Halter Training

By Patty Wilber

The traditional term is “halter breaking”, but the plan is: nothing broken!

Stay curious!

Stay curious! See the stick in her mouth?

This filly, Indy, was nine months old when I bought her, and she had not been haltered since she was very small.

As a very wee one!  Photo from Rachel and Cheryl Pozzi!

Indy as a very wee one! Photo from Rachel and Cheryl Pozzi.

When she got here, we found that she is a fairly sensitive horse and a little shy, so she was not about to let anyone just waltz up and slap the halter on.  She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be touched much.

Her first pen here was one we walk into a lot to get to all the other pens. This made it easy to take a few minutes to visit with her on the way to other tasks. Soon she wanted to be petted, as long as nothing went on her by her ears and she didn’t feel confined.

In order to make fast progress, it is nice to get that halter actually on. I enlisted my shoer, Kelly Robinson.  He has a good way with horses, especially young ones. We encouraged Indy to enter the stall, and crowded her against the wall. We tossed a lead rope over her neck.  She loved that.  NOT! She threw up her head and pushed away.  She has white around her eyes anyway as she is an Appaloosa (no spots!  so sad!), but more white showed!  She was scared.

Repeat repeat repeat until she could handle the pressure and stand still.  Kelly slipped the halter on.  We left a drag rope on her.

Fast progress! LOL. Day two of halter wearing. Drag rope attached.

Leaving a halter on a horse opens up the risk of hanging it on something.  Leaving a halter with a drag rope on increases the risks.

The benefits are huge, though.  The horse learns a lot on its own time: Dealing with ropes around its legs, stepping on the rope and the consequences, responding to pressure, and simply wearing the halter.

Horses with drag rope training often tie and lead very well, too.  They already know to come off the pressure of the rope. These are bigger benefits when the horse in question is a nearly a year old–large enough to drag you off if you don’t set things up well.

It is also easier to catch the youngster when we are ready to work with her. A short drag rope at first and when under supervision, a long heavy one.  The longer the rope, the higher the risk of hang-up.

What she needs to learn:

1. Don’t leave yet! The key to this is to make sure you can bend them to face you if they do try to go.  If they have learned the drag rope lessons, this isn’t too hard. They need to stay around to get to the rest of the stuff!

2.  Be touched.  With the halter and rope on, it is possible to help the horse stay with you.  This means we can touch them in places they didn’t think were a very good idea.  

A stick and string works really well for this.  Calm and rhythmic, do it, back off, try again.  “Approach and Retreat” is the lingo for that.

Being touched!

Being touched! Her feet are still and she is interested, not afraid.  She is also a mess!  My photographer (Jim!) had to take off so we had to snap pics now and brush later!

Brushing counts as touching! Indy likes it!

Brushing counts as touching! Indy likes it!

3.  Flex the neck, drop the head. Both are standard in natural horsemanship programs for a reason.  They work to increase responsiveness and confidence in the horse. Dropping the head also releases endorphins that are calming.

(In humans smiling–even fake smiling-– releases some feel good chemicals, and standing with your arms up in a victory pose for one minute can decrease cortisol (a stress inducer) and increase testosterone (improves confidence–even in women.))

4. Pick up the feet.  Brushing the legs, using the string on the stick to touch the legs, and running hands down the legs can all allow the horse to feel safe with attention on the limbs!  Then, a little pressure behind the fetlock with a rope or the hand will usually result in a nice easy pick up.  If the horse over-reacts, retreat to a lower pressure activity.  In a few days, most horses will willing let you hold their feet, and then clean them.  Then,  call the farrier for a trim.  Indy has never been trimmed!

i don't wanna!

i don’t wanna!

A helper for the back legs can be useful in reactive horses. I couldn’t encourage Indy to hold still and be at her hind end at the same time.  So, into the stall, up against a wall. Jim held her lead rope and I put a soft rope around her hind leg and worked it up and down.  When she tried to charge off, Jim soothed her and when she tried to remove the rope by jerking her leg around, I continued to breathe and kept it on.  Soon she figured out there was nothing to fear!

Brushing Indy’s legs turned out to be something she really liked, so that also helped her feel more comfortable.


ooh! i like that! what if i bite your butt?

ooh! i like that! what if i bite your butt?


5. Lead.  (From both sides!) If the horse has learned the lessons above they should be happy to follow you so long as the area is familiar and the situation is calm!  One good technique for a scared horse that blows on by is to bend their neck to have them face you and then you walk off the other direction.  It is helpful to have items 1-3 in place so you do not lose your student-horse and inadvertently teach them that they do not have to be with you if they don’t want to.

Leading in a familiar place, perferably fenced is nice for starters.  Going over things like railroad ties (for water diversion) is also interesting for the horses.

Leading in a familiar place, preferably fenced, is nice for starters. Going over things like railroad ties (for water diversion in this case) is also interesting for the horses.

Good leadership by the handler goes very very far.  Soon the horse will feel safest with their person.

Ponying can also help with leading.  The handler has the advantage of height, which provides some control leverage, a good lead horse is calm and that can help the youngster be braver in new venues, and a bossy lead horse can help the pony-ee STAY BACK.  Penny will pin her ears and flash the Look of Death if Indy tries to get ahead, but if Indy stays in place, Penny just goes along.


books!  after we do this can i learn to read?

books! after we do this can i learn to read? Thanks to Mary Ann Shinnick for these ponying pictures.

see that dog back there? Ha!  i scoff at dogs! me and penny scoff!

see that dog back there? Ha! i scoff at dogs! me and penny scoff!

6. Move the hip, move the shoulder, whoa, back up. All these fit right in with leading. If you go, you have to stop (Whoa, Silver!).  If you stop you might as well back up a few steps.  Moving the hip can let you disengage the hind end, which happened anyway when they were Not Leaving in #1.  If you can move the shoulder, then teaching them to lunge (go around you in a circle) is simple.

7. Tie.  That is a later on the list because if they can do all the other things (with the drag rope, in my opinion, being the real key), they usually tie just fine.  But to be safer, rather than a hard and fast tie, wrap the lead rope.  Then in case panic ensues, there is drag that is familiar, not just a hard jerk. Also, a sturdy tie rack is a must.  It is no good if the fence falls apart. I swear I just saw a cartoon on this, but I could not find it!

i can stand here. i will just eat this lead rope.

i can stand here. i will just eat this lead rope.

When we get this all in place, we will start on tarps and bridges and group rides and streams and…so much fun!  I sure do like the young horses!

(Starting them under saddle is my true favorite!)


About BlogPatty

Here's the skinny: I have a thing for horses. They make sense to me. I have a small horse training business (it's a "boutique" training business, not because it's super fancy, but because the horses get a lot of personal attention). I also go by Dr. Wilber, and teach biology full-time at a Central New Mexico Community college.
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6 Responses to Halter Training

  1. Peggy says:

    Why had she not had a halter on at an earllier age? Did she not need her nails trimmed in 9 months?

    • Patty says:

      Well, the first owner’s just got behind a little. Yes, she did need a trim earlier! But we will catch up as soon as we can!!!

  2. Doranna says:

    Hee hee–we’ve both got babies doing baby stuff!

  3. Kaz says:

    Outstanding read again Patty! Once I am healthy again me and Syd (the crazy mule) are getting back to work!

    • Patty says:

      Thanks!! I am more than happy to help with your mule!!

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