How can I make hand walking safer?
This may seem like a totally unnecessary article to write, but every now and again I have a brush with panic and realize that now matter how much you love and trust your beasts, they can still kill you and/or themselves in the blink of an eye. And yes, it CAN happen to YOU.
So lets really get back to basics and talk about how to use a halter and lead rope. Bear with me here…. Make sure your halter fits. (Read this article here on how to correctly fit a halter.) And your halter can breakaway.
For your lead rope, make sure it’s in good working order. I love the twisted cotton ones for a zillion reasons, but I gotta tell you that I’ve had a few of them have epic failures over the years. If you choose to use one of these bad boys, please check that the end by the snap is not starting to fray. Duct tape won’t fix this, once it frays, it can snap. Use this as an excuse to go shopping!! (Like we need an excuse!)
I really like the nylon ones, lots of colors to choose from and super strong. Some folks don’t like them because of the super awful rope burn you can get. I say things are much less likely to go this way if you follow some guidelines, and if all else fails, let go. You can also use a leather lead rope, but that’s something else to add to the clean and maintain pile.
So - how to hold halter and lead rope? Easy to do! Horse on your right, your right hand about a foot below the buckle. Left hand hold the rest of the rope. NO LOOPS!! Fold the extra rope if you need to. Unless you want to go from 10 fingers to less than 10 fingers. The xray below is of a spiral fracture that happened to a friend of mine as she was leading a horse - with a loop. It required surgical repair with a rod!
You should be next to the horse’s neck, with his head just ahead of you and his shoulders just behind you. A horse that is allowed to lag behind is showing disrespect, and can/will jump on/run through you if he’s spooked from behind. A horse that is allowed to pull you along is also showing disrespect, and can quite easily pop you with a hind leg.
Another reason to have you horse aligned like this is to allow for more control over the head, shoulders, and hind legs. If he’s properly walking alongside you, you have a little slack in the lead rope and can give him a swift yank and release to half halt him back to you if needed. If he’s walking ahead of you and pulling, you have no way to yank/release to half halt, you are in a tug of war instead. (Guess who will win that one….it’s not you...)
To control his shoulders, you can put your right hand on the side of his lower neck and push, a properly trained and respectful horse will yield to this pressure. Mine are trained to yield to me just raising my arm.
To control the hindquarters, you have the option of using the tail of your lead rope. You can swing it behind you with your left hand to touch his flanks and ask him to step aside or step up to you.
Your left arm is also handy to use if you horse decides he wants to walk in front of you by making a left turn and cutting you off. Raise your left arm, he may even bonk his face into you. Bonk back. Be faster than he is.
Now for the hand walking part. Horses are hand walked for a zillion reasons, and let me tell you that even the tiny distance between barn and cross ties is a chance for your horse to be dangerous and disrespectful, or a chance for you to practice safe hand walking. You may need to hand walk because:
-It’s part of the daily exercise routine
-It’s raining and the rings and paddocks are unsafe
-He’s on lay up and recovering from an injury
-He had some maintenance injections and isn’t ready for riding yet
-He’s at a show and you need to familiarize him with the grounds
-He needs to dry in the sun after a bath
Here are some tips for making it safe:
-Use a whip if you need to. I like to carry a dressage whip in the left hand for the unruly character. I can activate the hindquarters, and it also can be used as a barrier for the shoulders so there’s no jumping ahead of me. I have also known horses that are absolute bonkers to hand walk until you carry the whip - you may never use it, but they know it’s there!
-Always turn to the RIGHT. This is a good habit to get into, you will need to turn right while jogging a horse for the Veterinarian or at an FEI event. It reinforces your leadership and reminds them to turn away from us, not into us.
-Use a chain if you think you are going to need one. Fit is critical. Use caution, some horses can react quite spastically to chains! If you are unsure, ask for help. As always - you must release after a yank!! Otherwise, you enter the “there is no way the human will win tug of war”.
-If you really think your horse will be a nutter, put a bridle on. I prefer to use the reins to lead, you will get more even control with the bit.
-Wear gloves. Not only will they help with your farmer’s tan, they will protect your fingers and palms.
-Always use a lead rope. I see folks moving their horses just a few feet from cross tie to stall or wash rack without a lead rope, I have also seen those very folks have broken fingers, runaway horses, and dislocated shoulders. I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard for me not to say “I told you so!”.
-Don’t be afraid to use your voice. Reward with a “good boy” when he’s walking well! This makes the walk more enjoyable for him. You may need to growl when he needs to be checked back if this is something your horse understands.
-Ask for help if you need it. No one will judge you for asking for help, but they sure may crack jokes if they are helping to pick gravel out of your butt!!
-The more you practice good hand walking behaviors, the easier it is to do. Your horse will also have his good behavior reinforced!!
-Don’t hesitate to ask your Veterinarian for “pharmaceutical assistance” if hand walking is likely to be dangerous. I see this most often as performance horses are recovering from injuries or surgeries.
-I’ll also add that many folks prefer to have their horses walk far, far behind them so there is an understanding of spacial boundaries. This is great, if you have the space to work with them if they get out of line. This is also great if your horse is trained that way. I’ll add that for me personally, I want to see their eyes and ears, so I know exactly what they are paying attention to!!! This technique is also not appropriate for hand walking at shows, when often times the only place you can hand walk is the barn aisles (which are busy and cluttered!) I also don’t suggest this method of walking for injury recovery, it’s too tempting for horses to take advantage, and your certainly don’t want to be shuffling their feet around quickly as a reprimand if they are injured and on the mend!
Now you have some tools to make hand walking safer! Enjoy the time with your horse and make it a positive experience.