Law 3 – Whenever working with a horse, always use a halter and lead. Stay connected.
The idea behind a physical connection with a horse is that it prevents the horse from positioning themselves in a spot where they can hurt you. Of course, there are some exceptions, but the principle is there.
If you control the head, you usually control a horse’s body. The physical connection requires a relatively short distance between your hand and the head, about 1 to 2 feet (0.3 to 0.6m). When this distance is shorter, or there is no lead, and the person holds only the halter, then there is an increased chance the horse can break away. There is no leverage or mechanical advantage when the distance is short or is zero. This leverage is needed to help guide the horse back into a safe position.
Many horse owners use leads more than 10 feet (3m) long, causing a loss of leverage and allowing the horse to turn around and kick you. The idea of having a long lead is popular with many horsemanship styles and in their techniques of training horses. However, in my experience, they can create a dangerous situation because of this lost leverage and lost control. The principle I am giving here is not a training technique but a safety technique for any horse anywhere. A short connecting lead always works when working with many different horses with different backgrounds.
There are two exceptions for any lead length in providing leverage and safety. The first is if the horse moves towards you rapidly, trying to run over you. If you are quick enough to step aside, you can immediately pull their head to the side and disrupt their forward motion. Directing their movement into a wall works the best. However, no lead length will be effective if they decide to go over the top of you.
Another exception to any length of lead working is when a horse turns away from you. Almost all horsemen work on horses from the left side of the horse. It becomes very dangerous when a horse turns away from you to the right. Unless you are very quick to respond to this movement, the head will get beyond your leverage point and run away with you hanging on to the rope. I have two stories of horses turning to the right. The first time, I turned out a 2-year-old, and he bolted away from me. I was relatively new to horses and thought I could hold on. Unfortunately, I cannot run faster than a Thoroughbred. He won. The second time I was inside a regular size box stall. The horse rapidly stepped towards me as I was standing on his left side and abruptly turned his head to the right. I instantly was behind his left shoulder, I couldn’t see his head as it was on his other side, and I lost any leverage to stop him. He pulled me fast, scraping me around the stall walls, then shot out of the stall door with me still attached to the lead. I couldn’t let go due to the tension. Only the far wall of the barn caused him to stop long enough to get me untangled to separate, then off he went out of the barn with lead attached. He almost killed me in that experience.
The first lesson here is that you must also be mentally aware and connected when physically attached to a horse. Holding a horse while texting or on the phone will work most of the time. However, you will become injured when it doesn’t work, or the horse escapes and becomes injured.
The second lesson here is that if you don’t use a short lead when working with a horse, you will never be able to apply leverage and correct the horse’s position. As a result, the horse can potentially hurt you without leverage on the lead, which we are trying to avoid.
Halters on horses provide a connection point for the lead and give you the ability to control the head. Several adaptations have been developed for halters to apply pain through hard knots embedded into the halter or moving pieces that create pressure on the head when tightened. Often used is a chain lead over the nose, in the mouth, or under the upper lip of an uncooperative horse. These help control a fractious horse, especially when a necessary procedure is required, such as cleaning a wound. However, for many people, they are used without skill as a replacement for experience. Regrettably, several horsemanship training techniques employ these gimmicks to overcome the harder-to-teach mental connection with horses. Pain-adding methods shorten the time to comply and reach the desired goal, but it causes the horse’s submission to the handler. It is not horsemanship.
However, remember that horses are bigger and stronger and, like children, need rules and boundaries. The lead helps with setting boundaries as well as leading horses. A section of horse owners believes that no attachment is necessary for leading, called “at liberty” training. With hours of teaching, many horses do things with humans without a physical attachment. They come from the field when called and move about the barn using hand signals and voice commands. While this can be impressive, it requires training a horse for it. Law 3 of a physical connection with horses is for most horses that do not have this training or are being asked for something new when they do have it. For example, veterinarians see horses well trained for liberty work who forget their training when asked to stand for an injection.
The rule for everyone for any horse is to use a halter and lead rope if you want to minimize the chance of injury. But it is WAY more important to realize this one point. While you may be an accomplished horse trainer and have hundreds of horses trained to liberty work or have the ability to work around your horses without this basic principle of a physical attachment applied – someone younger and with less experience is watching. If a child sees you with the bad habit of neglecting this fundamental rule, it is like giving the car keys to them without training and letting them go on a road trip. It might work for a while, but the accident will occur. The beginner must learn the fundamentals before advanced training can occur. Unfortunately, when you get away from injury for a long time, you start to feel invincible and test safety boundaries. Then the new horse enters your life, and like my veterinary mentor who had worked decades with stallions, you get kicked and die. So always use a halter and lead when working on horses, even if the time needed is only a moment. At that moment, you realize that you should have done so – just before the pain starts or your lights go out. And the children are always watching you.
Horses that quickly turn away from you in a stall can easily get their hind end in alignment with you to deliver a kick that can end your life. This tactic is one of the ever-present scenarios I protect myself against daily when working with difficult horses. I have had some close calls. I suggest you practice this technique constantly and be vigilant of this possibility. Stay focused, and never allow the head to get away from you, even with a halter and lead.
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