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Rope Halters Versus Flat Halters

By Jeffrey Rolo

Rope halters can be a useful tool when dealing with an overly energetic or ill-mannered horse since they work similarly to a chain shank in that they lend added leverage to the handler when the horse misbehaves. Since some handlers are wary about the thought of using chain as a shank, rope halters can provide a good alternative. That being said, rope halters aren't gentle simply because they are fashioned from rope, nor should they be considered an all-purpose halter.

The best way to compare a rope halter against a traditional flat halter is by a quick exercise. Place the flat of your palm against the inner forearm of your opposite arm and push firmly. Although you can feel some pressure from the pushing, it's not really what you would consider uncomfortable, right? Now poke the tip of your index finger into that same spot on your forearm and push equally hard chances are you will experience some discomfort.

When pressure is spread across a wider area, it becomes spread out and less effective, but when you take the same quantity of pressure and isolate it by reducing the area it affects, the pressure becomes much more noticeable and uncomfortable. Flat halters work like your palm when the halter is yanked, your horse will feel the pressure but since it's spread out there really won't be much discomfort, and thus the handler will have reduced control over the horse. Rope halters work as fingers; the thinner ropes will dig into the horse's face when pulled, and the knots throughout the halter will act as fingertips jabbing into the horse when the handler yanks on the halter.

Some horsemen will elect to use rope halters all the time, figuring that ill-mannered horses need them and well-behaved horses won't be affected since the ropes/knots won't be tightened by the handler anyways. There is some degree of truth to that, but I personally would reserve the use of a rope halter for an untrained or naughty horse, and use nylon or leather flat halters for the rest. (And even then I tend to use flat halters for groundwork training, and just chain shank the halter if the horse starts getting out of hand.)

If you're debating whether to use a rope halter or a flat halter, perhaps these pros and cons will help you out:

Flat Halter Advantages

bulletFlat halters are gentler on the horse. They are far less likely to dig into the skin or cause undue discomfort in the hands of an amateur handler. Hair loss is also less likely, since nylon and leather halters won't create as much friction against the skin.
bulletMost flat halters are safer when tying a horse down (whether it be to a fence, a post, or cross ties) because if a horse panics and pulls away, the halter is more likely to break either via a breakaway strap or the buckle giving way.

Flat Halter Disadvantages

bulletSince flat halters are very gentle, the horse can "lean into" the halter to resist your requests and/or pulling.
bulletAlthough their tendency to break was mentioned above as an advantage, in certain circumstances it can actually be a disadvantage. Some naughty horses, once they learn they can rather easily break a flat halter by pulling away hard enough, will do so repeatedly. Not only does their success in doing so reinforce their bad behavior, but it can also get quite expensive if they keep ruining your halters.

Rope Halter Advantages

bulletSince rope halters dig into your horse's face more, and the knots create an uncomfortable pressure, a horse isn't likely to attempt to lean into a rope halter for very long. This gives the handler much more leverage over a defiant or ill-mannered horse.
bulletIf your horse makes a habit out of breaking flat halters, most rope halters will quickly discourage such behavior. That being said, I question whether this should be listed as an advantage, because if a horse's halter gets caught on something or the horse panics, I'd personally prefer to deal with a runaway horse than a severely injured one.

Rope Halter Disadvantages

bulletDue to their severity and unyielding nature, rope halters require more caution and skilled hands to be used effectively. Don't get me wrong when no pressure is applied, rope halters are light and comfortable enough for a horse, but if a handler is naturally heavy-handed, the constant tugging and pressure on the face will be discomforting and counterproductive.
bulletThey encourage a degree of laziness on the part of the handler. Just as people sometimes become too dependent on masking ill-manners with a chain shank, some handlers become overly reliant on a rope halter. Such tools should be considered temporary measures; your ultimate goal is to remedy the problem through groundwork and training, not mask it through tools.

Ultimately when it comes down to a flat halter versus a rope halter, there is no absolute right or wrong answer. Clearly I favor the gentler option since it's easy enough to apply a chain shank if absolutely necessary, but that doesn't mean I've never used rope halters before, or wouldn't do so again. Both have their place, and as long as you are conscious about the advantages and disadvantages of both, you and your horse should be just fine.

Before concluding this article I would like to emphasize that flat halters aren't inherently safe simply because the material and design is less severe. Although traditional flat halters will break much easier, unless they are breakaway/safety halters, they can still inflict harm if a horse panics. As such, I'd recommend giving the article Important Horse Halter Safety Tips a quick read if you wish to be extra certain your halter doesn't accidentally harm your horse.

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