The Lowly Lead Rope

a girl leading a young gray horse with a white cotton lead rope

A 4-H member leading a young BLM Mustang with a cotton lead rope. Note that the rope is held in a safe and correct manner.
Source: Bureau of Land Management 

Every horse needs a halter and every halter needs a lead rope.   We use a lead rope for two basic purposes:  leading the horse and tying the horse.  Again, what seems like a simple piece of equipment has many nuances. If you only led your horse and never tied it, a flat lead line, as seen in the show ring, is more compact in your hand (though if a horse is difficult to handle, there is an injury risk, as I will explain below) .  But when we use our everyday working halter, we both lead and tie horses, so a sturdy rope is used. Selection of a good lead rope enhances safety for both horse and handler.  But what do you buy?

A few basics:  Most mass-manufactured lead ropes in the US today are about 3/4″ (± 2 cm) in diameter.  A thicker rope is stronger, but harder to hold, especially for young people, and it is more cumbersome to tie.  A thinner lead rope is not recommended; if a horse pulls back while tied, a thinner rope breaks easily, and a thin rope is also more likely to cause a rope burn to human hands.  (Yes, some folks advocate always wearing gloves while handling horses.  It’s a good idea, but in reality, most people don’t.) Flat lead shanks are generally made of nylon web or leather, and vary from about 1/2-inch wide to about 1 inch wide.

Standard manufactured ropes are generally about 9 to 10 feet long, which is adequate for most daily use. The 12-foot ropes common with the natural horsemanship crowd are nice for ponying a single horse, but can be too bulky to gather in your hand for ordinary leading and handling. People who are into packing make their lead ropes even longer, usually 15 feet, as the pack string usually travels head to tail and each animal needs a bit of maneuvering room.   A longe line needs to be about 25 feet.*

Rope Materials

Three kinds of lead ropes

There are many kinds of lead ropes on the market.
Left: nylon rope with bull snap. Center left: snapless “Natural horsemanship” lead with leather popper. Right: nylon rope with trigger bolt snap.
Photo: Brenda Wahler

Most lead ropes are made of cotton or a soft, flexible synthetic, usually described as poly or nylon.   I prefer cotton.  Why?

  • It is easier to hold onto a cotton lead rope, you have a better grip.
  • Cotton rope is flexible, it stays soft longer.
  • For tying, cotton rope is strong enough to hold a horse that sets back on a rope under normal conditions and easier to cut in an emergency situation.
  • Cotton rope is less likely to give you rope burns. Go to a tack store, grab a round poly lead rope and a cotton one, then have a friend yank each through your hands.  Which one can you hold on to and which one slides in a streak of heat across your palm?   Not only can you get a rope burn if things get into a tangle, so could your horse.
  • It’s spliceable; which is good for three reasons:  1)  they can be attached to a snap or halter without a need for a metal clamp 2) a broken rope or loosened end can be put back together.  3) They can be custom made by ordinary people.
  • Cotton ropes are durable and last a long time if hung up and kept out of the weather.

The main disadvantage to cotton ropes are that they weather and wear faster than synthetics under heavy use.  Once there is significant weathering or fraying, a cotton rope should be replaced.  That said, if kept dry and unfrayed by use, they last a long time; I’ve pulled old cotton lead ropes out of a tack trunk that had sat unused for 15 years and found them perfectly serviceable.  Nylon often stiffens with age.

Trigger bolt snap on a lead rope

A trigger bolt snap with metal clamp attaching a polyester/nylon rope to the snap is a common style.
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

Soft poly rope does have some advantages:

  • In ropes of equivalent diameter, the synthetics are a bit stronger.
  • Synthetic materials do not rot as fast if they are left out in the weather.
  • They can take dye better than cotton and can be made in brighter colors.
  • Poly ropes generally have no splice on the loose end, the end of the rope passes smoother through a tie ring, particularly if you like blocker tie rings (which actually are pretty cool gadgets in certain situations).

The primary disadvantage to poly or nylon rope has already been mentioned: Worse rope burns. Another disadvantage to a nylon rope is that most types cannot be spliced, so they are generally attached to the snap with a metal clamp, which is a weak point, it can bend and rust, and it is a point at which the rope might break.  A metal clamp poses an injury risk to your hand if you grab the lead rope there and the horse jerks back.  While poly lasts longer if left out in extreme conditions over the short term, older poly ropes I’ve had do get stiff with age and once they begin to disintegrate in this fashion, they can fail quickly.


Bull snaps are strong snaps to use on a lead rope

I have extra bull snaps from almost every lead rope I’ve ever owned.  Most still work.
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

I like a lead rope that attaches with a “bull” snap. Why use a bull snap on the lead rope?  I do have standard “trigger” or bolt” snaps on show halter lead shanks, longe lines, and other equipment not used to tie up a horse.  But on my everyday halter, the bull snap is safer and more durable.**  For starters, a bull snap is smoother on the outside, you won’t as easily injure your hand if you accidentally grab it.  Most other types of snaps have an outside trigger for easy release, but that’s a mixed blessing.

Though you may need two hands to open a bull snap, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing;  I’ve seen more than one lead rope with a standard bolt snap come off a halter because the snap trigger was pulled accidentally when someone grabbed the lead rope by the snap (no, we aren’t supposed to, but yes, we all know it happens).  The trigger may also catch on things—including your skin! The bolt snap is not as durable: triggers break, the latch segment is thin, it loosens up and some part often breaks after a few years.  That said, bolt snaps are definitely more common, mostly due to their one-handed convenience.

There are a few other snap designs, most are weaker and not likely to hold up if you are going to tie your horse.  Panic snaps, spring snaps and most carabiners can bend or break under pressure from a horse setting back on a rope.  About the only new design that has some potential is a brass twist snap that can, in theory, be undone under pressure but is stronger than the panic snap.  The hardware is thinner than a bull snap and they require two hands to attach, so though I own a rope with one, I don’t think they are a superior design.

Some lead ropes attach to a halter with a loop or tie and have no metal parts at all.  Basically, there is a place for a permanently-attached lead rope with no metal parts, including safety and strength, but there are also a lot of reasons you might want to take off the lead rope.  Even the rope halter advocates often use lead ropes with a metal snap for this reason.  As seen in the above set of images, a snapless rope either attaches to a rope halter with a sheet bend knot or with a  loop spliced into the end of the rope.


Flat lead lines are too flimsy for tying a horse, and nylon ones can deliver a bad rope burn.

What about a flat lead shank?  Flat leads are generally too flimsy for tying.  Flat web is common for longe lines, where bulk is an issue, and leather lead shanks, usually with a chain, are standard for show and certain training uses. Flat leads without a chain shank are not common, though they can be found (often they are seen at some 4-H shows).  If I have a need for a flat lead shank, I prefer to use leather, but for longe lines, leather is not practical in terms of weight, cost, strength or maintenance.  Cotton or nylon web for longe lines is near-universal.

Be aware that flat web presents a greater rope burn risk than even a round nylon rope.  Any flat lead, of any material, has an edge that can give you a very nasty hand injury if a horse jerks it through your hand.  I will discuss safety in a future post, but for now, simply remember that if you work around horses, they are bigger than humans, stronger than humans, and as a result, rope burns are a very common injury.  Cotton has less burn risk compared to nylon and offers a slightly better grip, but for longe lines, it’s almost a tossup—and nylon is both stronger and lasts quite a bit longer than cotton when in flat web style. (My favorite longe line is decades old and still perfectly usable; it’s helped that I’ve always stored it indoors and kept it clean of mud and manure)

By the way, leads with a chain shank, whether you use the chain or not, are never intended for tying. The chain will break under pressure, and if you had it run over the horse’s head in any manner, jerking back on it would subject the horse to extreme pain, and as I have discussed previously, pain increases panic.

We have many choices in lead ropes and how to attach them. The particular combination you choose, along with your preference in style of halter, is based on many factors.   That said, for the ordinary lead rope in everyday use, I vote for cotton rope with a bull snap.

Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

Please read disclaimer.

*Longeing with a short line is stressful on a horse’s joints, plus, you run some risk of being kicked.  Running a horse around on a short line as a disciplinary tactic is advocated by some, but I find it generally less effective that other approaches.

**I have a bunch of bull snaps saved from a 40-plus-year accumulation of old lead ropes (yes, I’m a horse tack pack rat), and most of them are still usable.