In-Hand Harmony

The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #3: Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools

  1. Understanding Your Horse
  2. Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence
  3. Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools
  4. Being Comfortable In, And Respectful Of, Each Other’s Space
  5. Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse
  6. Putting It All Together

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

— Louis Nizer

When it comes to horsemanship, I strive to be an artist.  And any artist I have ever known is pretty heavily invested in their well-made and well-used tools.  There are a few that I consider to be essential: a rope halter, lead rope, and a stick & string.

A lot of people I know lead their horses with short lead ropes (about three- to four-feet long) that are tied to their halters by making a loop and slipping the end through.  If their horse decides to stop and munch some grass, the person is jerked to the side or the rope slips out of their hands.  If their horse lags behind, they either pull on their horse’s head or stop, turn towards their horse and ask them to, “Come on…”  If their horse spooks and moves quickly, chances are the rope will slip through their hands pretty fast — or the horse, knowing the rope is short, will step into the person’s space, or onto their foot (and we’ll talk more about that in the next segment).  These folks also use these lead lines to tie their horses in their trailers.

I like to avoid pulling on a horse’s head because that can cause the horse discomfort and it can make them hollow out their backs and carry their bodies poorly.  So I like to have a long lead rope.  With a long lead rope, I can continue walking, keeping tension on the rope without actually pulling, since I can let some slide through my hand, and ask my horse to keep up by flinging the end of the rope behind me, like a tail, at the horse’s body — the way a horse would herd another horse.

Here is a lead line with an eye splice (from Natural Horse Supply)

Here is a lead line with an eye splice (from Natural Horse Supply)

I like a long lead line, with a snap, for tying in the trailer.  For one thing, I never hard tie a horse — anywhere. Given the right (or wrong!) circumstances, any horse will pull back and then they’ll either hit their heads going up, ricochet back, or worse still they’ll flip over onto their backs.  There are some horses who have been trained not to pull back by being tied to a tree or a post and left to deal with it to the point where they disappear within themselves, go catatonic, when tied or trailered.  I never want my horse to to feel so vulnerable or afraid that he has to “check out”.  So I use a long lead line with a Blocker Tie Ring so that if the horse needs to move, he can — yet there remains an amount of tension, giving you the opportunity to grab the end of the rope before they actually get loose.

Here is a snap attached to an eye-spliced lead line (from Natural Horse Supply)

Here is a snap attached to an eye-spliced lead line (from Natural Horse Supply)

I also like to trailer with a snap between the halter and lead rope.  If for some reason the lead rope gets caught in something during a wreck, the horse can still be released.

My husband Gary’s lead rope for his mare, Jesse, is a 3/4-inch diameter yacht braid, about twelve feet long with an eye splice and removable snap to attach to her rope halter.  Gary’s rope always seems a bit heavy to me and I occasionally get tangled up in it.  Mine is 5/8-inch yacht braid and about nine feet with an eye splice and a removable snap, which seems pretty perfect for me for most things.

Since I learned some rope splicing skills while sailing, I was able to make a nice working rope for myself.  The rope I made is ½-inch diameter yacht braid and about 15-feet long with an eye splice to be used with or without a snap.  I made this rope for two reasons.  Initially, it was so that I could have a lighter and longer connection online with Tobias while working towards playing “at liberty”.  This way, we could simulate being at liberty with a very light connection but still have a safety net.  And unless I’m working with a really obedient and confident horse, I absolutely hate longe lines.  Most of us have had those darn things run through our hands and burn or slice on their way.  Yet, a 45’ lariat can do the same thing and is really hard not to get tangled up in when working from the ground in hand.  The 15-foot yacht braid also allows me to work in a 30-foot circle.  Rather than Parelli’s heavy 5/8”, 22’ rope, I prefer my 15’ rope when working with other people’s horses who might need more room to drift if they are more fearful or combatant.  The longer line keeps us both safer and less claustrophobic.  You can get custom-made ropes at a few natural horsemanship supply shops online.

When I’m not trailering, or being lazy, I prefer to take the snap off the rope and connect it to a halter using the spliced loop.  The reason I remove the snap is that I really don’t want to smack a horse in his jaw with a piece of metal.

For training, I prefer a rope halter — one that’s soft, flexible and with two nose knots.  I like these because they are very light on a horse’s face, yet if a horse decides to pull away the halter creates discomfort.  When they stop pulling, if you have appropriate hands, they get an immediate release.  It’s much harder for a horse to pull me around when they’re wearing a rope halter, and that’s always helpful.

When asking a horse to get into the trailer, I like to have a stick with a string in my other hand.  There are lots of reasons for this. One is being able to stand far enough away not to interfere with your horse’s path.  Another is for you and your horse to be at a safe and respectful distance from each other (we’ll talk more about spacial issues in the next segment).  Another reason for the stick and string is that it is much more effective in providing a feel and phases than the end of your rope, a whip, crop or flag.

A stick and string (aka carrot stick or sugar stick) gives a much better “feel” and ability for “timing” than a dressage whip or a flag and gives you a lot more reach and ability to increase phases than just your body language or the end of the lead rope.  Think of it as an extension of yourself, not as a tool to punish with.  And for cryin’-out-loud, don’t wait until it’s time to get into the trailer to bring out this useful tool!  Be sure the stick is comfortable in your hands, well-balanced, about four-feet long; the string is usually ¼” diameter and six-feet long (any longer will get tangled up on itself).

Your tools are only as good as your ability to use them.  It takes practice using each one and then practice using them together.  Start out by using them, one at a time, to touch a fencepost — first from a couple feet away, and then moving to about ten feet away.  Then, when you think you’re ready, practice on a friend or your significant other.  See if you can communicate to them, without your voice, to ask them to sit on a stump or touch their nose to a rock.

This is my oldest grandson, Marley, leading Tobias.

My oldest grandson, Marley, leading Tobias.

As you practice asking your friend to move, you’ll realize that if you keep asking, your friend will keep trying to figure out what you want.  You’ll want to be sure to let them know when they are getting warmer or getting colder.  We’ll talk more about phases for communication and leadership in another segment.

If your horse is not comfortable with your stick and string, find out where his threshold is, where he is comfortable.  You might start by walking away from him with the stick/string in front of you, or by taking him into a round pen where he can move around until he’s ready to face you, and your tools.

To become “an artist” with groundwork, communication, leadership or partnership with your horse — or trailer loading — it’s helpful to have good tools.  I consider a soft, good-fitting rope halter; a nine- to twelve-foot lead line; and a four-foot stick with a six-foot string to be essential tools for good horsemanship.  Use your tools A LOT and make them fun!  Get good at putting a feel into your tools that can be pleasant for your horse, almost as good as you are able to with your hands — that good.

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Next Up:
The Art of Trailer Loading – continued
Building Block #4 – Being Comfortable In, and Respectful of, Each Other’s Space