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Tying A Horse Down: Should I Use A Breakaway?

By Jeffrey Rolo

One of the great debates within the horse world is whether a handler should use a breakaway when tying a horse down, or ensure the tie-down cannot be broken. Elsewhere on AlphaHorse I've exhibited a personal leaning towards using breakaways (such as the article Important Horse Halter Safety Tips), but as with most debates, the answer isn't always black and white, and one size doesn't always fit all.

[For those unfamiliar with breakaways, they are basically methods in which a horse can break the tie-down if he panics and pulls back. The breakaway can be part of the halter itself (a safety halter), or part of the tie-down in the form of breakaway cross ties, using twine to tie-down the horse, or simply wrapping a lead line around a pole without tying a knot.]

Let's start off with looking at both sides of the debate, starting with the pro-breakaway side.

Why Breakaways Are Good

Even the best trained horse may someday panic when tied down, and when a horse panics he will naturally recoil backwards to escape the perceived threat. A firm halter and tie-down that doesn't permit him to escape can cause the horse to injure himself when he jolts back powerfully and is met with complete resistance.

This can cause a horse to lose his balance and fall (potentially breaking his legs) or twist his neck unnaturally (potentially breaking his neck). Additionally, the halter can cut into the face (particularly if it's a rope halter), or a post and/or cross ties can be ripped out from the base, ruining the equipment.

Beyond the physical ramifications lies the psychological – a horse that cannot escape will panic even further, increasing the chance of injury and potentially mentally scarring himself in the process. If the incident is severe enough, the horse may require extended training to trust a halter or being tied down again.

Dealing with a runaway horse is certainly not enjoyable, but it's better for a horse to panic and flee a bit before being recaptured than it is to lock an unbalanced and frightened horse into place, creating potential physical or psychological issues in the process.

Why Breakaways Are Bad

Breakaways do not always prevent injury, despite their good intentions. A horse that rears backwards may actually flip over on his head when the breakaway snaps, leading to serious potential injury. Additionally, you never know what will happen with a runaway horse; he could run into a car, run into another obstacle, or lose his balance in blind panic and break a leg.

Beyond the potential for injury are the practical matters: what if your runaway horse never returns? Sure, most will eventually stop and be locatable through an extensive search, but if you're too far into the wilderness there is no guarantee. You could waste hours trying to recapture a runaway horse… or days… or it could turn out to be futile.

Allowing a horse to break away also encourages bad behavior; once a horse discovers he can escape his binding by resisting firmly enough, you'll never be able to keep him contained or tied down.

So What's The Verdict?

This may seem like a cop-out, but ultimately neither school is completely correct since they both present valid food for thought. For that reason I doubt this debate will ever end; some horse owners will continue to swear by breakaways while others will insist they aren't as practical as they seem.

Confused yet? Still unsure which path to ultimately choose? Then let me toss in a third option:

Don't Choose A Side With Breakaways

That's right… become the Switzerland of the horse world and adopt a neutrality policy because, quite frankly, anyone that adheres to either school too firmly is mistaken in my opinion. They're so focused on the debate that they've missed the forest for the trees. Here's why:

I lean towards the pro-breakaway crowd since I believe it's not a good idea to constrict a panicked horse. Sure, a horse can get hurt either way, but in my experience once panic takes over all rational thought goes out the window and the chances of injury increase significantly. Some might suggest using a quick release knot, and while they are certainly beneficial, it's not always easy to promptly reach the knot if a horse is thrashing about dangerously.

But that doesn't always mean a breakaway is a good thing. When a horse is being left unattended on foreign property, such as the wilderness while camping or tied to a trailer at a horse show, you are playing with fire by creating a scenario where a horse can become a runaway by resisting the tie-down firmly enough. I don't need one of my horses running rampant when crowds are nearby, and I'm certainly not keen on chasing a horse through the woods since I'm quite certain he can run quicker than I can.

In the end the decision comes down to three things: circumstances, safety, and training. Know when to use a breakaway, know how to make that decision in a safer manner, and most importantly train your horse well enough that the whole breakaway debate becomes moot.

Instead of expecting that a horse will panic, train him well enough such that the chances are drastically lessened. And since any horse can momentarily panic no matter how well-trained, work on desensitization so that if a horse ever does break away, the circumstances won't feed the panic and create a runaway situation. With enough training, a horse may sprint away for a bit, but they'll be much more likely to regain their wits and stop quicker, allowing for much easier recapture.

We'll discuss how to determine in which circumstances a breakaway will best serve your needs in Breakaways: How & When To Use Them With Your Horse.

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