Anyone who has ever tried to lead a horse by his forelock knows how helpful a halter can be. The idea of a halter is to have a way to hold onto and direct your horse-a handle, if you will.
If you’re like most people, you haven’t given halters much thought. The horse wears what he came with or what you were given for Christmas, or maybe you found one in your favorite colors at the tack shop. If you learned about horses from Western or ranch-type riders, you likely gravitate toward a rope halter. If your experience has been primarily English or show-oriented, you’re more likely to have web or leather. But let’s look at other factors that might help you to make the best choice for an everyday halter.
The strongest halter is good training. After all, you’re trying to control your horse, and to do that, you need his cooperation. The halter merely tells your horse what you want, or it tells him when he’s doing something you don’t want.
We can think of halters as we do bits. They come in mild and more severe. Though we naturally focus on the part of the halter attached to a lead rope, the horse feels the pressure behind his ears when we lead him. It’s as if the crownpiece pushes his head forward when you pull the lead rope forward. When the halter material is wide, it’s like the flat of someone’s hand. But if the halter is sharp or narrow, the pressure is concentrated, and it’s like poking him with a fingernail-or worse.
Assuming correct fit, any halter should feel comfortable to the horse when it’s just lying on his head. So choosing a halter isn’t only a matter of style. Just like with a bit, it’s how we use it that matters.
Who’s On the Other End
When a horse is well trained, he understands what you want him to do with very little guidance. You can use nearly any style of halter, because you’re not likely to get into a situation in which you’re applying severe pressure. But if your horse hasn’t learned to give to pressure, you have to be careful that the halter doesn’t hurt or scare him, and actually cause him to react.
It’s natural to meet pressure with pressure. When someone tells you, “No, you can’t do that,” you instinctively say, “Yes I can.” If someone leans into you, you’re likely to push against them.
Horses do the same. When they feel halter pressure, they instinctively press into the pressure, as if to push it away. When a small effort doesn’t do it, they usually push harder, sometimes to the point of running backward. What we want is for the horse to move his head forward or down in response to the pressure. But that is a learned response. So how do you teach it?
There are two approaches: One is to put light pressure on the halter-just enough that the horse moves his head but not so much pressure that he feels he has to pull back. He’ll think for a moment about how to get that pressure to go away, and he’ll try options. One of the options is to move his head down or forward, at which point you release the halter and praise him. He won’t have gotten upset. He hasn’t had to do the wrong thing first, and he’s been rewarded for guessing correctly. With repetition, the response becomes automatic.
The other system essentially punishes the horse when he makes a bad choice, because pulling back-pressing into a more severe halter-is really uncomfortable and sometimes painful. A skillful trainer can use pressure on the halter to essentially tell the horse, “Don’t go there.” The trainer can release the pressure in time, preventing the horse from slamming against it.
The difficulty is that more severe halters can become abusive in the hands of an inexperienced or insensitive handler. And there’s a greater chance the horse will panic or become injured with a more severe halter than a milder one. Using this “corrective” system, an experienced handler can gain control over a horse quickly, but that’s not the same thing as training the horse.
When you hear about a “training halter” or a halter that “gets a horse’s attention,” you’re basically talking about a halter that has significant potential to cause the horse pain if he pulls against it-or if someone jerks it. An ordinary halter can become severe when the handler passes a chain through it. The reason these halters work (for a while) is that the horse is afraid of the consequences of “misbehaving.”
Regardless of which system you’re working with, a horse should never be tied until he’s learned to give to pressure and been thoroughly tested in exciting situations.
So with a better understanding of how halters work, we can turn our attention to the selection of halters available. The three major categories are rope, web, and leather.
Rope halters are usually made from one long rope and tied with various knots-no hardware. Many halters have a lead rope tied on, since there’s no hardware to clip to.
You can adjust the halter to fit the shape and size of your horse’s head by retying the knots, especially when the halter is new. Once it has been worn for a while, the knots generally tighten and are harder to adjust.
Rope halters come in various thicknesses and stiffness of rope. The thinner the rope, the more it bites into the horse when under pressure. Softer ropes lie against the horse’s head but are a little more difficult to put on since the rope hangs limp. Stiffer rope halters hold their shape, so the horse has an obvious hole into which he can drop his nose. Those who use a rope halter for groundwork often prefer the stiffer halters, as they feel the horse gets a clearer signal.
Some rope halters have knots placed in the noseband in addition to those at the junction of the cheek and noseband. The cartilage of the horse’s nose is sensitive, and because it is painful for the horse to bump into the knots, he learns to not lean into the halter.
It’s important to learn how to tie a rope halter correctly, with the tail of the rope pointing away from the horse’s eye. Rope halters sometimes stretch over time, and may need to be retied or adjusted after a few months of use.
Web halters come in a huge variation of sizes, materials, fit, and options. In years past, there were few options-a web halter was a web halter. But today there are myriad choices, with adjustable nosebands, a wide variety of options for hardware, and lots of color choices.
Generally speaking, the more layers of webbing, the sturdier the halter is. Avoid inexpensive single-ply (one layer) halters, as the material gets stiff and rough quicker, and they usually have poorer quality hardware.
It’s worth it to pay more for solid, easy-to-operate hardware, such as brass or nickel-plated brass. It won’t rust and will last longer.
Leather halters are the traditional show or stable halter, and they look classy. They are available in various thicknesses, from the most refined, rolled English bridle leather to the more rugged harness leather for turnout halters.
Leather requires occasional care to avoid drying out or cracking. Once the leather has cracked, it has lost integrity and is likely to break, so you should discard it.
Though halters come in a wide range of sizes, from foal through draft, the sizing isn’t standardized. So you may find that your fine-boned 16-hand Thoroughbred wears a regular horse size, while your 15-hand Quarter Horse with large cheeks needs a large horse size. When buying a halter, be sure you can return it to the store if it’s not a good fit.
Whether rope, web, or leather, halters all should fit basically the same. The halter shouldn’t look sloppy or snug. It should be easy to put on and slide off.
The noseband should hang one or two fingers’ width (about an inch) below the bottom of the horse’s cheekbones. It should be loose enough to allow you to put two to three fingers between the noseband and the horse’s face. If the noseband is too loose, it’s more likely to get caught on something.
The throatlatch should fit close enough to the horse’s jaw to prevent the halter from sliding off, but not so snug as to limit the movement of his jaw or to tighten up when he flexes his neck. The throatlatch knot on a rope halter should lie behind the jaw, close to the horse’s throat but not into his throatlatch area.