Horseback Riding For Dummies
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Horses are large creatures, so skill and knowledge are paramount when working around them. The vast majority of horses are gentle and would never deliberately hurt a person, but because horses are so large, accidents can happen. Staying aware and knowing how to handle these big animals can minimize the risk. The following sections discuss how to approach, halter, lead, and tie a horse safely.

Play catch: Approaching horses

A halter is a harness of sorts designed to fit on the horse’s head for the purpose of leading and restraining the horse (not riding); a ring under the horse’s jaw lets you clip a lead rope to the halter. Well-trained horses who are used to being handled a lot are easy to approach and catch with a halter; however, practicing safety measures whenever you approach a horse in a stall or pasture is still a good idea — particularly if you don’t know the horse.

In the stall or paddock

Catching a horse in a stall or paddock (a fenced area smaller than a pasture and without grass for grazing) simply means going up to the horse and placing a halter on his head. In most cases, you can just walk up to the horse without a problem. The following method is safe and effective for most horses in a stall or paddock:
  1. Have your halter with you with the lead rope attached.
  2. Speak to your horse to let him know you’re there before you enter the stall or paddock.

    If the horse is facing away from you, make sure he sees you before you approach him.

  3. Enter the stall or paddock and approach the horse at his left shoulder rather than directly at his face.
  4. As you get close to the horse, extend your hand, palm down, and let the horse sniff you.
  5. Loop the lead rope around the horse’s neck.
  6. Slip the halter over the horse’s head and buckle the strap that comes from behind the ears.

In the pasture

You may discover that catching a horse in a pasture is a little more difficult than catching one in a stall or small paddock, especially if the horse doesn’t want to be caught. Happy, well-trained horses stand quietly when you approach them for haltering, even in a big pasture, but some horses don’t. The ones who don’t want to work take off walking, trotting, or running, making it impossible to slip halters over their heads.

Your body language and approach can make a difference when trying to catch a horse in a pasture. Use the following technique to capture a pastured horse, especially if other horses are out there with him:

  1. With your halter and lead rope in hand, walk quietly toward the horse with your hands at your side.
  2. Approach the horse at his left shoulder, never directly from the front or back.
  3. When you reach the horse, gently pat or scratch his neck, speaking softly.
  4. Place the lead rope around the horse’s neck in a loop.
  5. Holding the noosed lead rope, put on the halter.

If the horse doesn’t want to be caught, don’t give up — letting him get out of it just teaches him that his evasion tactics work. If the horse is yours, talk to a trainer about teaching him to allow himself to be caught.

If the horse is alone in the pasture, you can try taking a treat out there with you to entice him to be caught; however, if other horses are in the pasture too, having treats in your hand may prove hazardous to your health. The horses may get nasty and competitive with one another over the treats, leaving you vulnerable to a misplaced bite or kick.

Buckle up: Haltering horses

The most important tools you have for handling your horse on the ground are the halter and lead rope. A horse who has been properly trained offers no resistance when you slip a halter on his head.

The hardest thing about putting a halter on a horse is figuring out where all those straps are supposed to go. Take a look at a horse wearing a halter before you attempt to put one on the horse you’re going to catch. If you understand the way the straps go on the horse’s head and then hold the halter in your hand, imagining the horse’s head inside it, you should have an easier time putting it on the horse.

Your instructor should guide you through the haltering process the first one or two times to make sure you know how to do it right. Follow these steps:
  1. Stand at the horse’s left shoulder, facing the same direction your horse is facing.
  2. Place the lead rope in a loose loop around the middle of the horse’s neck and hold it together with your right hand. This step secures the horse and keeps him from walking away.
  3. Check to make sure that the crown strap of the halter is unbuckled. The crown strap is the piece of the halter that goes behind the horse’s ears and buckles at the horse’s left cheek.
  4. With the buckle side of the strap in your left hand and the crown strap in your right hand, slip the horse’s nose through the noseband of the halter by reaching your right hand underneath the horse’s neck, as shown in the following figure.
  5. When the horse’s nose is through the halter, bring the crown piece up behind the horse’s ears and buckle it so the halter fits comfortably — not too tight and not too loose. It’s too tight if you can’t fit a finger between the nose strap and cheek strap.
  6. Take the lead rope from around the horse’s neck and fold it in your left hand, with your right hand holding the attached rope just below the halter.
haltering a horse Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Halter a horse from the left side.

Follow me: Leading horses

After you’ve haltered a horse, you want to lead him out of his stall or pasture so you can tie him and put on his tack. Use the following method to lead your horse safely in any situation (and also see the following figure):
  1. Stand on the horse’s left side.
  2. Hold the end of the lead rope closest to the horse’s head in your right hand, with your thumb pointing up toward the horse’s head. Your hand should be about 6 inches from the halter. If the lead rope has a chain at the end, hold the rope just below the chain so it doesn’t injure your hand if the horse pulls back. If you find you need more control when leading your horse, move your hand closer to the halter.
  3. In your left hand, hold what’s left of the lead rope folded up.

    Don’t coil the remainder of the rope around your hand. If you do and the horse pulls back, the coil can tighten, trapping your hand.

  4. Before you ask the horse to move forward, stand at his left shoulder, facing ahead, your hands holding the lead rope as I describe in the preceding steps. Hold out your arm on the side of the horse to make sure he doesn’t step into you when you start to move.
  5. As you begin to walk forward, give the lead rope a gentle pull with your right hand. The horse should begin walking, keeping pace with you so you remain at his shoulder.
  6. To turn the horse while leading him, push your right hand to the right or pull your hand to the left and step in the direction you want to turn. Keep an arm’s distance between you and the horse if you ask the horse to move to the left to ensure he doesn’t step on your heel. The horse should follow your lead.
  7. To stop the horse, say “whoa!” and stop walking, giving a very slight backward tug on the rope with your right hand.
leading a horse Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Lead a horse at his left shoulder and look where you’re going.

When leading your horse, keep in mind that your horse doesn’t know which way you intend to go at any given moment. Remember that your horse is much bigger than you and can’t turn as fast or stop as quickly as you can. You know you’re about to turn or stop, but your horse doesn’t.

Horses are very adept at picking up body signals. They also learn voice commands quickly. Give your horse a warning before you turn or stop. Slow your pace as you start to turn, and say “whoa” as you begin to stop. Your horse will appreciate the warning.

Also, as you lead the horse, look where you’re going, not at the horse. Doing so helps the horse have confidence in you and keeps him from getting confused about what he’s supposed to do.

Take care of loose ends: Tying horses

Tying a horse isn’t as simple as it may sound: You can’t just tie a horse to any object with a regular knot and walk away. That’s a recipe for disaster! Some horses, being nervous Nellies, are prone to pulling back when tied. When a horse pulls back, he may panic at having his head constrained and throw all his weight onto his hindquarters, practically sitting on his rear end.

If you tie a horse to a strong object (such as a hitching post or a large tree out on the trail), the horse won’t be able to pull the object out of the ground should he panic. Also, tying the horse with a safety knot enables you to pull the loose end of the rope and quickly release the panicked horse’s head before he can do damage. The following figure shows you one method of tying a safety knot. You essentially create a loop (Step 1), pull a second loop behind the dangling rope and through the first loop (Step 2), and then pull to tighten (Step 3).

tie a safety knot Tie a safety knot when securing a horse for a quick release.

When tying a horse, follow these rules for safety:

  • Whenever possible, tie a horse in cross-ties. Cross-ties are two ropes or chains, one on each side of the horse, that attach to the sides of the horse’s halter with metal clips and then to poles on either side of the horse’s head. Cross-ties should be at least as high as the top of the horse’s shoulders. This figure shows a horse tied to cross-ties.
horse secured in cross-ties Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

A horse secured in cross-ties with a chain on each side.

Make sure the horse you’re working with is familiar with being cross-tied before you secure him, because if he’s not, he may panic when he feels himself restrained in this way. Also, make sure that the cross-tie clips have a breakaway feature so the horse won’t get hung up in the ties if he panics. A breakaway feature releases the horse should he put extreme pressure on the cross-ties.

  • Tie a horse only by a halter and lead rope or halter and cross-ties. Never tie a horse by the reins of a bridle. If the horse pulls back, the reins can break and the bit may damage the horse’s jaw.
  • Tie a horse only to an immovable object. The rope or chain should be tied so its height is stable and won’t slip down toward the ground. Horses should be tied to
    • Solid fence posts
    • Hitching posts made for this purpose
    • Horse trailers, only when hooked to a vehicle
    • Cross-ties
    • Strong, secure tree trunks (if on the trail)
  • Tie a horse with the knot about level to the horse’s withers (where the shoulder blades meet), with no more than 3 feet of rope or chain from the post to the halter. Doing so helps keep the horse from getting the rope or chain over his head or from getting a leg caught in it. Figure 11-5 shows a horse safely tied to a hitching post.
  • Don’t tie a horse with a chain shank run through his halter. If the horse pulls back, the chain can injure him.
  • Never leave a horse alone and unsupervised when tied up. Horses are experts at getting into trouble, especially when no one is watching.
horse tied to hitching post Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Short ropes ensure that a horse remains safe when tied to a hitching post.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an awardwinning freelance writer specializing in equine subjects. She has authored articles on various equine topics in a number of horse publications, including Western Horseman, Horses USA, Thoroughbred Times, Appaloosa Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Veterinary Product News, and USDF Connection magazines. She has written five horse books besides Horse Health & Nutrition For Dummies, including Horses For Dummies, 2nd Edition (Wiley), Horseback Riding For Dummies (Wiley), and Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Book House).
In addition to her experience as an equine writer, she’s also a former Managing Editor of Dog Fancy magazine and a former Senior Editor of the American Kennel Club Gazette. She has authored more than 100 articles on the subject of animals and has written several books on various kinds of pets.
Audrey has been involved with horses since the age of 9. She has owned and cared for horses throughout her life, and has trained in both Western and English disciplines. She currently participates in competitive trail riding. Audrey resides in Norco, California.

Kate Gentry-Running, DVM, CVA, is a practicing veterinarian with 27 years of experience and an emphasis in equine integrative medicine. She has a particular passion for educating horse owners.
Dr. Running received her veterinary degree in 1980 from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. She was certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2001 and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine at the Chi Institute in Gainesville, Florida.
Dr. Running breeds and trains cutting horses at her ranch in Tolar, Texas.

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