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Halter technical article


 

 

 


Rope Halters ~ A Halter Makers Perspective.

 

A good quality, well made rope halter should sit comfortably against the horse's head, but when used incorrectly, it can be a severe training tool capable of exerting extreme localised pressure. As with most training devices, it is not the device itself that is extreme, it is the way individuals use it, therefore correct use and technique is encouraged in order to train humanely and obtain optimal results. Timing is essential when utilising a rope halter, pressure and release techniques need to be used accurately in order for the horse to understand the request and respond accordingly. 

 

Rope halters are commonly used in conjunction with a 12ft training lead rope.   Good quality leads are made with polyester double braid marine rope.  This type of rope transmits energy well due to the mass of the rope.  Horses can feel a fly land on their hindquarters so they can easily sense the movement of the lead rope through the halter.  Exaggerate to teach, then refine.  The use of the lead rope during ground training should duplicate the use of reins while in the saddle.  Just as you would not jag, reef, pull or yank on reins, these violent actions with a lead rope will result in a reaction from the horse, not the desired calm controlled response to the cue.   If you choose to use rope halters and lead ropes, try to understand how the pressure is applied and released with any technique you adopt. Some trainers promote techniques that result in a rider/horse confrontation, and then rely on the severity of the tack to win the tug of war.   This can lead to an emotional and/or physical train wreck for both horse and rider.  Other trainers teach without confrontation, keeping the emotional level down while developing a calm, well schooled and responsive horse. 

 

This article will deal with the types of rope used to make rope halters, the correct fitting, construction and proportions for a good halter and will also explore some of the myths surrounding rope halters.

 

Materials: 

The rope most commonly used to construct a rope halter is marine double braid, also called Braid on Braid or 2 in 1 braid.  This rope has an outer woven cover and an inner braided core.  Halter makers use a wide range of double braid rope and it is a case of ‘buyers beware’ as some synthetic materials are just not suited for the job.

The absolute best rope for halters is made from polyester.  That means that the outer cover and inner braided core are both 100% polyester.  This can get a little confusing when makers and sellers use generic names for synthetic rope.  If you are offered a halter made from halter braid, poly rope, poly blend or nylon, it is likely to be made from a synthetic rope that is not suitable for halters, even if the word ‘marine’ is used in the title. Often polypropylene is substituted and is a great rope for certain boating applications but is totally unsuitable for equine activities.

  

Why polyester?

Only 100% polyester marine double braid rope has the high strength, low stretch, shock absorbency, good feel and high UV resistance required for a serviceable rope halter.

 

Polyester fibers have a similar beginning to most other synthetic ropes derived from coal and petroleum byproducts, but polyester fibers are long-chained polymers with at least 85% (by weight) of substituted aromatic carboxylic acid, often hydrobenzoate, this means little to most of us, but it guarantees a synthetic rope made from these fibers has a high degree of stretch resistance while maintaining strength and a desired amount of elasticity to absorb shock.  The fine polyester fibers also provide a rope that is soft on the hands and horse and it actually improves as it ages.  Polyester also has a high UV resistance and some Australian rope makers enhance this feature by using specific thread to make rope that has even higher UV resistance to suit Australian conditions.

 

Why not polypropylene, nylon, polyethylene or natural cotton?

Polypropylene is a lightweight tough rigid plastic material that can be woven into a cheap double braid rope.  It becomes brittle and weakens when exposed to UV radiation and often develops a white powdery appearance on the outer cover as it ages; this is the material breaking down due to exposure to the sun.  Abrasion also damages the rope and causes roughness as the damaged fibers protrude from the rope. 

Without the long chain polymers and UV resistance of polyester, polypropylene tends to stretch and eventually break.  These characteristics are totally unsuitable for a rope halter and have the potential to cause injury.  A stretched halter can slip around a horse’s head and injure an eye or become so loose that a simple itch could cause a horse to cast itself with a hoof caught though the halter.  A halter that breaks under extreme pressure is a danger to the handler.

 

Nylon is a generic name used to describe a group of chemical compounds classified as polyamides.  Nylon thread used in rope making is generally a long chained polymer but with less than the 85% of specific compounds used in polyester. This makes a good rope for tying down rubbish in a trailer but not for halters.

 

Polyethylene is a light stiff thermoplastic and is widely used in marine applications because it floats.  This synthetic material is used for a wide range of items from cheap dog leads found in discount stores to injected molded plastic containers, but it is not suitable for rope halters.  It does not have the stretch resistance and feel of polyester.

 

Cotton, unlike the synthetic ropes, is a natural fibre and may appeal to some as an ideal material for rope halters.  It does have the advantages of being cheap to buy and easily dyed to colour match other tack but there are some problems. Cotton rope is affected by moisture.  Exposure to rain, dew or high humidity can deteriorate the rope, mildew can form and cause weakness not easily spotted under the build up of dirt on the halter. Cleaning cotton tack is a problem well known to many show families who are required to use white cotton rope halters and leads for their breed’s class.   Cotton rope also shrinks which may result in the need to resize the halter but with the knots now “shrunk tight” a simple adjustment is not possible.  The shrinking and build up of dirt and grit turns the halter stiff and hard, further reducing the little shock absorbency inherent in this rope.  A cotton rope halter does not have the feel, strength, moisture tolerance and shock absorbency of a polyester marine double braid rope halter.

 

Fit & Construction.

The rope halter is designed to sit lightly on the horses face.  The knots are specifically positioned to sit in grooves or depressions on the horse’s head so they do not exert any undue pressure during training.  The areas of the halter that exert the most pressure are the noseband and poll strap, so these areas have a double thickness of rope to spread the pressure over a larger area therefore lessening the pressure per sq inch. 

 

The following illustrations show a well fitted halter, the individual components of a rope halter and the location of the facial crests on a horses head.

 

A: Noseband, this needs to be the correct length to allow the noseband knots to sit just below the lower points of the facial crest (the bony ridges on each side of the horses face that run parallel to the bridge of the nose) This locates the halter in a good position.   If the noseband is too low, the knots may compress delicate thin skin tissue between the rope and the nasal bone causing pain.  If the noseband is really low it may compress and damage the softer nasal cartilage, again causing discomfort and/or pain. In training, pain is a poor motivator and can trigger a defensive flight response in the horse.  Sometimes in training we need to up the energy and motivate the horse, but this is a controlled action, we do not want to battle with a horse in full flight response.

 

B: Cheek Straps, these need to be long enough to allow the throat pieces to sit behind the cheek/jowl line while the noseband knot is sitting below the facial crest points.  This is one area of halter fitting missed by many halter makers.  If the halter cradles the whole head, not just hanging off the nose, it gives the trainer more control and results in better responses to subtle cues as the halter allows contact with 3 points on the head, nose, poll and lower point of cheek/jaw line.  To explain this, if you are asking your horse to come forward and the halters cheek strap and throat pieces are on the cheek, the energy from the lead rope to transferred in a straight line to the poll region.  This often results in an opposition reflex and the horse raises or tosses its head before stepping forward.  This is not the crisp fluid forward movement we are looking for.  If the halter is correctly fitted with the throat pieces behind the cheek/jowl line, the horse feels the initial energy behind the jawline and leans into the feel and moves its head forward and down, then the poll pressure acts more as an aid to the subtle cue.  This helps to give the long low calm response sought after by many trainers.  We have been told that there are nerves located in this area of the jaw but again research indicates this is not supported by fact and it is more likely a sensitive area as there is little muscle or tissue to cushion the contact.

If the cheek straps are too short, the rope can cross or position the poll strap knots on the cheek itself.  This is never desirable in any bridle or headstall as there is a branch of the main facial nerve that crosses the cheek.  This mass of nerves can be compressed between the knot/rope and underlying skeletal structure causing temporary or permanent nerve damage.  This is even more a problem if you are working with a young or untouched horse that may pull violently.

 

C: Poll Strap, this needs to be long enough to be tied with a tail of at least 6 inches left over.  It is possible for some slipping to occur, especially when the halter is new, so the extra tail ensures the halter does not come completely loose.  An experienced trainer monitors halter fit during training and adjusts when needed.

 

D: Throat Pieces, these need to be long enough to allow the poll knots to sit behind the cheek/jowl line and the poll strap knot should end up just below and behind the base of the ear.  On a well proportioned halter, the throat pieces and cheek straps are the same length.  If you are offered a halter with one section shorter than the other, consider buying elsewhere as this halter will not fit correctly on a horse of average proportions. (Some breeds do need custom made halters due to unique head shape characteristics of the breed)

 

E: Gullet Piece, needs to be long enough to allow the gullet knot to sit in the hollow of the throat groove and allow the throat pieces to sit behind the jaw line.

 

F: Chin Pieces, these must be long enough to allow the noseband to sit comfortably around the horses nose when the noseband knots are located immediately below the lower points of the facial crests.  2 inches of free space between jaw and fiador knot is adequate. 

 

Knots

The knots used in constructing a rope halter are important.  The chin knot is called a fiador knot. This complex knot evenly distributes tension to prevent damage to individual halter rope sections. The fiador knot also allows easy and quick adjustment to nose opening and gullet piece sizing. This knot originated from the vaquero rope throat latch often fitted to a braided leather bosal hackamore to balance and position the heel knot of the bosal.

The other knot used is commonly called the double overhand knot, true lovers knot, blood knot, rose knot or halter knot… but these are colloquial names that also apply to other knots.  This knot has a definite X shape and is used because it does not damage the rope and can be loosened and easily moved to allow fine adjustment to fit.  Many cheap halters do not use these knots and this is an easy way to pick a quality halter from halter made to a price not a standard.

The halter poll strap is tied with a simple hitch (actually a sheet bend), but is often tied incorrectly. The poll strap end should come out the eye loop, then under and behind the eye loop and back under itself.  This hitch gives a secure attachment that is easy to untie even after extreme force has been exerted on the knot.  The most common mistake is to pass the poll strap through the eye loop and tie it back onto itself.  This will tighten and will be difficult to undo.

 

To help you identify the knots, we have included the following diagrams.

 

          Fiador knot                Halter knot             Poll Strap hitch

 

 

A badly fitting halter is not only a detriment to training; it can be dangerous.

A sloppy halter results in sloppy cues and tends to exert more pressure on either the poll or nose, but more importantly, an oversized loose halter can be snagged on a fence, tree or gate and there have been reports of horses catching a hoof thru the halter straps and became trapped.  A loose halter can also slip excessively around the face, increasing the possibility of eye injury or drop so low on the nose that the nasal cartilage can be damaged.

An overly snug halter is not as dangerous but does affect the release of pressure and, as this is the basis of natural training, lessens the effectiveness of the rope halter training techniques. 

 

Halter Myths

“The Halter knots work on pressure points”

After years of research, we have not found any evidence to support this statement.  Therefore it is possible that the entire knot/pressure point story is a marketing scam, or at best, a self-perpetuating mistake.  What makes it worse is that some reputable well known trainers & manufacturers know it’s not true but still advertise and take your hard earned cash for products that are based on lies or mistakes. 

Please consider the following points:

The stimulation of pressure points is an exact science.  Pressure points, their meridians and the organs they affect, are well documented and individually named.  Therefore it is revealing that no one has been able to name a single pressure point manipulated by the halters knots. Of greater concern are the halters with the extra knots on the noseband.

Correspondence with a leading US equine therapist confirmed there are no pressure points located in the area of the extra knots on a rope halter noseband. Furthermore, these knots do not work on pressure points but sandwich delicate facial tissue between the knots and the nasal bone causing pain.  This opinion was repeated by therapists in Australia and internationally.  These extra knots do not work on pressure points but create points of pressure, also called pain!

It should be obvious to anyone, who looks at a well-fitted rope halter; the knots are designed to sit flat and are placed to correspond with hollows or depressions on the horses’ head.  This indicates that the halter was originally designed so that the knots cause minimal contact pressure and not placed, as claimed, to cause pressure on pressure points.

 

“One size fits all, easily adjusted”

Not much to say really, it is just that ludicrous. No one would expect a 16.2hh Warmbloods bridle to also fit a 10hh Shetland pony.  Even within a standard sizing there is a wide range of variation in head size and shape.  For example, a PONY sized halter may be too large for a Shetland Pony but too small for an Australian Pony.

 

“Rope halters are kinder than webbing halters”

A rope halter is a severe training tool, but it quickly teaches a horse to give to pressure and follow a cue.  A horse may lean into or fight against a webbing halter all day and all it learnt was to lean and fight.  If a horse chooses to ignore the initial feel of a cue from a rope halter and leans into it, the rope becomes uncomfortable.  If the horse chooses to push through the halter, it can become VERY uncomfortable and the horse quickly learns to give to the rope halter resulting in the complete release of all pressure.

 

“Rope halters are unbreakable and ideal to restrain a horse that wont float or tie up”

This one does worry us greatly.  A 6mm marine double braid rope halter will injure or kill a horse before it breaks.  Floating and tying problems are addressed with training not physical restraints.

 

Rope halters are training or riding tools, not to be left on an unattended horse EVER!!!!! 

 

 

Summary

Over the years we have been using and making rope halters, the following points have become important to us and may help you make an informed choice for your next halter.

 

~The halter should be made from 100% polyester marine double braid.  Polyester has the high strength, low stretch, shock absorbency, soft feel and high UV resistance needed for equine activities.

 

~The rope halter should be tied in proportion. This is easily checked, as the distance between the knots on the noseband should be no shorter than the length of the cheek straps and throat pieces. There are some exceptions to this, but the cheek strap and throat pieces should always be the same length or the halter will be out of shape and not fit well.

 

~The halter should sit on the horses face so that the noseband knots sit directly beneath the lower points of the facial crests on each side of the horses face. The poll strap knots should end up behind the cheek line and below and, although not as important, slightly behind the ear.  The fiador knot should have at least a 2-inch gap to the chin.

 

~The knots used to construct the halter should be double overhand knots (also called rose knots, true lovers knots, blood knots, halter knots) and the traditional fiador knot at the chin.  These knots evenly distribute tension and can be easily moved to allow fine adjustments to a halter if needed.

 

~Results depend on communication and a badly fitting halter prevents clear communication.  A tight halter prevents the total release of pressure and a sloppy halter gives sloppy cues.  A loose halter can trap or cast a horse.

 

~The noseband knots do not work on pressure points and all halter knots should sit flat and in hollows or depressions on the horses face so contact is minimal.

 

~Never leave a horse unattended in a rope halter.

 

~Training is a continuous learning experience; it should always be safe as possible for you and your horse, so if you are unsure of anything seek advice.

 

Halter Hints:

 ~Always attach leads or reins to both chin loops below the fiador knot or knot can come apart and need retying. 

~To clean a marine double braid rope halter, hand wash in warm soapy water, rinse well.

~Put halter in an old pillowcase if machine washing.  Secure elastic bands above & below fiador knot to prevent it unraveling.  Set machine to warm or cold settings only.

 

This article was prepared by LodgeRopes, Australia, Comments, suggestions, advice or arguments are always welcome, email info@lodgeropes.com or visit our website  www.lodgeropes.com .

Illustrations made available with the kind permission of Diane Longanecker, horsewoman and author USA, www.hosbooks.net.  We thank Diane for her friendship, support and helpful information.

 


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