Every horseman should learn how to tie a quick-release knot, but not all horsemen should use them. Hmmm… sounds like a bit of a contradiction there, doesn't it? Well, before covering how to tie a safety knot, let's glance at what they are, what their primary advantages are, and why some horsemen should actually avoid them.
Quick release knots come in a variety of forms, so they define a type rather than a particular knot. All of them share a commonality: they are designed to hold firm when a horse pulls back against the lead rope, but undo virtually instantly when a handler tugs the tail end of the rope. Since a handler can unravel the knot with one easy motion, it provides added security if a handler needs to free a horse instantly during an emergency.
Sounds good so far, right? So why would any horseman reconsider using one? Well, let's face it: some horses could work a second career as an escape artist. Bolts, latches and knots aren't obstructions; they are puzzles to be solved. If your horse is the curious or mischievous type that enjoys finding ways to escape, you best hope he doesn't figure out that a tug of the tail end of the knot will result in instant freedom, because once he figures it out your days of easy quick-release knots are over.
Luckily most horses won't put two and two together, but the possibility always exists, and as such you want to discourage the likelihood since once the cat is out of the bag, quick release knots are no longer very practical. The easiest way to help discourage a horse from figuring out how to unravel such a knot is to "tuck" the tail end of the rope away somewhere within the knot, such that it's not such an easy and identifiable target. A tail that's just hanging out there for the world to see is just begging to be yanked, whereas a tail that's tucked into the knot presents no such appeal. Since the tail is only tucked and not tied, that doesn't mean a horse that nuzzles the knot can't free it and yank, of course, but it does provide an additional hurdle.
Anytime you tie a horse, I recommend you make sure that you possess a knife on your person capable of slashing the rope if an emergency arises. Yes, quick-releases are designed to unravel on a dime, but sometimes when a horse thrashes wildly, a knot just doesn't cooperate fully. As such you want a backup plan, so that if the knot was applied improperly or simply won't release you can still undo the rope.
Finally, depending on your location and that of the knot, if your horse starts panicking or thrashing about, sometimes it's best to stand back and wait until your horse settles down again before undoing the knot. Yes, the knot exists for emergencies, but you won't help anyone if you can't approach it safely. It would be terrible if your horse gets hurt, but it would be even worse if he accidentally takes you down with him, and given that they outweigh us by a good thousand pounds or more, if you're in a dangerous spot it wouldn't take much to get caught in the mess. Discretion is the better part of valor; don't be a hero or you won't be good to yourself or your horse.
What type of quick release knot should you use? That's probably something you should experiment with, as horsemen use different types of safety knots. Find one that's easily applied and comfortable for you. Personally, I like the highwayman's hitch, which you can see a sample of from this YouTube video:
I just grabbed a video at random – you can find an assortment of other quick release knot tutorials on YouTube, so don't hesitate to experiment.
Before using a quick release knot on a horse, be sure to practice tying it properly and securely first. Make sure you can tug against the lead rope with your full weight without it giving at all, and then make sure your knot frees up when you tug the tail. It shouldn't take more than a couple trial runs before you're comfortable with whichever quick release knot you choose to use; most are fairly easy to apply even for a knot dunce such as myself.
Finally, if you want to learn some important advice related to tying a horse, check out the article How To Tie A Horse Safely.