Learning the Ropes with John Lyons

Throughout your horse's life, he will likely encounter everything from soft cotton lead lines to zinging lariats. Teach your horse to avoid entanglements and to remain calm when he gets caught up in one.

Your horse is studiously ignoring you. you are in the round pen and you have a nice new lariat you want to try out. You’ve never handled a lariat before, but it looks pretty straightforward. You toss one end of the rope toward your horse’s hip. Well, over the withers seems to work. He promptly moves forward at a smart clip, but the darned lariat seems to have a life of its own. It didn’t go where you wanted it to, there are suddenly all these coils on the ground, and, oh, crud, this time around your horse steps into the loop, which is tightening around his fetlock. This is serious trouble in the making.

Have we mentioned that your own feet are getting tangled in the extra coils on the ground as well?

Okay, let’s rewind. This is not a scenario we want to play out on your horse property. So let’s figure out what you can do to avoid this dangerous situation.

Most people never get their horses fully “rope broke.” They may acquaint them with a swaying lead rope or a flapping lunge line, but since many of us do not intend to rope calves and may not even have a horn on our saddles, why bother?

Anyone who has ever seen a rope wreck or had to deal with a severe rope burn can give the answer to that in one word. Safety.

Horses have a positive genius for getting tangled, spanked, spooked, tripped, “burned,” or generally messed up by ropes. Chances are excellent that someday your horse may be startled by a dangling lead rope or get caught in a longe line. In his effort at a rapid departure, he may suddenly find himself “draggin’ a dragon,” taking you and/or a large clanking object along with him.

Teaching your horse ahead of time that a loose rope does not have to be a threat can help prevent a serious injury. Training a horse to be “rope broke” does not take long, but it can be a significant factor in the safety and enjoyment of your horse.

Of course, rope safety is essential when training a rope horse, but it is valuable for virtually every horse. Consider the trail horse who might get a foot caught in a tie line or in vines. Think about the show horse who unties himself from the trailer. And what about a horse that gets cast in his stall, where ropes may be needed to pull him away from the wall.

Rope training teaches horses, “Don’t fight or try to run. Just relax.”

The Human Element
Unfortunately we-the ones who are supposed to be in charge-often know less about ropes than do our horses.

Let’s change that. To prepare yourself and your horse for contingencies, step out of the saddle for a little bit and learn to safely “sack out” your horse with a rope.

“Sacking out” is a method of gradually getting the horse to accept the sight, touch, and feel of something that might otherwise frighten him. The goal of this training is not to produce a roping horse, although it could be a good start. These exercises will, however, help prepare your horse to handle the inevitable oddities that happen when you combine horses and ropes.

Will sacking out with a rope “burn out” your ability to cue your horse with that same rope?

“When you come to dinner and Jody and I are in the driveway waving, if you’re just coming in, you know that wave means ‘Hi!’ If you’re leaving, you know the same wave means ‘Bye.’ The motion may be the same, but the context is different,” explains John.

“When you’re walking toward a horse with a rope in your hand, he can learn by the angle of your body, by how you are holding the rope, and what part of his body you are looking at, what you want him to do.”

There is no specific age or level of training necessary before beginning rope training-“three days to 30 years!” says John. The early stages of rope training are useful when teaching young foals to lead. You can continue through more advanced saddle work and fill in some of the small or large holes in training that lead to problems with older horses.

Safety-“Never Rope a Bear!”
Like the bored ranch kid who once very foolishly roped a bobcat, John notes that people tend to forget that a rope runs two ways. One of the reasons we always undo the loop of the lariat is so you never catch, hook, or tangle anything with the rope that you can’t get loose from in a matter of seconds.

John also advises that using a looped rope around the barrel or flank of a horse to get him used to a cinch is a singularly bad idea. This can get you into a major wreck if the horse feels trapped as the rope tightens around his flanks like a bucking strap.

In addition, “You do not want to do anything, at any point in training, that will scare the horse so badly that he might hit the fence or hurt you. You do not want the horse to be running while he is getting used to the rope,” John cautions.

All of his rope-training exercises should be done with the horse either standing still or quietly walking. If the horse starts to get excited, go back a step or two to a point in the training routine where he is relaxed. Do more repetitions until the horse accepts the next small step as no big deal.

Rope: A lariat is not a “western Americana” ornament. John uses a lariat a great deal in his training. It is a useful, versatile, visible tool that can be passive if held down, aggressive if tossed, noisy if slapped, or reassuring if used to rub softly. The rope can be used to teach the horse to “go forward” or to ask the horse to give to pressure. It’s valuable for de-spooking, dragging things, cueing for many exercises, and, if you are so inclined, for actually roping livestock.

Even if you use a longe whip for round pen work, it is still a good idea to do the following training to prepare your horse for the other types of ropes and lines he will encounter.

Do you have to use a lariat? No. (Well, maybe for the part about actually roping livestock.) But once you know how to use a lariat safely, it is one more efficient tool for your training arsenal.

John prefers a “soft lay” calf rope rather than a heading or heeling rope, but if you do not have or do not want to use a lariat, a longe line, long cotton lead rope with the bull snaps taken off, or just a length of thick, soft rope from the hardware store, will work. They are generally “floppier” than a lariat. The cotton lead rope can be a useful middle step when getting very young and/or sensitive horses accustomed to the feel and potential confinement of a rope.

Remember the important thing is the cue, not the equipment.

Gloves: Wearing a good pair of gloves is always a good idea. Rope burns can be nasty for humans as well as horses.

Pen: You do not want the horse to be running during any of these exercises, so work in a place where you can be in control. A round pen or other reasonably confined area is ideal.

Getting Started
For you: If you do not have much experience with a rope, it is a good idea to practice handling the rope before you get near a horse with it.

First, slide the end of the rope out of the hondo (the part that looks like the eye of a needle) so you will not have a roper’s noose. Do this whenever you are doing groundwork. You do not want to inadvertently toss out a loop for the horse to step into.

Practice throwing one end of the rope toward a specific spot from different distances. Unless you are planning to rope a steer (in which case you should not be standing on the ground), you do not need to dramatically swing the rope over your head. Underhand throws are less threatening and often more accurate at the short distances we will be using.

It does not matter which end of the rope you throw, although most people end up throwing the hondo because it has a bit more weight to it. Deadeye Dick accuracy is not required here, but you want to be comfortable that when you want the horse’s hip to move forward you won’t accidentally hit him in the face.

For the Horse
Depending on your horse’s disposition and background, he may spook at the weird thing you are holding in your hand, or he may yawn when you hang it on his ear. In either case, it is still a good idea to go through all the steps to identify any problems that might be hiding in the sequence.

This is neither a race nor a timed test. John says that some people and horses can do the entire range of training in less than an hour. Some will take longer. If your horse takes several sessions, it just means you are filling in holes in his training that needed filling. Remember to praise him as each step is completed.

In the Beginning
If your horse is steady being touched all over with your hands, you can progress to touching your horse with the lariat. He should eventually stand still for this part of the training. It’s okay to let him move his feet slightly as long as he is facing you and you can finish the task. However, a problem will develop if you stop the lesson each time he takes a few steps to get away. If you stop, he will think that is the result you want, since stopping the activity (just like releasing the pressure) is the horse’s reward. If your horse spooks, runs, or moves off when you’re touching him with the rope, ask him to stop and “kiss” to have him turn and face you. Do repetitions of turns if necessary.

As you work around your horse’s head, hold the coiled lariat close to his nose, and take it away just before you think the horse might become uncomfortable. Repeatedly bring it up and down, and walk away often.

When your horse is relaxed with that routine, bring the lariat up to his head, following the same procedure.

As he realizes this is no big deal, gradually touch and pet him with the rope all over his head and neck. Remember to remove the rope and walk away frequently.

Let the coiled rope rest and balance on top of the horse’s head and walk away. Repeat until the horse stays still and remains fully relaxed.

Rub the rope all over his body, starting at the neck and gradually working on the shoulders, front legs, back, under the belly, around, down and between the front legs. Finally move to the hind legs and work the rope down to the hooves in the same manner.

A Rope Under His Tail

If a horse gets a rope under his tail, he’s going to clamp that tail down over it, effectively jamming the rope where he actually does not want it to be. This, of course, makes things worse as pressure increases and it seems to him that he is being chased by the rope.

Don’t panic and don’t tug on the rope! Give slack. If the horse is going to the left and has the rope on the right side of his body, coming under his tail back toward you, you’ll want to ask the horse to do an outside turn. The rope is now on your side so he will feel much less pressure on his south end, even if he still has his tail clamped. Pretty soon he’ll relax a bit and the rope can drop free.

An essential part of rope training is to get the horse accustomed to this inevitable occurrence without letting the situation turn into a wreck.

It’s highly likely that a rope will find its way under the horse’s tail at some point. Many horses do take offense to this at first. That’s when your preparatory lessons will pay off. An outside turn disentangles the horse and slackens the pressure around rump and legs. Forward motion generally helps the horse relax, unclamp his tail, and release the rope. Stay out of kicking range. And remember, if things get western, you can always drop the rope.

Next Steps
For the more advanced exercises, your horse should be solid on round pen control. He must be good on inside and outside turns, and should stop and face you when you ask. He can be saddled or not. Remember to repeat each step until the horse is completely relaxed before moving on to the next.

First, make sure your horse is solid on the basics. After he is comfortable being touched all over by the rope, drape it on the saddle or over his back, but do not attach the rope to anything.

Quietly throw the rope various places on the ground behind you and in front of the horse, dragging the rope toward you as you recoil it.

Throw the rope out in front of your horse and let him walk over it. Throw it over his neck in front of the saddle horn or over his back if he is not saddled. (Note that some stiff ropes can scuff leather, so be careful of “scraping” a rope directly across a saddle.) Throw it under his belly. Do this in both directions.

Eventually you can attach the rope to the saddle, through the fork, which is more likely to ensure that it does not come off and pulls more directly from the top of the saddle. (If you do not have a saddle with a horn, a longeing surcingle can work well.) Yes, we know we said to be careful about attaching the rope to anything, but you are going to leave the other end completely free and untangled. Keep the free end of the rope off the ground, between you and the horse, much like a longe line. Walk the horse. Little by little, let the rope sag, then eventually drag on the ground. Do this on both sides.

Once your horse is relaxed about the dragging rope, swing it, letting him feel it on his hip. Make the swings bigger until it swings fully around, like a big jump rope. If at any time your horse gets nervous, reduce the movement to the point where he is relaxed. Then rebuild the motion more slowly.

Have the horse make an inside turn. The rope will pass along the base of his neck. First while he is standing, then while walking, gradually pull very gently on the rope with consistent, even pressure to get him to give to the pressure, stop and change directions. Your “kiss” cue can be useful here. Do this on both sides.

Let the rope drop a little more so it bounces on his front legs. When he stops easily to that, move the rope to the hindquarters. Let it drag way behind him at a walk. If he trots, slow him back down to a walk. Holding the rope off the ground, let it bounce against his hocks.

Change directions, flipping the rope over the horse’s rump to work the other side. Still keep the rope off the ground as you apply the same even pressure to the hindquarters that you did to the shoulders so the horse moves his hindquarters in response to the rope pressure.

If your horse kicks at the rope, you went too fast. Back up a few steps to the point where your horse is relaxed.

Once your horse is comfortable with the rope around his hindquarters, let the rope circle around his chest and bump loosely against the top of his front legs, then down his rump to tap against his hind legs above the hock.

Eventually, circle and wrap the horse loosely in the rope as he stands quietly. (If necessary, he can step out as there is no loop on the ground.) As he relaxes and learns to give to the pressure, you can slowly get him to move his legs closer together. This helps teach him that he does not need to panic if he is ever tangled in a rope.

Unwrap your horse. Do this exercise from both sides. Praise him for being such a perfect horse.

Congratulations! You and your horse will now both be much safer and more confident around any sort of rope.

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