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Breakaways: How & When To Use Them With Your Horse

By Jeffrey Rolo

Breakaways (tools and methods designed to allow a panicked horse to "break away" from a tie-down) can be helpful, but it's important to know when and how to use them. Horsemen often debate whether breakaways are a good thing or are counterproductive, and it's not a debate we'll enter into within this article. If you want to read about the pros and cons of each, check out Tying A Horse Down: Should I Use A Breakaway?

In my opinion, sometimes a breakaway should be employed, sometimes it shouldn't. I think those that subscribe solely to one school of thought are unnecessarily handcuffing themselves. So let's take a look at some common scenarios and how I would address them:

Green Horses

I don't believe in using a breakaway with a green horse. On the surface one might think that a green horse would be even more prone to panic or resist, and that would be true… but the reason that *I* won't use a breakaway on a green horse is because I'm not going to leave a green horse tied up while unsupervised in the first place.

Part of the training process includes extensive cross ties and tie-down exercises since it's important for a green horse to learn that sometimes his freedom will indeed be constricted. As the green horse becomes more comfortable with standing while tied, it's a good idea to *visibly* leave the area so that the horse *thinks* he's alone. You're still watching… he just doesn't know it. That way if he starts becoming too anxious you can return and calm him back down or, if it gets bad enough, release his binding.

Most green horses will intentionally resist a tie-down at first, some more than others. Pulling back against the lead line is an inevitable result, and the last thing I want is the tie-down to release. Why? Because once a green horse learns that he can escape his bindings by resisting enough, you'll have one heck of a time trying to keep him contained with a breakaway in the future.

See… I think a breakaway is a fine idea, but not until the horse is convinced that a tie-down is unyielding. Breakaways are designed for emergencies, not naughty horses. Once a horse learns that resisting a tie-down is futile, he won't even realize it when you shift to using a breakaway, nor will he fight the constriction unless he legitimately panics (which is the whole point of a breakaway).

Always train a horse on a non-breakaway first. Get them used to being confined, convince them there is no escape, teach them patience, and only after your horse is well-mannered should you graduate to an unattended breakaway.

(And as a side note if a horse ever does get away from a breakaway in the future, stop using them for a bit and retrain the horse immediately. Once a horse evades a breakaway, they will be very quick to do so again, so don't let him mentally connect the notion of resistance with freedom.)

Experienced Horses In Familiar Locations

If your horse is patient, well-trained, and trusts you, I think using a breakaway in familiar surroundings is a good idea. Most trained horses are not going to depart too far from familiar surroundings, and when they do sprint away there's a higher chance that they will either stop soon thereafter or return of their own accord. Horses aren't too keen on leaving their comfort zone, their food supply, and the herd (whether the herd be other horses, or you, the alpha leader).

By well-trained, I want to emphasize that I don't mean purely technical skills; I'm referring to the complete package. Often I'll see horses that ride and lead quite nicely, but also spook at the drop of the dime or don't place their full trust in their handler. A comprehensive training package includes thorough desensitization and trust building.

Distant Locales

I'm not a fan of using breakaways in unfamiliar surroundings, whether they are woodlands or horse shows. Why? When a panicked horse sprints away in unfamiliar surroundings, there is no "home base" for them to return too. All the unfamiliar sights and sounds may cause further panic, and if the horse gets lost… you got it… he may panic even more.

Don't get me wrong – sometimes a horse will panic at a show, jump backwards, and then get his wits about him almost again immediately. But I'd rather prepare for the worst case scenario instead.

When I used to show my horses I generally rented a stall on the premises when one was available, but in the cases where one wasn't available I would use a non-breakaway tie-down when tying him to the trailer while he was being groomed or supervised. If I was going to leave him at the trailer without someone on-hand to watch him, I'd put him back inside the trailer and let him eat some hay in an inescapable place. (A side benefit is that being placed in the trailer prevents passersby from attempting to handle the horse without my supervision or consent.)

Although I'm not much of a camper myself, if I was going to tie a horse down in the wilderness while I was away doing something else (or sleeping during the night), I'd use a non-breakaway. Otherwise if an animal spooked the horse, good luck getting him back anytime soon.

Don't Panic, Be Prepared

This time I'm referring to the handler. When you're in a circumstance where a non-breakaway halter and/or tie-down is preferable, keep an eye on your horse. That way if he starts panicking you can hopefully calm him back down quickly before he hurts himself.

I also advise keeping a knife on-hand so that if your horse becomes so panicked that it begins thrashing around or slamming into a trailer you can quickly cut the line. While it's best to avoid a runaway horse in unfamiliar surroundings, there may come a time when the best course of action is to take your chance and let a severely panicked horse escape his bindings. Even if you use a quick release horse knot, it's still best to carry a knife, because with enough pressure sometimes any knot can stop cooperating, or if a horse is thrashing around too wildly it may be difficult to reach the knot.

In The End, Use Common Sense

I never really understood why some horsemen are so intractable as to pick a method and blindly stick with it. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they don't, and often with a little bit of common sense testing the validity of a breakaway can be avoided in the first place.

Leaving a horse unsupervised at the stable often makes sense, but attached to a trailer at a horse show? That's just sloppy, in my opinion… the trailer is there, use it if you have to leave and can't leave someone to watch for potential problems!

I like breakaways, but they're not an all-purpose solution. The only one-size-fits-all solution that exists is thorough and regular horse training, because the better trained the horse, the more unlikely it will be that the horse will ever test the bindings. And at that point, the whole breakaway versus non-breakaway issue almost becomes moot.

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