A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part IV
Safety and Basic Handling
Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen; this is a monster of a post and it only covers a few bits of the subject. Later installments will talk about saddling and riding horses.
The average horse is about 15 hands tall (60 inches) and weighs a little under 1000 pounds. A mini can be as small as 7 hands (28 inches) and 200 pounds, and a draft can be over 18 hands and 2500 pounds. No matter how large or strong you may be, it’s very difficult to force a horse to do what you want, and hard to stop an unsafe situation from getting out of control.
So if you’re going to go anywhere near a horse, you might want some information on horse-related safety and handling. And it may prove useful when you’re writing about them.
In general, you want to be in charge of the horse. I mentioned this in the last installment, and it bears repeating. You are too small and weak to muscle a horse around, and if it thinks you’re not telling it what to do, it will do whatever it damn well pleases. Horses like to have a leader, and that’s you.
This does not mean you should be cruel to the horse. Strive for calm, benevolent leadership. Hitting or shouting at it are used for emergencies only, when you need to get the horse’s attention right NOW before it hurts itself or someone else. Most horses will respond to being shouted at, though if they’re on the edge of panic it can cause them to freak out even worse.
Don’t walk up to a horse and slap it on the butt; you’ll probably get kicked. If you must slap a horse, hit the lower, more muscled part of its shoulder with the flat of your hand. Not your fist; you could break your knuckles. Don’t hit a horse’s face; you could seriously hurt it and even if you don’t, the horse is likely to remember it, and flinch away from a soft touch in the future. The only exception is if the horse actually bites you; then you are obliged to smack it on the closest part of the body you can reach. This teaches the horse that it’s not okay to bite, and must be done quickly so the horse connects the action to the reprimand. Similarly, if the horse kicks out at you, yell and kick back. It’s a lot like training any animal- or even a human toddler. Desirable behaviors are rewarded, undesirable behaviors must be corrected before they become a habit.
All of that sounds rather cruel, but it’s no more violent than a mare correcting her foal or a stallion putting a rambunctious yearling back in its place. Horses learn manners in the wild, and must learn them in a domestic setting. A well trained horse rarely needs such a sharp correction; you can usually get results by pushing the horse around with your hand and adjusting your tone of voice according to its behavior.
Horses don’t understand full sentences, but they learn to associate certain words with actions. Tone of voice is very important. Talk softly to reassure a horse or slow it down, briskly to command it or speed it up, and sharply to correct it.
The basic verbal commands are whoa (sometimes pronounced ‘hoe’; it means stop), walk, trot, and canter. Some horses understand ‘easy’ or ‘steady’ for ‘slow down but stay in the same gait’, and some also know ‘back up’ or ‘over’ to reverse and move side to side. Driving horses are often taught ‘gee up!’ as a general ‘go forward’ command. Horses can also be taught to come near or go away with voice commands or whistles. Clicking your tongue is the universal signal for ‘move’, usually forward.
Horses are taught to move away from pressure. The best time for training a horse in this technique is when it’s between one and two days old, but it can be done at any time. The handler applies pressure in one direction or another, and when the horse moves in the desired direction, the pressure is released. Thus the horse learns to equate its movement with the release of pressure, which is its reward. Basically, you annoy the horse until it does what you want, then stop annoying it. This is trickier than it sounds, because you want to use the absolute minimum amount of pressure to cue the horse, and you must release the pressure the instant the horse begins to do what you want. It takes a good sense of timing and control of your own body. Intent also matters; most horses understand the difference between the pressure of a brush and the pressure of your hand on its side, asking it to move over, particularly if the horse and handler are comfortable with each other. A well trained horse is sensitive without being jumpy, and is very easy to handle.
Approaching a horse
A well trained horse will not walk away when you approach. If in a box stall, it should turn to face you, and if in the field, it should either stand still or come to you. Treats are helpful in teaching a horse to come, and it’s smart to occasionally catch a horse; reward it with food, brushing or some other pleasant, undemanding activity; then let it go, so it doesn’t associate being caught with having to work hard. Most horses are lazy and would rather stand in the field and eat all day.
A horse that refuses to be caught is a nuisance. If in the stall, it might spin in circles to avoid you as you chase it, but this can usually be overcome by enlisting a friend’s help. Go into the stall, with one person on each side of the horse so it can’t spin away from you, and reward the horse with food, pats, and verbal praise when it stands still and lets you put a halter on it. Then remove the halter and leave. Then do it again, until the horse learns to associate being caught with being rewarded.
A slightly different technique can be used to catch a horse in the field. Put another horse in the field, one that gets along well with the first horse and is easily catchable. Then catch the decoy horse and take it away. The first horse will usually follow its friend, and can be caught this way. Praise and reward the horse when it does what you want. Sometimes a horse isn’t sure it wants to be caught; the handler can improve his chances of capturing the horse by walking toward it at an angle, and carefully looking at something else as he does it. Horses are prey animals, and see as a threat anything walking or looking directly at it.
A handler should try to approach a horse from the front or side, so it can see you. Remember that diagram of a horse’s field of vision from the last installment? A horse can’t see directly under its nose or directly behind it, so if you sneak up on the horse, you’re likely to startle it. If you must approach a horse from behind, say, if it’s tied in a straight stall, talk to it so it knows where you are.
The first thing you should do when catching a horse is put a halter on its head. If you don’t, the horse can simply walk away from you. Some horses are good natured enough to be led by a hand in their mane or string around their neck, but not all. Some people prefer to leave a halter on their horse at all times, but this can be dangerous; the horse can catch the halter on a tree branch or other obstacle, and get stuck. A stuck horse usually panics and does a great deal of damage to itself and its surroundings.
If you must leave a halter on the horse, because it’s difficult to catch or for some other reason, it should be of leather, which breaks more easily than the usual nylon webbing, and should be well-fitted. A properly fitting halter looks like this:
You should be able to put a couple of fingers between the halter and the horse’s skin, but not a whole hand. Halters can be adjusted in a few different ways; some of them simply slip over the horse’s ears as the muzzle goes into the noseband, and others have a buckle on the crownpiece, where the handler flips the crownpiece over the horse’s neck just behind the ears, and buckles it on the side (hard to explain in print; YouTube has videos about it, if you’re really interested).
A lead rope is also essential equipment. It clips onto the halter ring beneath the horse’s chin, and is usually six to twelve feet long and made of braided cotton or nylon. The clip is usual made of brass or is nickel-plated, as is most horse-related hardware. Some lead ropes have a chain about eighteen inches long between the clip and the actual rope; this is threaded through the halter rings for extra control of unruly horses or stallions. The chain can be threaded under the chin, over the nose, or through the horse’s mouth in very extreme circumstances. Don’t use a chain lead on a horse unless you need it; it can hurt the horse, or, if you don’t put it through the rings, can rip the skin right off your hand. The handler holds the lead about six to twelve inches away from the clip in his right hand, so you’d be holding onto the chain. Hold the extra lead in your left hand. If the lead is too long and you must coil it so it doesn’t drag on the ground, make a very loose loop and hold it as lightly as you can. Never wrap the extra lead rope around your hand or arm; if the horse bolts, you could be pulled off your feet.
Leading a horse
A well-trained horse will stand still when you’re standing and will walk next to you, its head slightly in front of your shoulder, when you start walking. Don’t let the horse walk behind you; remember, it can’t see you very well from that position, and could step on you. And though the horse can still see you if it gets too far ahead, it becomes harder to control from that position. Don’t get behind the horse’s shoulder. If you come to a narrow door or gateway, stop the horse by pulling back on the lead rope, step through the opening, then ask the horse to follow you by clicking your tongue or gently pulling forward on the lead rope. The horse should be about a foot away from your shoulder- too close and it could step on you; too far and it is harder to control.
Horse people are taught not to get in a tug-of-war with a horse that refuses to move. The correct fix is to return to the horse’s side and push forward with the hand holding the lead rope. Usually the horse will move off. If it doesn’t, gently swing the free end of the lead behind you and into the horse’s flank. Not too hard; you don’t want to hurt or scare the horse, just convince it that moving is more comfortable than staying still. If the horse still doesn’t move, it may be in pain. If it’s just really stubborn, a dressage, driving, or polo whip (basically, a fiberglass rod about three feet long) can be used to the same effect as the end of the lead rope, with a little more force. But a well trained horse shouldn’t need any of these techniques.
Horses are generally led from the left (the horse’s left), but many horses can be led from the right as well. It’s possible to lead more than one horse, if they get along with each other. Four is about my limit, but I’ve seen people lead six or seven, with three or four lead ropes in each hand, according to whether the horse is on the person’s left or right side.
If for some reason you do get into a tug-of-war with a horse, don’t use steady pressure on the lead rope. The horse will simply plant its feet and lean back, and you’ll never get anywhere. Instead, use a pulsating pressure or give-and-take motion, so the horse has nothing to brace against. A similar technique can be used when trying to move a horse in other directions. For example, a horse should move to the side when you poke it in the shoulder, belly, or flank with your fingertips. If it doesn’t, don’t increase the pressure, just keep poking. Most horses will eventually get tired of that annoying poking, and will move over.
Tying a horse
There are three ways to tie a horse so it doesn’t run away- straight tying, cross tying, and ground tying. Straight tying is when you knot the lead rope around a post/tree/whatever or thread it through a metal ring attached to a wall. Give the horse about eighteen inches of slack in the rope. Don’t tie a horse by the reins unless it’s a dire emergency; if it pulls back, it can damage its mouth because of the pressure of the bit. Straight tying allows the horse to turn its head, scratch itches, and so on, but keeps it from wandering off. Always straight tie a horse as high above the ground as possible- at least at head height. This stops the horse from putting a foot over the lead rope, and if it pulls back, the height of the knot prevents the horse from feeling trapped. Weirdly, cows are the opposite; a cow should always be tied a little lower than its head height.
Cross tying is a method of securing the horse by the head between two posts or walls. A lead rope is clipped to each side ring of the halter and tied securely to the post or a ring on the wall, again at head height or a little higher. This prevents the horse from turning its head or moving its feet very much. It can still move a few feet side to side, but keeps the horse more still than straight tying. However, because of the size of most barn aisles, where horses are commonly cross tied, the horse has five or six feet of rope between its head and the wall; if one cross tie breaks, the horse can move around a lot. Some horses also dislike the sight of ropes branching off from both sides of the halter.
Whenever possible, the horse should be tied using breakaway ropes or a quick release knot. In a pinch, tie a loop of string to the metal ring or around the post, then thread the rope through that. It’ll keep the horse from wandering off, but if the horse panics and tries to flee, or gets tangled up, it’ll break and stop the horse from doing worse damage to itself.
Ground tying isn’t really a form of restraint; it’s the act of dropping the lead rope (or occasionally, the reins; always use split reins for this, so the horse can’t get his leg stuck in them) on the ground and trusting the horse not to wander off. Many cowboys’ horses are taught to do this, because there are no trees to tie a horse on the prairie. It’s best for short-term use, because even well-trained horses will get bored or hungry, and wander off.
Some horses refuse to stand tied. Usually this is because of a bad experience in the past; sometimes, the horse was simply never taught to yield to the pressure of the halter and lead. This can be extremely dangerous, because a horse won’t tell you beforehand that it doesn’t like to be tied. It will probably stand still until something startles it, turn its head to look at the object, feel the pressure of the halter, and freak out. It usually won’t stop trying to escape until something breaks- the halter, the lead rope, the post, or itself. About ten years ago, I saw a horse (not mine) that was tied to a trailer at a show, panic and start banging her head against the side of the trailer, which has a couple pieces of sharp steel that stick out, until finally her halter broke and she flipped over backward. She was okay in the end- a few cuts on her face, but at least her eyes were uninjured- but it was scary as hell.
If you’re not sure how well a horse will tolerate being tied, have another person hold the lead, or use some form of breakaway material. And make sure to tie the horse as high up as possible; even if it panics and pulls back, it won’t be able to get a lot of leverage because of the angle of the rope, and usually the panic will wear itself out. Never approach from the back or sides a tied horse that’s pulling back against the lead; you have no way of knowing which way it will fall when the halter breaks. Let it break free, then catch it, even if it’s hard to stand there and do nothing while the horse is hurting itself. In rare cases, you may be able to slip in front of the horse and release it using a sharp knife or by pulling on the quick release knot, but those have a nasty tendency to tighten up if the horse really pulls back.
It’s also possible to restrain a horse using hobbles. These have fallen greatly out of fashion, because a horse must be trained to tolerate them, but were widely used in the old west by cowboys- remember, no trees out there to tie the horses to. Hobbles are a set of bracelets, usually joined by a bit of leather, rope, or chain, that go around the horse’s ankles and stop it from taking a full stride. As horses are prey animals, and will flee at the first sign of danger, you can imagine that it takes some training for the horse to overcome its impulse to run while wearing hobbles. And they don’t stop a horse from moving at all; they merely restrain it to a smaller area.
Now that you know some techniques for handling and restraining horses, stay tuned for the next installment- grooming a horse, and the basics of saddling and harnessing. And in case you missed the first installments of A Writer’s Guide to Horses, they can be found here: