Although they appear to be a new trend, tied rope halters have been around for a long time. They’re especially popular among horsemen practicing natural horsemanship, such as taught by trainers like Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman. While you can handle a horse well with other halters and leads, tied rope halters can transmit your signals to the horse with more finesse.
Tied rope halters have no hardware or stitching to break, and no holes to pull through or fray. The crown-piece knot is designed not to tighten even under pressure (although this depends somewhat on the cord type).
Tied rope halters allow subtle communication with the horse by virtue of their design. They capitalize on the horse’s sensitivity by providing:
Smaller bands of pressure than leather or web halters,
Small point stimulus with the nose side knots, and
A predictable, regulated unit through their carefully chosen stiffness and balance.
The material used — its diameter, stiffness, weight and density — influences the feel. Feel is directly related to correct function, though there is room for personal preference. A good tied rope halter lies lightly against the horse’s poll and nose. The throat latch cords fit up behind the jaw, unlike most leather or web halters. (If your rope halter does not fit this way, pull it up higher on the horse’s head or adjust the throat knot higher.) This brings pressure under the jaw when the horse is directed forward — which can be a clearer signal for the horse. Plus, it limits the twist when the lead is used to the side, which helps keep the opposite cheek piece from getting too close to the horse’s eye. The muzzle should fit somewhat loosely but should not be sloppy. All these components of fit transmit the trainer’s hand signals and, most importantly, the releases.
The training premise of “release as the horse responds” can thus be employed to great advantage when working with the horse from the ground.
Tied rope halters encourage the sensitivity and lightness we want in our horses on the ground. They are thin enough to get the horse’s attention, discourage the horse from leaning on them, and for quick and simple correction of a disrespectful horse. While ground work can be accomplished with a nylon or leather halter, the strong basics and subtle, specific exercises employed by natural horsemanship trainers are more easily accomplished in a good rope halter.
Many under-saddle goals can be facilitated by good ground-training:
Poll, neck and back relaxation.
Moving forward willingly and lightly.
Lateral and longitudinal flexibility.
Specific movements may also be started on the ground, for example, rein back, turn on the forehand, turn on the hindquarters, and roll back.
Tied rope halters span the training process by carrying over to early mounted work, which natural horsemanship trainers accomplish in a small fenced arena with a halter. By the time the horse is ready to be ridden, he’s been given the chance to get comfortable with the lead rope being swung over his head. The lead rope is moved to the right to turn right and back to the left to turn left.
Tied rope halters do have disadvantages. There are no side rings. We miss these if we use them to cross-tie, longe using the inside ring, lead with a chain over the nose, attach long lines for a colt or sensitive horse, or attach reins for a child or therapeutic rider.
The lead attachment, being rope instead of a ring, will wear more quickly if we use a lead with a metal snap and the snap has rough spots on it instead of being completely smooth.
The fit under the horse’s chin is not always as close as some horsemen prefer (but will be closer than in the product photographs due to our pony model). Chin fit is adjustable. Tied rope halters won’t break, so horses must not be left alone with them in place.
The halters were used for leading horses, ground work, on mares cross-tied in vet stocks (using the chin loop for both cross-ties), and as headgear for bareback riding. With exceptions noted, they were also used for tying and trailering.
We looked for:
Firm and textured enough for signaling,
Surface soft enough not to rub,
Strong enough to tie the horse (though we might not tie with it).
Good fit and designed to allow fine-tuning,
Soft crownpiece end that won’t bump the horse (preference, not necessity; more important the softer the rope is).
Clear transmission of signals.
Good value for our money.
Size and Adjustment
We recommend buying the closest size for your horse and then adjusting the fit if you are using the halter on only one horse or on horses with similar heads. While the halters fit our photo model reasonably well, note that we did not fine-tune the fit of the halters to our large pony photo model.
When the halter is new, before the rope gets “set” into position, the knots can be loosened and moved to give a precise fit.
Adjust by pushing the cords toward the knot from both sides until the knot loosens, then sliding the knot in the desired direction. One possible sequence of adjustment is: First, put the halter on so the noseband hangs at a good height. The height of the noseband should be as any other halter (a little above half way between the cheek bones and the corners of the mouth). Move the nose side knots forward or back, if needed, to the sides of the nose. Then, adjust the throat knot so the throat latch fits up behind the jaw bones (not tightly, just in position). Finally, adjust the muzzle size and the length of cord below the throat latch. The fiador (chin) knot should be comfortably loose below the horse’s lower jaw. To make this adjustment, loosen the fiador knot. Feed rope from the muzzle/throat latch, as needed. If you have extra rope (the halter is big), the extra rope will stay in the lead loop and make it bigger. When you achieve the adjustment you want, retighten the fiador knot.
The Parelli, Montana Cincha and Weldon halters are made with the highest level of adjustability because, in addition to tightening or loosening the muzzle and throat, their fiador knots allow you to take up slack in the throat and feed it to the muzzle, or visa versa.
The Cowboy Tack halters’ fiadors are constructed so that the muzzle may be taken in or out (as can the throat), but the cord cannot be fed from one part to the other. This makes them less adjustable.
Working and Tying
Rope halters are designed for working the horse, in addition to leading and tying. The degree of stiffness and the diameter may be chosen according to the needs of the handler and horse. (Note that desirable slight softening and shaping will occur as the stiffer halters are used.) The stiffer and thinner cords are designed to promote sensitive, soft responses from the horse. With these choices, the handler can be softer in her signals, taking advantage of the horse’s natural sensitivity. Stiffer and thinner cords are not intended to coerce the horse to respond. While thinner cord can exert more commanding pressure onto a smaller surface area, force is not a part of the natural horsemanship training philosophy.
As expected, though, this equipment requires user discretion. We don’t recommend tying horses firmly with the thinner diameter rope halters because a panicked horse could do a lot of damage quickly. Given the emphasis of natural horsemanship on the horse’s soft, immediate responsiveness to the lightest halter pressure, well-trained horses will stand quietly for long periods of time with their halter rope looped through a ring or wrapped once around a post or rail. When a horse has proven himself to stay responsive to pressure under stress, the handler can choose to tie or not to tie and the diameter of cord.
Stiffer halters are easier for less-experienced horses and handlers because they hold their shape, particularly for when you place the halter on the horse. Soft, thinner diameter halters (1/4″ diameter; not tested here) are handy for slipping in a pocket while trail riding. They take up little room yet are strong enough to lead a horse even in a challenging environment.
Cowboy Tack 10A
This halter provides a soft, comfortable surface against the horse’s face. It is more loosely woven, compresses somewhat between our fingers, and deteriorates more easily due to abrasion than all but the Cowboy Tack 20H. It is slightly thicker than the 20H but does not necessarily distribute pressure over a significantly wider area because of the compressibility of the cord. This halter fit smaller horses best and was adjustable once we cut the waxed string above and below the fiador knot. It is the most flexible, and our testers found it gave a “mushy” rather than crisp feel when working horses. We found it gave the least precise communication of all those tested, so it is not our first choice for ground work.
Cowboy Tack 20H
The cord of this halter has a soft surface and is the most loosely woven we had. It compresses somewhat between our fingers. It showed significant surface deterioration or abrasion after rubbing against a rough wood barn wall.
It is slightly thinner than the Cowboy Tack 10A, but these two are thicker and more compressible than the others. This halter was not as adjustable as the others because of the fixed rawhide knots, and we cut the waxed string above and below the fiador knot for more space.
Regardless, this halter was too small for large-headed horses and those 16.1 hands and over; it was not tested for tying or trailering. The rawhide jaw buttons encourage the horse’s attention, but we did not find any enhanced effect of the rawhide cheek buttons over knots on other halters. The soft rope cheeks and chin soften small hand movements, so this halter gives a less-specific cue than the stiffer cords.
The rawhide nose piece stays in place well and provides a clear signal when this part of the halter is activated. However, the disparity between the very soft rope and the stiffer rawhide was noticeable: The soft rope did not move the noseband until the last moment so the noseband seemed to “grab.”
This halter has the roughest surface, by a slight margin, of the trial halters. Its cord is braided of slightly larger diameter segments than the other halters. This surface might be unnecessary on a thin-skinned horse in summer hair coat, but we don’t find it to be abrasive.
The surface could be an advantage when getting a horse’s attention. The cord is tightly woven and does not compress. It resists abrasion well. It is of moderate thickness, and our testers were comfortable with the surface area. (Montana Cincha also sells a soft rope halter, which we did not test.)
This rope halter is well balanced on the horse’s head, was pre-adjusted for most horses, and transmits signals well. Ideal uses might be to transmit an experienced handler’s signals to a horse who has learned to brace and as an ideal starter halter for the beginning student of natural horsemanship.
This halter has the smoothest surface among the three tightly woven cords. It does not compress. It resists abrasion well. The crownpiece end is the smoothest and lightest weight of those tested. Its two cords are braided into one. This finish, combined with the medium firmness of the cord, makes this halter the easiest to tie. Its crownpiece end is least likely to bump the horse’s head.
The cord is the thinnest of those tested. It flattered our horses’ heads. The cord is comfortably lightweight, while still having the firmness and substance needed to communicate.
Although relatively small in diameter, the cord is strong. If a horse is going to set back on a halter, we prefer a wide surface area to minimize the chance of injury. However, during our testing one large mare set back on this halter twice without any incident, and the halter crownpiece knot was still easy to untie in order to remove the halter.
It’s stiffness level makes this halter an excellent move-up for a horse who had come to respond well to a stiffer, thicker tied-rope halter. Our testers found this halter to fit horses well with minimal routine adjustments. The halter is well balanced on the horse’s head.
This halter has an intermediate surface between the softer Parelli and less soft Montana Cincha. It is similarly tightly woven, does not compress, and resists abrasion well. It is of moderate thickness, and our testers were comfortable with the surface area. It is well balanced on the horse’s head and was well pre-adjusted to fit a number of different horses. The rope offers the best feel and comfort of the halters tested: A stiffer, rougher rope would amplify a less-skilled handler’s signals or irritate a thin-skinned horse. The rope is stiff enough to hold its shape during haltering, which helps as the horse progresses to reaching for the halter. It transmits an experienced handler’s signals well to a horse who has already learned to brace and is an ideal starter halter for the student of natural horsemanship.
We like the Weldon halter’s feel and firmness best.