Lead Ropes ~ A Makers Perspective.
A while back, John O’Leary asked us to prepare some info on Rope Halters for his website www.horseproblems.com.au. John is a respected horseman and the website is one of the most popular online. The article, in various forms, has now been published in equine publications, magazines and club newsletters. To accompany the halter article we have now prepared a similar technical article on lead ropes. The main focus is on Natural Horsemanship training & handling lead ropes but the issues also apply to riders using a general yard rope for everyday horse applications.
The Basic Tools of Natural Horsemanship
Rope Halter: A good quality, well made rope halter should sit comfortably against the horse's head, but if 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.
12ft Lead Rope: Rope halters are commonly used in conjunction with a 12ft x ½” training lead rope. Good quality leads are made with polyester double braid marine rope. This type of rope transmits energy well due to the characteristics 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, and 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 and their ‘magic’ methods 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.
We will look at various materials commonly used for lead ropes, construction techniques, snaps and clips, clipless options and some handling safety issues.
The rope most commonly used to make a good quality lead rope suitable for Natural Horsemanship techniques 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. Lead 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 lead ropes 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 lead rope made from synthetic braid, poly rope, poly blend or nylon, it is likely to be made from a rope that is not suitable for lead ropes, 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.
Only 100% polyester marine double braid rope has the high strength, low stretch, high shock absorbency, good feel and high UV resistance required for a serviceable lead rope.
The smooth outer braided cover also lessens hand discomfort. Rope burns are still possible, despite what some makers claim, so care must be taken at all times. But most importantly, polyester marine double braid leads have the ability to transmit even a minute amount of energy to the horse via the lead rope and 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 hydro benzoate, 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 an equine lead rope and have the potential to cause injury by placing the horse or trainer in an extremely dangerous situation.
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 training horses.
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 lead ropes. It does not have the stretch resistance, shock absorbency and feel of polyester.
Cotton, unlike the synthetic ropes, is a natural fibre and may appeal to some as an ideal material for leads. 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. 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. The shrinking and build up of dirt and grit turns the lead stiff and hard, further reducing the little shock absorbency inherent in this rope. A cotton rope does not have the feel, strength, moisture tolerance, mildew resistance and shock absorbency of a polyester marine double braid rope.
Lets start with the big question that many people are afraid to ask…..
“Why is the rope thicker and stiffer at the clip & popper?”
These sections are produced by the splicing methods used to attach a clip, form an eye loop or backsplice a lead made with marine double braid rope. The splice technique almost doubles the amount of rope inside the outer braided cover. Some clinicians explain these sections as weighting the lead rope for improved communication or acting as counter weights. This may well be true, but the truth is that these thicker sections would be there regardless of any benefit.
At LodgeRopes we use Class 1 double braid splices to attach the snap to the lead rope, form an eye loop and backsplice the running or popper end of the lead.
The pic shows a Class 1 double braid eye splice. The Red outer cover is inserted into the center of the White inner braid, we spread the White inner core so you can see the Red outer cover inside the White core. The inner braid is likewise inserted into the outer cover; you can see the White inner braided core entering the Red outer cover top center of the pic.
There are some manufacturers that take short cuts in order to maximize profit or to meet a market price not a standard. This is potentially dangerous with equine lead ropes as in certain situations it is often the strength and integrity of the lead rope that ensures the safety of your horse, or those around your horse. A reputable rope maker will only construct lead ropes using techniques that ensue the ropes integrity is maintained at the highest possible level. All methods of splicing, joining or even just tying knots in a length of rope effect the ropes integrity, by this we means its ability to perform to stated standards in regard to strength, flexibility, shock absorbency and stretch resistance. When this is applied to polyester marine double braid rope, only class 1 double braid splices have the ability to maintain the rope integrity at over 85% of the ropes stated specifications.
We have received other makers ropes for repair that are not only a waste of good quality rope but potentially dangerous. One 12ft lead rope, sold by a very reputable chain of retail tack shops, is an example of manufacturing techniques that destroy the integrity of the rope. The clip is attached by a loop, which is formed by cutting out the inner braid and pushing the hollow outer braid back down into the rope and stitched into place. This method relies on the couple of waxed thread stitches to withstand the full hitting force of a panicked or violent horse. The integrity of the rope is severely compromised
If the loop fixing the snap/clip to the rope is hollow, look elsewhere for your new lead rope.
Another method of attaching snaps to rope gives the impression of being a correctly formed class 1 splice but employs a similar ‘cheat’ as just mentioned. The maker removes the inner braided core but leaves just enough of the inner braid to fill out the snap fixing loop and tuck into the outer cover so it looks like a class 1 splice. This is of concern as a perspective customer could be misled into thinking they are buying a Rolls Royce when they are really getting a very expensive Mini Minor. This rope also shows that price is no guarantee of quality. Below left pic show the ‘other’ lead ropes construction that involves tucking the tail back under the outer cover compared to a class 1 splice before tightening to secure the snap to the rope.
Snaps, Clips & Clipless
The use of clipped or clipless leads is a personal choice, not one to be forced on you by a retailer, trainer or clinician. Of course we suggest you listen to their advice on such decisions, as it is in their best interests to have a satisfied customer or student, but in the end, it is your choice. A choice that needs to be based on available information, research, experience and what feels right for you and your horse. To many riders it does not make any difference but there are certain situations where a careful choice may make life much easier for the rider, handler or a mum or dad helping a young rider.
Clips and Snaps: The sad truth is that no matter the price or quality of the snap/clip you use, every clip with eventually fail or break. With this in mind, before you spend your hard earned cash on a clipped lead rope, ask the maker or seller if there is a repair service available and what is the cost to have a replacement clip attached to your rope.
There are many options available, manufactured in a range materials, such as stainless steel, brass and various nickel plated metals. Pics below show some of the range we stock. The panic snap is not shown, we will cover these snaps separately.
Stainless steel clips are strong and rust resistant but very expensive. A nickle plated clip may cost $5.00 but the stainless steel equivalent may cost as much as $25.00.
Stainless clips are not readily available and you may need to visit specialist boating stores to find what you are after.
The nickle plated clips are cheap and readily available; hardware, sporting & feed stores all carry a range of silver plated clips. Plated clips do rust, especially in high salt areas such as near beaches or artesian water sources. A good quality plated snap may last for years but it is a sad sign of modern life that many such clips are now made to a price not a standard and fail or break prematurely.
The one exception to this has been the Bull Snap we use; this clip has proven itself over many years. More thru luck than skill we have a bull snap with a rust resistant spring that gives a long service life. More than one big name lead rope has suffered from premature clip failure due to rusted springs.
Solid brass snaps & clips are a good option. These clips are a fair price and they provide a reasonable service life. They do tarnish but do not rust and can be cleaned with a range of products or just steel wool and some elbow grease.
Panic Snap Vs Safety Snap: There are important differences between these snaps/clips.
Safety snaps are so called, as most require 2 hands to operate, therefore it is almost impossible to accidentally open the snap. Many safety snaps do require a certain amount of slack in the lead rope to allow the removal of the clip from the halter.
A panic snap will open with light pressure from one hand and release even if the lead rope is under tension from a panicked horse pulling back.
Pics below show “Bull” & “Twist” Safety Snaps, and a Panic Snap, opened & closed.
Clip problems: Perhaps the number 1 problem with clips is the premature failure of springs that activate the closure mechanism, usually either a tang or bolt.
We mentioned rusted springs had caused problems for a couple of big name lead rope sellers yet we have not had this experience with the bull snaps we use due to a rust resistant spring installed by the manufacturer.
You can extend the life of any clips with some simple maintenance and care. If you push Vaseline or petroleum jelly into the spring recess, it coats the spring and protects it from rust and also lubricates the action of the bolt or tang making life easier for the user.
Regularly, at least yearly, clean out the spring recess with a spray of WD40 or similar spray lubricant/cleaner. This will remove damaging grit and also protect the spring from rust, once cleaned out, use the Vaseline or petroleum jelly to provide extra protection.
The brass twist snaps shown below have a problem with the twisting barrel getting jammed with grit and dirt. These brass twist snaps are used by some big name clinicians, therefore have become popular or considered the best available snap for horse training applications. Unfortunately we don’t agree. There is the problem with jamming barrels but of more concern is the failure of the tang to withstand simple everyday events such as a horse standing on the lead rope and pulling back.
This brass twist snap failed when a horse pulled back, the tang or moveable arm bent and has made the clip useless. We expect a clip or snap to withstand such a common accident.
Another concern with all metal clips is extreme cold. During winter metals become brittle and dropping a lead rope onto a hard surface is enough to fracture a metal clip. Not much can be done about this problem, as many studs & stables have to work or move horses on cold mornings. The only options are to be aware of the problem and act accordingly or start using a clipless lead.
There are a few problems with metal clips on training ropes. Some training techniques ask you to shake, flick or throw the rope at the horse to elicit a reaction. Such actions will no doubt get a reaction… any horse will throw its head back and react when smacked on the sensitive jawbone area by a swinging metal clip.
There are very few circumstances where we would condone the deliberate hitting of a horse with a metal clip. We have always trained to get a desired response, not a reaction, as we want a responsive horse not a reactive horse.
It has always amazed us that normally considerate people, who would otherwise never physically inflict pain upon a horse, readily accept a technique that can cause pain, confusion and distress to an animal in their care.
Some horses seem to object to the extra weight hanging from their head and start head swinging or tossing.
Despite some concerns, a strong & reliable clip is an easy way to attach a lead rope to a halter, especially if you need to move or work with a number of horses and have just one lead rope.
Clipless Leads: No rocket science here, the name says it all… a lead rope without a clip. There are a few options that are commonly labeled clipless leads. The most popular is a lead rope with an eye spliced loop that attaches to the rope halters chin loops or webbing halters ring. This forms a strong reliable connection to the halter. Another benefit of having a loop is that a suitable clip can be added or removed as required. The clip does need to have a large eye to accommodate the diameter of the rope. Pic, below right, shows a clip attached to an eye spliced loop and a couple of unsuitable clips as their eyes are not large enough to take the rope loop.
The eye spliced loop is ideal if you plan to leave the lead rope permanently attached to the halter but may become frustrating if you have to change halters often.
There are options that make changing halters easy and almost as quick as a clip. These clipless leads may have a plain backspliced end, fitted with a small leather popper or a mecate style shoo fly tassel. The lead is attached to the halters chin loops with specific maritime knots, a sheet bend or the reef knot. The sheet bend may be recognized as the knot used to tie a rope halters poll strap. Both knots are quick and easy to tie and can be removed just as quickly but give a strong reliable connection.
The connection of the clipless lead rope to the rope halter does give a different feel, it is more direct as it does not have the weighty metal clip to effect the transmission of energy.
Often the momentum of a swinging clip continues to apply mixed cues to a horse, a clipless lead responds quickly to the cue applied by the trainer. There is also less weight hanging off the horses head.
Other Lead Ropes
This article has concentrated on the standard 12ft lead as it is a basic starting lead rope but there are many other options and a good maker should be able to help out with options that may better suit your needs.
Natural Horsemanship practitioners often use a 22ft x ½” training lead rope. The popular Parelli style lead rope is based on the “magic” rope used by an Australian horseman, Kel Jeffery. Early last century, Kel devised the “Jeffery Method” that used a long lead to establish initial communication with the horse. Often these horses were wild brumbies or problem horses with no future outside of a gluepot. Kel spent years promoting a better deal for horses and quantified the ‘approach & retreat’ technique for desensitizing the horse to stimuli. The rope usually has a steel ring and removable springhook. The steel ring acted as a ’hondo’ on a western lariat and if used correctly, can help desensitize a green or young horse to such things a girth straps, breechings or even cruppers & breastplates.
22ft of ½” marine double braid weighs almost a kilo and has to be balanced by the horse when lunging or working on the circle. Thinner & lighter 10mm x 22ft leads are popular with riders that need a lunge line more than a training rope. The 10mm rope has all the benefits of the ½” rope, just lighter and cheaper to purchase.
Shorter ropes are available specifically designed for equine requirements. The ezi-ty pictured is one such rope. Designed for applications such as floats, wash bays or any suitable hitching fixture. The item pictured features a panic snap on one end and a spliced eye loop at the other for flexible attachment options.
It is common for the running end, that’s the other end of the rope away from the horse, to be weighted with a back splice and fitted with a leather popper, also often called a flapper.
The extra weight of the back splice allows the rope end to be swung easily, this becomes quickly apparent. The usefulness of the popper is not as obvious. The popper performs at least 3 functions. The leather helps to protect the end of the rope, as damaged or cut marine braid frays quickly. The popper also locks the back spliced inner & outer braids in place. Finally, the leathers make noise when slapped against the ground, leg or saddle. This aspect of the current design is not as obvious as it was in past years. The older popper would often be large leaf shaped pieces of leather that made a loud ‘clap’ to motivate the horse.
It is a good idea to replace damaged poppers. An old leather belt can supply several ½” wide poppers, cut them to a minimum of 1 foot long. Cut each end to create points. A pair of pointy nosed pliers will allow you to remove the old popper, open up the hole and pull thru the new popper. Centre the rope on the popper, then cut slots and lace the popper.
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The current popularity of natural training techniques has found many riders handling longer lead ropes than previously experienced, initially, the longer leads feel awkward, clumsy and frustrating. The student not only has to remember the new techniques that involve hand, arm, leg and body movements or positioning but all this has to be done while ones feet are becoming entangled in what seems miles of unnecessary rope that is tightening around your ankles like a boa constrictor. This is frustrating and more importantly, dangerous.
To address these problems we strongly suggest that you have a decent play with any new rope you acquire without a horse attached to the other end. Get comfortable swinging, handling, gathering and controlling the longer lead rope. Practice throwing the popper end of the rope over objects; try to get a nice smooth looping action before trying this on a horse. Actually practice folding any excess rope over your forearm instead of leaving it to drag along the ground as this can entangle your feet or pick up burrs & seeds that can cause injury when handling the rope. With the rope folded over your forearm, instead of wrapped around it, simply dropping your arm will free you of the rope quickly & safely.
Marine double braid lead ropes are definitely kinder on your hands but rope burns are still possible. If working with stallions, green or emotional horses, get into the habit of wearing leather gloves. A $5 to $10 set of roping/rigger gloves can save you a lot of pain and discomfort.
While working a horse, always be rope aware.
Don’t let a loop form around your hand, arm, foot or leg.
Never drape a rope over your shoulder or near your neck.
Marine double braid rope is strong; your horse will break before the rope does, so always consider the welfare of the horse before you attempt any training techniques.
Work out how the rope tack applies and releases pressure and always have a plan B in place.
Plan B is what to do when it all goes pear shaped and you need to ensure you and your horse do not get injured or worse. We have all heard the saying “you learn from your mistakes”. That may be true unless the mistake cripples or kills you. When working with large animals, such as a horse, it is your responsibility to ensure your safety and your duty to ensure the safety of the horse.
Polyester marine double braid rope is easy to clean but care must be taken not to damage the leather popper. The leather poppers dry & crack after being immersed in water, even a good soaking in leather oil will not save the popper. One option is to wrap the leather popper in cling wrap and then hand wash the rope section in a bucket of warm soapy water ensuring the popper is not submerged. Once washed, a quick rinse and the rope will air dry quickly as moisture ‘wicks’ to the outer cover. Please do not use hot water or tumble dry lead ropes, as this will damage the rope.
Article prepared by LodgeRopes
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