Important Horse Halter Safety TipsBy Jeffrey Rolo
Horse halters are an invaluable tool in the equine world, but like all tools they must be used appropriately lest unforeseen negative incidents take place. Too often I have watched green horsemen not pay enough heed to horse halter safety, obliviously placing their horses at risk. So let's touch upon that topic now.
Halter Size Matters
Make sure you use a properly fitting horse halter: too short and it will be uncomfortably tight and potentially cause skin irritation or hair loss, too loose and it may shift around the face and eyes, or allow your horse's halter to get caught on its surroundings.
This is especially true of rope halters; they can become painful if too tight or downright dangerous if too loose.
Should Horses Wear Halters In A Pasture?
The answer is a firm, "no!" Never leave a halter on when you release an unsupervised horse into a pasture, paddock, riding arena or even his stall. The reason is two-fold: first, leaving a halter on can cause irritation and discomfort, but more importantly it's a safety issue. Horses can "catch" a halter against a branch, a fence, their hoof when scratching, or just about any other obstruction that may snag a halter. When this occurs the horse may panic, leading to potential physical injury and mental scarring that will make the horse less trusting of halters or facial constrictions in the future.
Some halters are designed to breakaway when the halter gets caught up (generally called safety halters or breakaway halters), but while using them in a pasture is certainly safer, I still would avoid doing so since it's just poor practice.
Tying A Horse Down In A Halter
It's not uncommon for a horseman to tie a horse to a post temporarily while they attend to another task, and although this is generally safe enough, it's not a good idea to leave a horse unattended for an extended period of time, no matter how well-trained a horse is.
Why? Again it comes down to safety – if a horse panics and pulls away from a halter, you don't want him injuring himself. A runaway horse is a pain in the neck to deal with, but an injured horse is even worse, so if given the choice of making a tie-down "bulletproof" or allowing a panicked horse to get away, I'll choose to worry about chasing the runaway horse down.
There are all sorts of reasons a horse might fight the tie-down: he could be stubborn and ill-mannered, he could spook at something around him, or he might even get jolted by a painful horsefly bite in a sensitive area. It's difficult to predict the unknown.
If you're using a breakaway or safety halter then you're already good to go. If you're using a standard flat halter, the buckle will *probably* break before your horse gets injured, but that's no guarantee. And if you're using a rope halter… well, most of those are pretty unyielding, so the potential for escape is low and the chance for injury is higher.
There are two ways to get around this problem if not using a breakaway halter. First, you could wrap the lead line around the post loosely, but not tie it down. Assuming your horse is well-trained, chances are he'll stand just fine – he won't realize that with an extended tug he can eventually unravel the lead line and walk away.
If your horse isn't well-trained, or you don't want to take the chance, then consider jury-rigging your own form of "breakaway" tie-down. You can do this by tying the end of the lead line to a length of rope that cannot withstand a sharp tug, such as some types of bailing twine. By allowing a more fragile length of rope to act as the middleman between your lead line and the post, your horse will meet resistance if he pulls his head away regularly, but if he jolts backwards in a panic the twine will snap.
(A good semi-related tip to keep in mind: desensitize your horse to walking around while a lead line hangs freely to the floor. That way when a halter or twine breaks away, your horse won't get further panicked by the feeling of the lead line brushing against his chest or legs.)
Some horsemen want to force their horse to remain at the post no matter how hard he resists (preferably via a quick release knot), but I believe you're playing with fire by preventing any emergency escape route. That having been said, there is an argument to be made for disallowing breakaways.
What About Cross Ties?
I generally will not leave a horse standing on cross ties unattended unless I'm quickly grabbing a piece of grooming equipment or riding gear from the tack room, but the same general rules as above also apply to cross ties. If a horse is going to be left unattended on cross ties, it's best to ensure his head isn't too strictly limited and that any form of escape isn't cut off.
Once again a breakaway halter can be handy, but there are other options:
1. Although most stables still use traditional chain cross ties, some manufacturers do create breakaway cross ties that are designed to give way if a horse panics.
2. You can convert a traditional chain cross tie into a breakaway manually using bailing twine. Instead of connecting the chain directly to the tie ring, use a bit of twine between the chain and the ring. That way if a horse pulls back, the twine will snap.
3. Instead of connecting the cross ties directly to the halter, connect the ties together so they form a line across the aisle or stall. Then, using a lead line, wrap line around the connected cross ties without tying a knot. Like wrapping a lead line around a post, if the horse pulls back severely, the lead line can unwrap and allow the horse to escape.
Here Comes The But…
I know some readers are probably shaking their heads as they read the latter two segments regarding tying a horse down since it's not a cut and dry issue. What about naughty horses that learn they can escape breakaways – won't they be encouraged to do it all the time? What about runaway horses – aren't they also risky? And for that matter, even if a breakaway gives way, can't a horse injure himself by falling backwards due to momentum?
Horse halter safety isn't always black and white, and there are indeed two separate schools of thought when it comes to breakaways. I generally favor breakaways as illustrated above, but that doesn't mean I blindly support their use for all purposes. We'll explore this topic in a companion article: Tying A Horse Down: Should I Use A Breakaway?