One of the most frequent questions that Masterclass instructor Tik Maynard is asked while teaching clinics is, ‘What equipment should I use for groundwork?’ Just like saddles, bridles, or riding pants, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, Tik has some valuable information on what to consider, what to look out for, and what to stay away from that he has acquired over his years of working with horses both on the ground and under saddle.
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Soft two-knot halters and half-inch marine lines do not make a better horseman; not anymore than a big knife is going to create the next Anthony Bourdain.
That said, for a carpenter, a pilot, a show jumper or a dressage rider, quality equipment will show off the skills you do have. Ian Millar, I’m pretty sure, could jump bareback or in a dressage saddle better than most of us will ever ride, but for that little edge he loves an Italian Prestige saddle. Jonathan Field can play with horses on the ground with a short rope, a long rope, or no rope, and he still creates connections with them that leave me slack-jawed.
So, the first thing to understand is this: it’s not the tools that make you good. It’s how you use them (or don’t use them, as the case may be).
While initially I found it frustrating that great horsemen would use different equipment, now I find it interesting. What used to be a paradox in my mind, now gives me a deeper understanding. Imagine for example a dressage rider trying to improve the quality of canter; one instructor might have them speed up, while another would have them slow down, another might say “Stay the same speed,” and a fourth would have them do transitions, all with the same end goal in mind.
There are many horsemen I admire that do things differently. Short ropes or long ropes, stiff halters or soft halters, whips or no whips, even treats or no treats. (Treats are an especially interesting example: I have seen trainers like David Lichman and Shawna Karrasch feed a treat almost every 60 seconds while training; I have also seen many great trainers never use treats with horses, and I have been inspired by both.)
Now, that said, I am going to try to explain some of the equipment out there, and also to share what gear I have in my barn.
Imagine leaning against a wooden fence board. Now imagine leaning against a taut wire fence. That is the same idea with halters: a horse is more likely to lean into a leather halter than a rope halter. A rope halter has less surface area, and the horse is usually quicker to follow a feel.
Tik using a two-knot rope hater while introducing a nervous horse to spray bottles in his Masterclass course.
Now, stiff rope or soft rope? I prefer the soft halters. I like how they adjust to the horse’s head; I like how they feel in my hand; I like how they hang when put away properly. There is also an argument that soft halters will fold upon themselves when left on the ground, therefore having less chance of you or your horse getting caught in it with a hoof. (I have also heard that we shouldn’t leave halters on the ground.) Some would argue that the stiff rope halters are clearer and sharper, and there may be some truth to that. My guess is I prefer the soft halter because it is simply what I’m used to. Check out B&H rope halters for both variations.
Two-knot or four-knot? I prefer the two-knot over the four knot. I’ve heard the argument that the four-knot will touch more pressure points on the nose, but to be honest I haven’t really noticed a difference between the two styles. And since I haven’t, I go with the simpler one. I would probably try a no-knot if there was one. I like simple.
There are other interesting halters out there as well, and while I haven’t tried all of them, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any reason not to. Check out, for example, the handsome leather Hybrid halters by the Horse Education Company, or the unique Dually halter by Monty Roberts.
Ann Hepworth, a trainer from Southern Utah, makes her own rope halters. “It took two hours to tie the first one. It seemed interminable. Now I can tie one in 10-15 minutes while I watch a movie.” Personal story: About four years ago I tried to make a rope halter while watching an instructional YouTube video. I gave up after three hours.
The big knot at the bottom of most rope halters is called a “Fiador” knot, and is the trickiest part of creating the halter. Ann still does some with that knot, but prefers a halter with a sliding ring now instead, which stops the halter from twisting on the horse’s head and going into their eye when there is more pull on the rope. I haven’t tried this yet, but it sounds great and it’s next on my list!
Ann has made over 300 halters now. “I used to think they were redneck, but once you go rope halter you never go back,” she told me. Ann is also pretty aware of some of the other nuances of rope halters, “…like tying. I do tie my horses in them, but I do a lot of prep work first.”
Personally, I don’t tie my horses in rope halters. It takes a lot to break one, in fact, I’ve never seen one break. When tying, and teaching to tie, there is a distinction between hard tying and soft tying. A hard tie is when the rope will not slip. Some horses will panic when they feel the abrupt end of the rope. A soft tie can be made with ever increasing amounts of resistance in the rope. Imagine looping the rope once around a sturdy rail, or twice, or three times. Each loop gives the rope more friction, with the idea that the horse will learn not to pull all the way back.
Cross-tying in a rope halter is taboo, and for a very practical reason: the halter is designed to withstand a lot of tension from where the rope connects to it, but a pull from the sides of the halter can cause the knots to slide. I learned this after an embarrassing call to a halter company to complain about knots slipping.
Jake Biernbaum of Pear Tree Ranch is a guy I love to bounce ideas off of. Jake specializes in starting and re-starting horses and really understands how “light” we want the horses to feel. “A cheap halter will often have metal clasps that annoy the horse. The quality and the fit are also sacrificed,” says Jake. “The best rope halters are hand tied. They usually cost more, but are worth it.” I’ve also seen rope will fray and the inner white strands show, like a toy that a puppy has demolished and the insides leak out.
"The biggest problem with cheap halters though,”Jake explains, “is that they come with cheap ropes. It’s the rope that we hold onto, and that is our connection to the horse.”
The heavier ropes I use are sometimes known as lines. If I say “I’m going to work with my horse on-line,” it does not mean on a computer.
At my barn in Ocala, Florida, if I’m doing more than just leading my horse around, if I’m training, I use a rope halter and a line.
Type: Recently someone asked me if I use arbor ropes or marine rope (so, trees or boats). It takes only a little research to realize there are hundreds of kinds of ropes. One difference in the climbing world is static (doesn’t stretch) versus dynamic (stretches). Dynamic rope is used for climbing (cushions falls), while static rope is used for descending (prevents bounce and allows a controlled descent). I use static with horses.
Ropes are all about personal preference. If you're new to ground work, starting with a shorter rope (12' or so) will prevent you from fumbling or getting tangled in a longer rope. Tik typically uses a 1/2 inch thick rope.
Ann explained to me that it is the double braid feature that is found in a marine rope that makes it ideal for working horses: “It is the right weight, feel, and softness. It slides easily through the hand. The double braid means there is a braided core in the middle and an outer core around it. I used to look for deals on rope, but now I’m kind of a rope snob. You get what you pay for.”
Length: Ropes come in different lengths and different thicknesses. Parelli sells them in 12 foot and 22 foot lengths. Double Dan Horsemanship almost splits the difference and sells 18 foot lengths. Clinton Anderson cuts them at 14 feet. The double braid is key to the quality of all of these.
Jake recommends a 12 foot rope and a 22 foot rope. He also has a 45 foot and 60 foot lariat. “The nice thing about a lariat rope is that I can use it as a 6 inch rope, or as a 60 foot rope.” What he means is that it is versatile. Want a shorter rope? Just coil it up, and don’t use all of it! Whatever the length you get remember this: the shorter the rope, the easier it is not to get all tangled up. The longer the rope, the more you can do with it. When you’re learning, start with a length of rope you can handle.
I’ve seen Jake use the 45 foot rope many times, and whenever I see something like that I want to try it. Using a lasso is not easy but I keep trying! Sometimes I think I should have been a cowboy.
Thickness: Commonly the ropes we use are a 1/2 inch thick. Some companies also sell 1/4 inch ropes for a lighter feel, but note that the thinner the rope the more advanced you and the horse need to be. A thin rope is going to be hard to hold onto if your horse decides to canter back to the barn. I don’t recommend these for most people, but in a safe place it is a nice intermediate step before working with a horse at liberty.
In my barn I have six 12 foot ropes, two 22 foot ropes, and a single 45 foot lariat. I buy rope from companies I trust like B and H Rope halters, or Parelli, or The Horse Education Company.
If you were to look into my barn, you would see an assortment of snaps on my ropes, and sometimes no snaps at all.
The Brass Swivel snap. These are sold with Parelli ropes, and are pretty popular. I’ve worked with these a lot, and I like them. The best part is that it swivels so the rope doesn’t twist or kink as my horse circles. Swivel snaps can get dirt in them which makes them harder to use.
Tik shows a rope-to-rope attachment between halter and line, without any metal. Each variation will feel slightly different.
The stainless steel Trigger Bull snap. This is the kind of snap Clinton Anderson uses, and is similar to ones that Jonathan Field in British Columbia uses. I’m partial to the Jonathan Field snaps because I got started with them. The main difference I’ve found between the two is that the bull snap is easier to unsnap with one hand, which could come in handy.
The O-Ring and Carabiner. This is popular on longer ropes, I have one on my 22-foot rope, and the O-ring can be used for more advanced techniques with horses - looping the rope around the girth, and then back to the handler, for example, so a green horse can get used to the feeling of tension around his barrel before he handles a saddle for the first time.
Ann uses a swivel snap, but often uses no snap. “This can be great when ponying another horse, and I don’t want the weight of the snap swinging back and forth as we trot,” she explained.
Other trainers have devised ways to connect the rope to the halter using only rope. Dan James and his friend Dan Steers run Double Dan Horsemanship (DDH) and they created their own system: the DDH Connection Knot. This is an interesting knot that creates a way to easily attach a rope to a halter without any metal.
Julie Goodnight has a similar clip that is made out of rope. Hers has a keeper that can slide in order to “lock” the clip into place. Although I haven’t tried either, I imagine both would provide a nice, light feel.
My biggest advice: Buy from a reputable company that specializes in “horsemanship” tools.
In part 2 of this series, we'll discuss flags, whips, and sticks with Tik. Stay tuned.
Written by Tik Maynard
Tik Maynard is a highly sought-after clinician, event rider, and trainer due to his depth of horsemanship and horse behavior knowledge. He is an Equestrian Masterclass instructor and his courses may be found at www.masterclass.noellefloyd.com