or keep halters labeled for each horse (halter plates are common, dog tags work well, or even just write on them with a marker). But where you have a pile of unidentified halters and a lot of horses to catch, rope may be more practical. I keep a rope halter around in case I might have to catch a horse of a far different size than any of mine; I’m not going to keep multiple halters on hand in sizes I will never personally use just in case my neighbor’s draft mules escape.4

Rope halters

Benefits:

Bella's rope halter

Bella models a rope halter.  It is properly resting on the nose bone, with room at the throatlatch, and tied with a sheet bend knot with the rope end going away from the horse’s eye. 
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

1.  One size fits all. As noted elsewhere in this article, this can be a plus or a minus, but where there are a large number of horses to catch at once, such as at a dude ranch, the design is a practical time-saver.

2. Rope halters are generally inexpensive (about $4 cheaper than nylon web of similar quality at my local tack store, though some designs can be pricy). You can even tie your own with 20 feet of rope.  Directions how to do so are here.5

3.  Refinement from manufactured size is possible:  If you understand the knots, you can loosen them and adjust the size (to fit a smaller horse, it may be necessary to lengthen the throatlatch, and shorten the cheeks) .

4. The looser adjustment around the nose and jaw may be desired; for example, a veterinarian may need to open a horse’s mouth during teeth floating but still require a halter be kept on the horse.

5. A rope halter made of high-quality rope is virtually unbreakable and indestructible.  As noted, this also can be a plus or a minus.

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A rope halter can provide just the right amount of control while ponying.
Credit: Roger H. Goun, cc-2.0, Flickr.com Ranma_jump_tm

6. A horse will quickly notice a thinner rope and the nose knots when pressure is applied.  For this reason, a person has somewhat more control when handling a horse on a loose rope.**  This is probably the number one reason the rope halter is popular in the natural horsemanship world.

  • A good example is ponying, where extra control of a horse at the end of a long lead rope is needed. The knots and slimmer profile provide helpful pressure that is less intense than ponying off a bridle, and is less dangerous to the horse if he or she gets loose. (For more on ponying, here are some useful articles: One from Cherry Hill, and an Equisearch article with more detail.) You can pony off of a flat web or leather halter, but you do have less control.

Drawbacks:

  1. Rope halters generally will not break if the horse catches them on something; they can be deadly if left on a horse turned out to pasture.
  2. Rope halters can irritate a horse depending on adjustment, knot placement, and rope thickness or texture. Some cases of “disrespect” are discomfort.
  3. If a horse sets back when tied with a rope halter, even a proper sheet bend knot (designed to be easier to untie) gets difficult to loosen.  Sometimes after a horse sets back, the knot is so tight that the only way to remove the halter is to cut it off. Due to the non-breaking feature, some trainers recommend that a horse not be tied up with one, at least not in certain circumstances, such as trailering.
  4. Rope halters are a challenge to fit well. “One size fits all,” means “fits the largest horse.” Some models are also tied with improper proportions; a throatlatch too snug or cheeks too long.  A person needs to loosen the knots and adjust the halter to fit a specific horse. Most people do not know they can do this, and it’s time-consuming to sort out how. It also takes a bit of effort if the knots are tight.
  5. People have difficulty getting the sheet bend knot tied high and snug enough so that the halter isn’t sitting too far down on the horse’s nose. Children and shorter adults have the most trouble— getting the knot tied so the halter fits is not easy if you are five foot two.
  6. The looser fit at the jaw presents problems with finessed commands.  Most natural horsemanship practitioners advocate working on a loose lead rope and encouraging your horse to read your body language, but in reality, when the horse acts up, they generally resort to shaking, flipping or snapping the rope to make the horse behave, which generally results in the horse throwing its head up, sometimes getting whacked in the face with the knot (or the snap), and often a general overreaction occurs. With a snugger-fitting halter, simple commands can be delivered with less drama.

At the end of the day, both designs work to catch and lead a horse.  The flat leather or nylon halter has the edge for safety when tying; the rope halter is at its best when handling a horse on a long rope.** Beyond that, there is considerable room for opinon and personal taste.  Like aficionados of Chevys and Fords, sometimes we all need to just learn to get along.

**The exception is longeing, where a line attached at the jaw of a halter encourages a horse to do an undesirable counter-bend. Neither type of halter is ideal for longeing, but more on that in another article.

Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

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Footnotes:

  1.  A good article on teaching horses to stand tied is here.
  2. Rashid, Mark. Horsemanship Through LifeA Trainer’s Guide to Better Living and Better Riding. Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2012, ISBN 9781620872963. 
  3. “I can’t catch my horse” is not a legitimate reason to turn out a horse with a halter.
  4. The mules got into my yard once in 10+ years. (And for those of you who follow this blog, no,  a legal fence was not involved!)
  5. Rope halter instructions originally published as: Ratliff-Garrison, Tonya. “Tie One On”, The Quarter Horse Journal.  www.americashorsedaily.com
  6. For more on tools you need or do not need for working with horses, more thoughts from Mark Rashid.
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