On rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles—’natural’ or potentially harmful?
WARNING: This article was posted 4 years ago. Experience now proves that this article may send some readers into a flying rage or emotional outburst, which is then expressed in very long emails or comments to this post. All comments to this post are approved by me and I will gladly approve differing opinions, but not negativity and outbursts. PLEASE read this article with an open mind. Its basic message is: Rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles are generally NO more gentle nor ‘natural’ to the horse and can – just like a bit – cause injury, pain, discomfort, stress in the horse. The solution: Learn how to ride with a light hand and an independent seat to do right by your horse. Learn proper training techniques that work without pain coercion. Please also note (and see picture): I DO USE A ROPE HALTER when indicated, on both my horses and rehab horses in the past.
As the horse world is evolving and people across all disciplines are striving for a generally more humane approach to horsemanship—focusing on relationship and gentlenss—there has been a shift from traditional halters, bits and bridles to alternative solutions that are perceived to be more ‘natural’.
Apart from the fact that I don’t believe there to be anything ‘natural’ about riding, driving or otherwise using horses for our purposes in the first place, I want to question the ‘naturalness’ and also the humanenessss or gentleness of some of these devices.
Let’s do a bit of semi-scientific investigation of halters, bridles and other tools commonly used to restrain and control our horses or to simply ‘keep him in the neighborhood’.
The ‘rope halter’
The rope halter is made of rope of various thickness or flexibility. It features strategically placed knots that send ‘signals’ to the horse and in that aid the handler in controling the animal. Here a description of a ‘Be Nice Halter’—a certain type of rope halter—on the website of a well-known equine supply retailer:
“The halter for complete control every time you handle a horse. When the animal resists, the halter tightens and pressure is applied to nerve areas on the head. As the animal relaxes, pressure is instantly relieved, rewarding good behavior.” (Note: Not all rope halters tighten, this is an extremely harsh halter.)
1773 users give this halter 5 stars. Excellent! We can conclude that the halter keeps its promise: Absolute control via pressure on sensitive facial nerves results in desired results for the handler.
What does it mean for the horse?
The horse’s face is lined with a network of sensitive nerves that exit the skull around the middle of the face and extend into the muzzle. There is also an abundance of nerves right behind the ears, a very sensitive area. Note: This is where stallions bite during their stallion fights, they know it hurts!
Let’s embark on a little practical experiment to understand what this may feel like: Find an area of your own body that is bony, meaning having little flesh between bone and skin, and has a lot of nerves, for example your shin. Sit comfortably on a chair and put your leg up on another chair. Now take a rope halter with the knot on your shin and and attach a weight of about 2-3 pounds (about the weight of a 22′ longe line with brass buckle) on it for about 30 minutes. Keep tugging on it to simulate the effect of a handler adding some pressure to the weight of longe line and brass buckle. If you have a 22′ longe line with brass buckle, feel free to weigh it before the experiment, just to make sure we get it right. Do the exact same thing on the exact same spot the next day and the day after.
Feeling good? Probably not. But you may just have discovered a way to get your teen to take the trash out: “Get that bag out there or I’ll pull out my rope halter!”
By nature—due to the roundness of the rope and the resulting thin area of contact with the horse’s skin—the rope halter puts a lot of focal pressure on the horse’s facial nerves in the area of the knots and also, aided by gravity, behind the ears and on the front of the face. Combine small area of contact with a heavy brass buckle and a 12-22′ longe line (together, weighing close to 3 pounds), add the effects of gravity, consider the super sensitive nerves in the horse’s face and behind his poll and the result is a formula that can result in pain induced
- negative movement habits
- head throwing
- face paralysis
- unwillingness and other behavior issues
- an ‘upside down’ horse
- numbing of nerves, muzzles or facial areas
- chronic tension in the poll and TMJ.
My thoughts: There may be a place for the short-term, responsible application of rope halters in combination with an attached, light-weight lead rope without buckle (I purchased such a halter in Montana in 2007 and still use it on occasion.) For every-day use, a flat nylon webbing halter with leather break-away head piece or a flat leather halter is the humane method of handling your horse.
If you horse does not respect this connection, you have a training issue, not an equipment issue. A rope halter should never be used during
a) bodywork or b) longing.
A) It will cause occasional discomfort and distract the horse from the bodywork.
B) Unless in cases of extreme behavior challenges and for short-term, special-case application, you will want to use a flat halter, a longe caveson or even a bridle with a gentle bit for longing. All this is more pleasant to the horse and will enable him to move freely without pain.
A hackamore works along the same principles as a rope halter. It puts strong focal pressure on very sensitive areas of the horse’s face. It is NOT a more humane solution than any kind of bit. Rather, it’s meant for a skilled and knowledgable rider/trainer, who can work with this tool to increase the responsiveness of a horse. If you don’t have ‘breaks’ on your horse, a hackamore will NOT be a good solution, only a very painful fix for a deeper training issue. If you are not experienced in the use of a hackamore, get an experienced trainer’s input and advice, to see if you and your horse are ready for a hackamore.
The bitless bridle
Even though softer and with less focal pressure, the bitless bridle works along the same lines as above. In addition, some styles constrict the horse’s head, a feeling that is so unpleasant to the horse that it will strive to be obedient to avoid this feeling. If you are planning to use a bitless bridle, observe your horse carefully. If the desired effect (obedience) comes with wide eyes and a raised head, it’s not working for your horse.
- The horse’s face, head and poll area is lined with ultra-sensitive nerves.
- Rope halters, hackamores and some bitless bridles enable the handler to use a pain response to control the horse.
- Pain-based control tools can result in behavior and physical issues (see examples above).
- They seem to temporarily solve control problems, but your horse will pay the price in the long run.
- Re-examine the tools you are currently using.
- Don’t rely on trainers, marketers, fellow horse-people or even literature (including this article!) to make
- decisions around the use of so-called ‘natural’ tools.
- Put yourself in your horse’s shoes, visualize or physically try the tool on yourself and then restrategize, if needed.
- There is no substitute for proper training. If you feel you need more control, find a trainer that is in line with your own general philosphy, even if it’s against the ‘popular belief’.
Enjoy your horse!