I don’t do it because I’m afraid of hurting the horse. I don’t do it because I’m obsessed with keeping my horses ‘free’. Why do I start horses without any constraint on their heads? Let me be frank. Do lead mares go and put a halter on their herd members to drag them away across the plains in search of water? Do lead stallions put a halter on their subjects to ‘teach them a lesson’? Absolutely not. It’s actually quite ridiculous to think
about it that way. Can you imagine horses leading other horses via halter and lead rope? HAH! Our donkey has done it, but that’s only because he enjoys chewing on things.
The reason I don’t do it is because halter and lead ropes, when depended on for training purposes, distract you (and your horse) from truly learning what needs to be learnt and instead of building a relationship based on connection and engagement, we end up building a relationship based on obligation and ‘trick training’ – a one sided relationship that only requires the horse to respond to premeditated cues and lets the human feel in total control. This type of training relies heavily on the use of halters and lead ropes to ‘teach’ the horse and only lets one graduate to working at liberty (with no ropes) once the horse has memorized your cues. Sounding like a program you’ve been on?
Let me first say that I started that way and I am fully appreciative of the places it got me and the knowledge it gave me. But now, happily, I’m onto some more authentic knowledge that seems to work a lot quicker!
Here are the reasons why I start at liberty:
- Storm can repeat back exactly what I tell him. If I ask for something and I’m in the wrong position, he’ll tell me by doing the opposite of what I say. If my energy is negative, he’ll turn negative and I’ll know about it! There is nothing holding him in one place or keeping him from responding the way his instincts are telling him to respond.
- I get really good at doing just enough. Many people can get away with dulling their horses to really small, yet clear cues because they over-react towards their horses all the time. I know. I did it for many years with my first horses. When there is no rope making Storm do anything, that’s when I get really sensitive to what does make him do something. If I don’t want him to do a turn towards the outside of the fence, I need to soften myself just enough so that he’ll be able to face me again. If I had a rope on him, I could just pull him around and say that I’d fixed the problem, but looking at it this way, I wouldn’t have fixed anything.
- The rope becomes a symbol of our connection rather than an enforcer of the connection. It would be pretty lame to think that a wedding ring on your spouses finger could prevent cheating, right? The ring is merely a symbol of your love. If you don’t have love yet, maybe the ring shouldn’t be there. Just saying. It’s the same when you use a halter and lead rope to begin teaching your horse. You begin to rely on the rope (the ring) to give you a connection (to keep you in love) and that’s not a very dependable way to develop a relationship. When you start at liberty, the horse is allowed to discover that you’re his safe leader in a way that’s way more meaningful than if you ‘yelled’ it at him through a rope.
All of this being said, I’d like to remind you that aids (ropes, bits, spurs, saddles) are not bad. It is how you use them, and why you use them. I do work Storm with the halter on, but if I encounter difficulty and find myself needing to pull and needing to yank, I take it off and go right back to the basics – getting a solid connection at liberty – so that when I do finally put the halter back on, he’s game for what I had planned.