Ask A Teamster: Halters Off!
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
Question asked at a workhorse workshop: Why are the lead ropes braided on to all of your halters rather than attached with snaps?
Over thirty years ago when my friend and mentor, the late Addie Funk, first started helping me with my horses he suggested that we get rid of my halter ropes with snaps and braid lead ropes on to all the halters permanently. Actually as I think about it, it was more than a suggestion. Knowing him, he probably just braided the new ropes on, confident that anyone with any sense would be pleased with the improvement. In any case, when the task was completed I clearly remember him saying to me, “Now nobody will turn a horse loose around here with a halter on.”
Addie, it seemed, was always thinking of the safety and well being of horses. He had horror stories about different horses who were turned out with their halter on and got it hung up on something. Many of them had ended up injured, and some had died outright, or had to be destroyed. Even then, in my early years as a veterinarian, I had already attended horses with injuries resulting from halters getting caught on something. In one case there were no injuries but the horse was in bad shape from dehydration and malnutrition by the time the owner discovered it. Later in my career I autopsied a dead horse that still had a hind foot trapped in the halter on his head. He had broken his own neck fighting to free his foot. (It’s not uncommon for a loose horse to scratch at its halter with a hind foot – especially youngsters not accustomed to the feel of a halter).
The important issue is not whether we braid lead ropes on or use snaps, it is whether we choose to put our horses at risk by turning them loose with halters on. Unfortunately, many, if not most horse owners don’t comprehend the full dangers of turning horses loose with halters on. Thankfully, not everyone has had the personal insights into this problem that I’ve experienced as a vet, but everyone who handles horses should know and understand that horses do suffer and die from being turned loose with halters on. It doesn’t help that everywhere we look we see horses turned loose wearing halters – in private pastures; at professional stables, and in authoritative type books, articles, videos, etc. Unfortunately, all of this misrepresents an extremely dangerous practice, as acceptable horsemanship.
Just because turning horses out wearing halters is common practice, and maybe you’ve been doing it for 20 years without problems, doesn’t mean it won’t happen to your horse tonight or tomorrow. Granted, the number of horses that die each year from getting halters hung up may not be that great, although significant numbers are injured or suffer some insult. The fact that it doesn’t happen all that often doesn’t mean much if it’s your horse that ends up dead. What frustrates and saddens me is that even one such injury or death occurs, because they are 100% preventable. The reality is that a loose horse can’t suffer or die from getting it’s halter hung up on something if it isn’t wearing a halter. And horses don’t put halters on by themselves; we humans are responsible for putting them on horses, and taking them off – too often leaving them on when we shouldn’t.
If turning horses out wearing halters is so dangerous, and I assure you it is, then why is it such a common practice? Ignorance of the dangers, is an obvious underlying factor. But in my experience, many people that turn their horse(s) loose with a halter on do it because they think it makes them easier to catch. In fact, the second thing I think of when I see a loose horse with a halter is, “He must be hard to catch.” The first thing I think is, “I can’t believe that someone doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that they are risking that horse’s life unnecessarily.” As far as I’m concerned, the fact that a horse is difficult to catch is an unacceptable excuse for turning it loose with a halter on. I won’t do it for any reason or under any circumstance.
Many folks leave halters on because they feel it’s more convenient than taking them off and then putting them back on when they next catch the horse – especially if the time interval will be short. They are simply doing what is common practice, often unaware of the risks; or ignoring, underplaying or dismissing the potential consequences in favor of convenience (similar to why a lot of people regretfully don’t use seat belts). Personally, I have a big problem with unnecessarily putting a horse’s well-being or life at risk for our convenience.
Some people feel comfortable turning a horse loose with a halter in what they perceive as a safe environment – corral, stall, paddock, etc. I would remind them of the horse who died with his hind foot hung up in the halter. Others, aware of the potential dangers, feel that by keeping an eye on the horse while it’s turned out they can prevent or deal with a problem if it occurs. However, I have known owners who were actually nearby and witnessed a wreck, but they were rarely successful in helping the horse, and often added to the panic, endangered themselves or both. Why take the risk at all?
So what are some of the ways horses can get into trouble with a halter when they are turned loose with one on? Halters can catch and hang up in unimaginable ways on all sorts of seemingly harmless objects, fence posts (especially metal), water hydrants, the ends of fence rails, miscellaneous fence wire and wire ends, gate and stall door latches, feeders and mangers, ends of tree roots, stubs of broken limbs, nails, bolt ends, eye hooks, sprinklers and other irrigation equipment, horse trailer parts (door latches, jack handles, safety chain hooks, etc.) cattle squeeze chutes and calf tables, bicycles, ATV’s, and any other equipment or machinery in the horse’s environment (hazards for horses even without halters). The horses hind feet can also become entrapped in the halter, as described above, and parts of the halter have been known to wedge between the hoof wall and the protruding heel of the horseshoe on a hind foot. Oftentimes the horse can, and does, break loose from whatever the halter gets hooked on, but often beats itself up in the struggle to free itself. And if they don’t free themselves, the consequences can be much greater, even than death. The head and legs are especially susceptible to injury. I have attended horses with badly bruised and battered heads; eye injuries; lacerations; paralysis from traumatized nerves; damaged muscles, tendons and ligaments and fractured bones as a result of panic driven struggle when halters became hung up.
Even if physical consequences are avoided or minor, psychological after-effects associated with halter entrapment are common. Afterwards horses are apt to become claustrophobic with respect to even minor restriction of their physical freedom, especially involving a halter, bridle or their head in general. Apprehension or fear can resurface and trigger bouts of panic in situations such as being tied or lead by the halter, pressure or restriction via a bridle, when halters and bridles are put on and off, and possibly in horse trailers and other tight places. Another tragic consequence I witnessed as a veterinarian is the human remorse and guilt associated with injuries and deaths related to halters getting hung up. The person who left the halter on knows that the horse would be alive if they had just taken it off when they turned him loose. At that point the reasons for leaving the halter on are insignificant compared to the consequences – but it’s too late.
One approach to this halter entrapment problem has been the development of breakaway halters that release and come off the horse’s head if they catch on something and the horse tries to pull away. To me this seems like a good way to teach horses that if they pull against the halter when tied, or when being held or led, they can free themselves. Before long even a slow learner is apt to discover that if he fights the halter a bit he can go eat grass, visit friends, frolic, or avoid getting into the horse trailer or going to work. Conventional halters, lead ropes and snaps of poor quality, that horses can break, also teach horses that if they pull hard enough, long enough, or often enough they can get free. Personally, I would never leave a halter on any loose horse – breakaway or not.
Although, at this time, I won’t go into techniques for conditioning horses to want to be with us, and thus be easily caught and haltered, I do want to include a few comments on the hard-to-catch issue. Being caught easily, or better yet coming when called is, in my opinion, an integral part of being a well-adjusted, safe, well-trained horse. I believe that if someone has a horse that’s hard to catch, they are the problem, not the horse. Granted some horses come to us having previously been taught (yes taught) by their human(s) to avoid being caught. But unless we have new, or young unhandled horses – not yet taught to trust, respect and like us – our horses should find value in coming to us and should want to be with us – it’s our job to make this happen. A horse that doesn’t trust us will be apprehensive of our approach and may even fear us. A horse that doesn’t respect us will want things his own way and will eventually challenge, or perhaps even threaten us. In either case, there will be time, probably often, when they will be hard to approach and catch. It doesn’t work very well to have a gentle, trusting horse that doesn’t respect you – in spite of their usual gentleness they can be dangerous when they don’t get their own way. Nor does it work to have a horse respect but not trust you – apprehension and fear are sure to surface and cause problems sooner or later. As horse people, I feel, we need to learn how to get horses to trust and respect us, and want to be with us – to find comfort and value in being with us – rather than being coerced, forced or tricked. In other words, we must come to better understand and use the language, psychology and logic of horses. And then apply them to develop partnerships where our horses choose to be with us and choose to cooperate with us.
I don’t agree with blaming a horse for being hard to catch, nor labeling a horse as hard to catch. If I have difficulty getting a horse to let me approach, touch, halter and lead it, I figure that I am not doing my job of interacting with and communicating to the horse well. Take responsibility yourself for the way horses reach to you and perform for you. Catching horses is only the tip of the iceberg; once we learn and apply better methods, everything we do with our horses becomes safer, more enjoyable and more successful for both us and the horse. And while you’re at it, learn to braid halter ropes onto your halters.
Now that the sermon is over, I’ll mention that Addie, and lots of other good old time horsemen I’ve known, have some other reasons for preferring lead ropes braided on to their halters. In the thirty plus years since Addie converted me, I have never had to look for a lead rope when I had the halter, or look for a halter when I had a lead rope – they’ve always been together when I need them. Snaps frequently come unhooked on their own and can break. I know a man who had his jaw fractured and lost teeth when a horse pulled back and broke a snap. The lead rope sprung back hitting him in the jaw with the remnant of the broken snap. My mentors felt that good heavy snaps (that won’t break) were unnecessary weight for people and horses to pack around, and an unnecessary expense as well. Good strong lead rope snaps weigh 6 1?2 ounces each, which doesn’t amount to much for a single horse. But for a pack string of 9 mules and saddle horse the snaps add up to over 4 lbs. of unnecessary weight not to mention $3.20 per snap or $32.90 for the ten of them instead of paying the current price of $8 to $12 for a lead rope with a snap. I pay $3 for a length of rope and spend a couple minutes braiding it on to the halter ring – or more likely talk my stepfather, Tom, into doing it. Tom prefers to braid a loop (eye) in one end of the lead rope, loop the eye thru the halter ring, run the end of the lead rope thru the eye and pull it up tight on the ring. In doing so he avoids the use of snaps (for reasons mentioned above) and the rope is attached in a way that discourages someone from removing it. However, if you really need to remove the rope to replace it or use it for another purpose, it can be unthreaded and removed. Also, when we drive we always leave the halters on the horses so we can unhitch and lead a horse, or tie up anywhere, anytime. I’ve been teased for driving in parades with halters and lead ropes on the horses, but I was ready if I needed them. With the ropes braided on we never have to look in the back of the wagon for a rope when we need it, and it was never left back where we hitched.
In my part of the country commercial and US Forest Service packers, old time teamsters, and working cowboys usually braid the lead ropes on to their halters or braid loops in the ropes and attach them without snaps, for a variety of reasons.
Please help spread the word about the dangers of halters on loose horses!
Doc Hammill D.V.M.
Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series. www.DocHammill.com