On rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles—’natural’ or potentially harmful?

WARNING: This article was posted 4 years ago. Experience now proves that this article may send some readers into a flying rage or emotional outburst, which is then expressed in very long emails or comments to this post. All comments to this post are approved by me and I will gladly approve differing opinions, but not negativity and outbursts. PLEASE read this article with an open mind. Its basic message is: Rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles are generally NO more gentle nor ‘natural’ to the horse and can – just like a bit – cause injury, pain, discomfort, stress in the horse. The solution: Learn how to ride with a light hand and an independent seat to do right by your horse. Learn proper training techniques that work without pain coercion. Please also note (and see picture): I DO USE A ROPE HALTER when indicated, on both my horses and rehab horses in the past.

horse with wormer
A rope halter on an appy mare I rehabbed.This brief introduction will hopefully help put things into perspective for those, who are on the defensive right after reading the title.

As the horse world is evolving and people across all disciplines are striving for a generally more humane approach to horsemanship—focusing on relationship and gentlenss—there has been a shift from traditional halters, bits and bridles to alternative solutions that are perceived to be more ‘natural’.

Apart from the fact that I don’t believe there to be anything ‘natural’ about riding, driving or otherwise using horses for our purposes in the first place, I want to question the ‘naturalness’ and also the humanenessss or gentleness of some of these devices.

Let’s do a bit of semi-scientific investigation of halters, bridles and other tools commonly used to restrain and control our horses or to simply ‘keep him in the neighborhood’.

The ‘rope halter’

horse with rope halter
My horse Paladin with a light-weight rope halter

The rope halter is made of rope of various thickness or flexibility. It features strategically placed knots that send ‘signals’ to the horse and in that aid the handler in controling the animal. Here a description of a ‘Be Nice Halter’—a certain type of rope halter—on the website of a well-known equine supply retailer:
“The halter for complete control every time you handle a horse. When the animal resists, the halter tightens and pressure is applied to nerve areas on the head. As the animal relaxes, pressure is instantly relieved, rewarding good behavior.”  (Note: Not all rope halters tighten, this is an extremely harsh halter.)
1773 users give this halter 5 stars. Excellent! We can conclude that the halter keeps its promise: Absolute control via pressure on sensitive facial nerves results in desired results for the handler.

What does it mean for the horse?

nerves of the horse’s head (from the University of Lincoln)

The horse’s face is lined with a network of sensitive nerves that exit the skull around the middle of the face and extend into the muzzle. There is also an abundance of nerves right behind the ears, a very sensitive area. Note: This is where stallions bite during their stallion fights, they know it hurts!

Let’s embark on a little practical experiment to understand what this may feel like: Find an area of your own body that is bony, meaning having little flesh between bone and skin, and has a lot of nerves, for example your shin. Sit comfortably on a chair and put your leg up on another chair. Now take a rope halter with the knot on your shin and and attach a weight of about 2-3 pounds (about the weight of a 22′ longe line with brass buckle) on it for about 30 minutes. Keep tugging on it to simulate the effect of a handler adding some pressure to the weight of longe line and brass buckle. If you have a 22′ longe line with brass buckle, feel free to weigh it before the experiment, just to make sure we get it right. Do the exact same thing on the exact same spot the next day and the day after.

Feeling good? Probably not. But you may just have discovered a way to get your teen to take the trash out: “Get that bag out there or I’ll pull out my rope halter!”

By nature—due to the roundness of the rope and the resulting thin area of contact with the horse’s skin—the rope halter puts a lot of focal pressure on the horse’s facial nerves in the area of the knots and also, aided by gravity, behind the ears and on the front of the face. Combine small area of contact with a heavy brass buckle and a 12-22′ longe line (together, weighing close to 3 pounds), add the effects of gravity, consider the super sensitive nerves in the horse’s face and behind his poll and the result is a formula that can result in pain induced

  • negative movement habits
  • head throwing
  • face paralysis
  • unwillingness and other behavior issues
  • an ‘upside down’ horse
  • numbing of nerves, muzzles or facial areas
  • chronic tension in the poll and TMJ.

My thoughts: There may be a place for the short-term, responsible application of rope halters in combination with an attached, light-weight lead rope without buckle (I purchased such a halter in Montana in 2007 and still use it on occasion.) For every-day use, a flat nylon webbing halter with leather break-away head piece or a flat leather halter is the humane method of handling your horse.

If you horse does not respect this connection, you have a training issue, not an equipment issue. A rope halter should never be used during

a) bodywork or b) longing.

A) It will cause occasional discomfort and distract the horse from the bodywork.

B) Unless in cases of extreme behavior challenges and for short-term, special-case application, you will want to use a flat halter, a longe caveson or even a bridle with a gentle bit for longing. All this is more pleasant to the horse and will enable him to move freely without pain.

Standardbred with a leather halter
My Paladin modeling a leather halter.

The Hackamore

A hackamore works along the same principles as a rope halter. It puts strong focal pressure on very sensitive areas of the horse’s face. It is NOT a more humane solution than any kind of bit. Rather, it’s meant for a skilled and knowledgable rider/trainer, who can work with this tool to increase the responsiveness of a horse. If you don’t have ‘breaks’ on your horse, a hackamore will NOT be a good solution, only a very painful fix for a deeper training issue. If you are not experienced in the use of a hackamore, get an experienced trainer’s input and advice, to see if you and your horse are ready for a hackamore.

The bitless bridle

Even though softer and with less focal pressure, the bitless bridle works along the same lines as above. In addition, some styles constrict the horse’s head, a feeling that is so unpleasant to the horse that it will strive to be obedient to avoid this feeling. If you are planning to use a bitless bridle, observe your horse carefully. If the desired effect (obedience) comes with wide eyes and a raised head, it’s not working for your horse.

Conclusion

  • The horse’s face, head and poll area is lined with ultra-sensitive nerves.
  • Rope halters, hackamores and some bitless bridles enable the handler to use a pain response to control the horse.
  • Pain-based control tools can result in behavior and physical issues (see examples above).
  • They seem to temporarily solve control problems, but your horse will pay the price in the long run.

Recommendation

  • Re-examine the tools you are currently using.
  • Don’t rely on trainers, marketers, fellow horse-people or even literature (including this article!) to make
  • decisions around the use of so-called ‘natural’ tools.
  • Put yourself in your horse’s shoes, visualize or physically try the tool on yourself and then restrategize, if needed.
  • There is no substitute for proper training. If you feel you need more control, find a trainer that is in line with your own general philosphy, even if it’s against the ‘popular belief’.

Enjoy your horse!

Stefanie with an Arabian in a flat webbing halter for bodywork.

Stefanie Reinhold

 

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9 thoughts on “On rope halters, hackamores, bitless bridles—’natural’ or potentially harmful?

  1. Does the author imagine that a chunk of metal on the even more sensitive mucous membranes covering even sharper bones in the horse’s mouth is NOT painful?

    Of course, a rope halter or bosal or any tool has the potential to cause pain. I just don’t understand emphasizing that potential in bitless options with no mention of the greater pain potential of metal in the mouth.
    (And all the tight nosebands , draw reins, running martingales,chambons, etc that the bitless crowd

  2. (cont.)
    … and all the accessories that are used in conjunction with bits, often to camouflage the unwelcome expression of the pain that the bit and rider cause. If you’re going to talk about tack causing pain, or being intrinsically painful, don’t leave out the most painful, most commonly used sources is pain.

    1. Robin, thank you for your comment. The harm done to the horse, with whatever gadget, is usually caused by lack of rider/handler skill. As you point out, we can all witness painful expressions in horses that are ridden with metal bits, flash nosebands and various gadgets like tie-downs and martingales.
      In the hands of a skilled rider (see old masters like Otto Loerke or contemporaries like Anja Beran or Manolo Mendez), a metal bit is what any tool is in the right hands: an instrument that – skillfully applied – can produce art.
      For the hard-handed, under-educated riders, there simply is no tool that provides ‘less potential for harm’. A bitless bridle or a rope halter can cause, as explained, just as much damage to a horse’s body (directly or indirectly through compensation) as more traditional metal bits. Sometimes, as in the case with nerve damage caused by rope halters, good intentions to use something ‘natural’ result in lasting damage that is not immediately visible to the eye.

      My point of view is always: There is no substitute for good rider education. Unless for beginner instruction (side reins for short periods of time) or some rehab cases, there is no room for ‘auxiliary reins’ such as draw reins, running reins or side reins and no, rope halters and bitless bridles are neither ‘natural’ nor ‘harmless’. It is such misconception, the idea that these tools are ‘harmless’ and ‘natural’, that this article addresses.

      One more thought: We do not do our horses a favor by looking for the 100th alternative gadget, may it be bitless or made of rope. What we need is to focus our energies on becoming better riders. If you have any doubt about what that may look like, please watch some videos of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. With metal in the mouth…

  3. My horse refuses to walk if you put a bit in his mouth…he walks on a halter but as soon as you put in the bit he just stands still.

  4. I have a horse that refuses to even have a bit in his mouth due to a lip twinch gone wrong. I have had him professionally trained but two different trainers who have both come back and said to use the hackamore. He loves his hackamore. We jump, do western,even dressage in a hackamore. I will do anything to make my boy happy.

  5. I don’t advocate constant use of rope halters or chains over noses but sometimes they provide a solution to a temporary, non-human created, problem. I worked for a large therapy program. Every year when the grass got lush we had a few horses that would pull volunteers leading them to the paddocks. We would use a rope halter for a week or so and that usually did the trick. We never tied or lunged in them. They were only used for leading to the paddock. We did this instead of chains because the stakes for injury are high if a chain is secured improperly and the horse pulls hard or escapes and we couldn’t supervise every single attachment of a chain. I myself prefer a chain, in part because it’s what I learned to do first and in part because if the horse is leading nicely you can always opt to not run the chain (but NEVER, NEVER double the chain back on itself to make it shorter!), but a rope halter doesn’t present the same risks as an improperly secured chain.

  6. Good grief, I’m seeing this article again over two years after the first time I commented, and it still raises my ire. I’d forgotten about my first comment, until after writing another. This time, the article seems even more of an argument against considering the benefits of bitless.

    This article implies that bitless headgear is the only kind that causes pain, or even has the potential to cause pain. How about doing that little experiment on your shin with a bit? Better yet, on your wrist, as the shape is closer to that of a horse’s jawbone. Yeah, have a friend use the reins as if s/he is riding a cross country course, or a competitive dressage test, or a barrel race, or a steeplechase! A couple of hours of even an educated rider using the reins as they really ride, would leave your wrist pretty sore, I’d not bruised. There are a hell of a lot of nerves in the mouth, too, and the tissues covering the sharp-edged bones are much thinner, and iron is a lot harder than any rope halter knot!

    Of course, there is some potential for pain with bitless. It’s important to understand the effects of the tack we use. That is also true for the use of bits, only to a much greater degree! The thin, tender oral membranes, the knife edge of the jawbone, the corners of the lips, the sensitivity and impaired functions of the tongue when impinged, the broken seal of the lips which affects breathing, the presence of a foreign object in the mouth stimulating digestive processes while there’s nothing in the stomach to process — the list of bit-related health and comfort issues is long. It should not be ignored in any article purporting to address the effects of tack on the horse!

    Unless one isn’t really as concerned about equine welfare, as defending one’s preferred type of tack.

    I agree that there’s nothing natural about riding, etc. I despise the clinicians who use the word to con naive owners into believing that their methods are anything but the same old crap, just re-packaged with New Age flowery language. I use rope halters because I can make them to suit myself and the horses I handle. I don’t use a heavy snap or long heavy rope and I don’t tie in a trailer with them. I make a leather pad for the noseband and knots, for the halters I ride with. I also design bitless bridles with different types of action and levels of severity – all of them with less potential for pain than even a ‘mild’ snaffle bit. Start adding features like a slow twist, curb action, tight nosebands, etc, and you’ve got a horse in pain!

    No tack change is going to take the place of rider/trainer education. It can make the difference between a comfortable, happy horse and one that’s in pain, though.

    1. I believe you’re missing the point. It is false to assume your “natural” approach is not causing pain. Your “natural” approach may cause MORE pain and damage than that of a bit because it is abused by people believing it to be natural and pain free. Both you and the author agree that educated riding/handling is the answer. Regardless of the tool you choose, “gentle” seems to be the key. Just don’t allow a false sense of gentleness.

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