Every trainer and clinician is asked for advice about handling horses that sit back when they’re tied. It’s a universal problem because there isn’t a perfect answer. This article presents three ways to manage horses who pull back.
If you canvass equine experts, you get two basic responses, one that makes sense and one that’s regrettable if you love your horse. This post doesn’t include images of horses sitting back or what can happen when they do. The result can be gruesome.
What Not to Do With Horses that Pull Back When Tied
I found this (unfortunate) online advice from self-labeled trainers answering reader questions about horses that pull back:
- “If it could still breathe, I would just leave it there until it got up and stood for a little while, then untie and let it go.”
- “As harsh as it sounds, sometimes the only way is to let him fight it out. Most of the time, even when they get down, they are perfectly capable of getting up on their own when it gets really uncomfortable.”
- “You could use a neck rope, and tie your lead to it, and run the lead under her chinstrap on the halter, and tie her with that. Make sure whatever you tie her to is strong enough to withstand her freak-outs, and try to use a rope halter, and solid lead rope.”
This question popped up in a horse forum:
Q: I’m a professional trainer facing an abundance of horses who don’t tie/pull back. I have a fair set of tools but could use some more resources.
Do-it-yourself is popular for home repair and online degree programs, but not always the best option for life with horses. Buying the right horse solves most potential problems while buying existing problems often results in bigger ones. I wonder why this trainer sees a remarkably larger number of horses with this issue?
The regrettable responses from quoted professionals suggest that owners use halters that won’t break and tie horses to something that won’t move. A few online experts endorsed the age-old method of using a belly rope which, I admit, I tried many years ago with success. Breaking horses in the old days was dangerous. Using ropes includes the possibility of injury and unintended consequences and I needed methods that kept client horses safe.
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Three Options to Manage Horses that Sit Back When Tied
These responses represent one general way to address horses that pull back – stouter equipment. Thankfully, there are other ways and trainers who know how to teach and use them.
A: There are three (reasonable) options for manage the problem:
1. Don’t put the horse in situations you already know he can’t handle – like sitting back when left alone on the side of a trailer, etc.
2. Don’t tie the horse. Seriously. Unless you have to leave the horse for an extended time why not teach your horse to stay put? It’s right handy, which is why I do it with mine. They tie well, but most of the time I just say, “Sit, stay” without a halter.
Have you tried teaching your horse to ground tie? Teaching the brain is always safer than training the body. Need help? Here’s a helpful article by Julie Goodnight.
If neither of options 1 or 2 works for you, here’s another suggestion.
3. Take the long slow approach. There are dozens of ways to get started, from trying gadgets clinicians sell to doing it the way I do. (If you want details I’ll provide them, but read more first.) The habit of pulling back is a hard one to break because every time the horse fights and gets loose it reinforces the lesson that the answer to the problem is fighting harder.
Horse that fight being tied aren’t playing games. They’re terrified of being trapped; think mountain-lion-on-their-back scared.
Why Some Horses Fight So Hard When Tied
Horses escalate this behavior because they’re rewarded for it. You always get more of what you reward and less of what you don’t. If a horse was first tied with a wimpy web halter and frayed lead rope, it probably pulled back, testing the restraint like any horse new to the experience would, and got away.
The horse won.
The next time the horse was tied with a decent halter and lead rope to a corral panel. The horse pulled back again, couldn’t easily break the halter, and found itself with a fifty-pound corral panel on the end of the line. The fight was on. Eventually the horse pulled the panel loose and got away.
The horse won.
Fear Triggers Old Habits
Every time a horse gets away it learns to fight harder the next time.
When horses react in fear, old habits win. New experiences only trump old ones when they’re stronger than the old ones. That can take months, years, or never. Don’t start down this road unless you’re committed for the long haul. Failure only reinforces the horse’s opinion that it was right all along, and he’ll fight harder the next time.
Don’t think that you’re finished just because your horse ties three time without incident (or twenty or a hundred.) Every new habit has to be maintained, maintained, maintained – especially when they replace an old bad one.
Some Horses Won’t Get Over Pulling Back
Sometimes being a pro means telling folks the truth. Some horses won’t get over pulling back. The difficulty of the repair depends on the severity of the damage. In theory, it might be possible to fix every horse that pulls back, but possible and practical aren’t always the same. There are ways to break horses from pulling back, but most quickie options put the horse and trainer in danger.
Never use a fix worse than the problem. Before you try to remodel your horse’s habits, be certain you’re both capable and willing to let the process take as long as it takes.
Some horses simply won’t tie once they learn to sit back. The ones that do learn to tie quietly experience one of two things:
- GOOD RESULT. When the new habit of giving to pressure, even when tied up, eventually becomes stronger than the established habit of pulling back. Then its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.
- BAD RESULT. The horse is more afraid of the pain of resisting than being tied. This is not a good plan and often leads to injury or worse trouble. Your horse may tie, but he could also be crippled.
Rule to Evaluate Training Methods
Horses learn from the gentle immediate release of pressure. Techniques that rely on pain to “teach” a horse are abusive.
The only way to break old habits is to replace them with new ones. That may take months, years, or never. The best way to handle a bad habit is prevention, never letting it begin. I teach horses to tie gradually. Eventually they think being tied up is a cue to take a nap. Fear of being trapped by its head is a nightmare, not reason to doze.
I am also pathologically particular about who handles my horses because I promise them that nothing bad will ever happen – and I do everything in my power to deliver. No one ties one of mine unless I know him or her exceedingly well. All it takes to mess up a great horse is one tragic experience. Fear is a tough emotion to extinguish which is why faith rules in our barn.
What Are You Willing to Invest in Fixing Your Horse?
Unlike mine, most horses are handled by a variety of people, meaning that owners and trainers must make slightly different promises.
If your horse sits back when tied, how much expertise do you have or can you afford? How much time and resources are you willing to commit to breaking the established habit of pulling back, knowing that your commitment must last indefinitely?
Be a good steward and responsible horse owner. Your horse will thank you for it, God will smile, and really, who else matters?
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Related post: Rethinking the Use of Pressure in Horse Training
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