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Rope Breaking Your Field Trial Horse


By: Brad Harter

A world renowned horse clinician once said: “If you find yourself on the ground, maybe you didn’t do enough ground work!” This holds true regardless of how long you have had your horse or how much ground work you have already done. It also isn’t important how much you might think your horse trusts you or that you believe your horse would never do anything to hurt you!

If you ever plan to use this horse to road dogs, and this is especially important if you will ever be introducing young dogs to roading, then taking the short time to “rope break” your horse’s tail may save you a trip to the hospital. This training may be the most important 15 to 30 minutes you can spend with your horse!This is important even if you have already successfully roaded dogs off the horse, but somehow always managed to avoid getting the rope wrapped around the back of your horse’s rear end – or worse: have that rope pulled up under the tail!

Even if roading dogs isn’t part of your program, you might someday be riding alongside someone who is roading a dog, and suddenly you and your horse end up entangled and that rope he is using comes under your horse’s tail. In another situation, you might someday be asked to lead or pony someone’s else’s horse while riding yours.This same scenario can happen in a heartbeat when that lead rope suddenly ends up under your horse’s tail. I have seen this first hand with people leading pack horses. It often ends up in a big wreck!

Anytime you get a rope under a horse’s tail, the result can be disastrous. Plenty of dog trainers and field trialers have witnessed what can easily go wrong in this situation.

While you may think you are handy enough with your horse to prevent this from ever happening, is it worth the risk not to take the time to prevent this? The training will probably take you much less than 30 minutes.

No matter how long you have had this horse or how much you think he would never intentionally hurt you, there are a couple things you need to understand. First, that area right around the tail is one of the true blind spots in the horse’s field of vision. Second, anytime something quickly encounters the underside of the tail, that is a red flag alert to the horse that this could be a predator attacking! Until a horse has been desensitized to this experience, you can expect several things to happen and none of them are good, especially if you are on the horse’s back.

I always encourage everyone to start out the same way and don’t take shortcuts. I know people will say they will just put their horse in crossties or tie him to a sturdy post, but that could result in the horse flipping over or breaking loose.

For this and many other reasons, my advice is to start with your horse in the round pen. The next step involves pulling up one leg using the simple figure eight strap to make the horse three legged, as seen in figure 1. Once the horse accepts the fact that he cannot flee and he turns his head towards you, drops his head and licks and or chews, he is asking for your help. Go to him, reassure him, and take the strap off, lowering his leg. Next, and very important, is to rub the lower leg even if only for a few seconds. The reason for this is pretty basic. Horses tend to remember how anything ends and rubbing that leg will allow you to put the figure 8 strap back on again. This time, when you walk away with your back to the horse and turn around, you will notice the horse is most likely looking for you to come help him with the mess that he has found himself in once again. Normally, you will not have to do this more than two or three times. Once you see the horse focused on you to aid him, then you have created that first and most important mindset that will be the foundation to this simple lesson.

Depending on the horse, I might leave this strap on during the next steps, or at a minimum, place the horse in two legged hobbles, shown in the figure 2. In any case, I also attach a long lead rope to the horse, so, if necessary, I can control his head.

This is also the best time to take the longer rope and start to put it behind your horse’s butt, gently pulling it back and forth much like what the horse would experience if a dog were attached to the rope and running around behind the horse, as seen in figure 3.

The next few steps are relatively simple. Start out just lifting the tail with your hand or using the rope about 6 inches away from the base of the tail, as seen in figures 4 and 5. Hold the tail up until the horse relaxes his tail muscles. You might not believe there are muscles on the underside of the tail, but I promise you, the horse can lock down on that rope like a vice and you will not be strong enough to pull it away.

After a few times lifting the tail with your hand or using the rope and seeing the horse relax, you are ready to move the rope a little closer to the base of the tail, as seen in figures 6, 7 and 8. You can use a short rope, or the end of the longer lead rope that you have attached to your horse. How quickly the horse relaxes will tell you how much he is ready to accept a little more pressure. The time that this takes will vary with each horse but usually, you will find your horse relaxing and getting very comfortable within 10 to 15 minutes or less.

If all goes well the first day, you should repeat this for a few days after the initial desensitizing. No need to go to the steps of taking the leg away. You just need to reinforce this whole process with a rope around the butt and under the tail.

Will this lesson stick with the horse? In almost every case where I have done this, I find the horse retains the lesson easily. If you happen to have a horse that does not take to this easily, you might want to spend a few more sessions with him in the round pen, but this is rarely the case. With a few breeds like Arabs or high-strung Thoroughbreds or with horses who have already blown up in a roading wreck, I have had to repeat this whole process a few times. But for the majority of field trial horses, this simple 15 to 30 minute lesson may be the best time you have ever spent avoiding the emergency room!

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