Ok forgive me the corny song-like title, but these really are a few of my favorite tools when working with horses. I can’t help but share the list with you because there are so many clinicians and other horsemen out there who have a vested interest in horse gear (and your dollars) that sometimes it is difficult to know which gear items are really indispensable and which are just gimmicks.
In this article I will let you know which items I think are just the best and why I feel so strongly about them. Allow my trial-and-errors (more so the latter) to help you avoid unnecessary costly equipment.
The Rope Halter.
You’ve all seen them if you’re a die-hard equipment addict like I am. These are usually a thin rope halter that is tied in various knots, otherwise known as a “cowboy halter”. I have mixed feelings about these halters. They serve a great purpose sometimes, and there are other times in which I avoid them at all costs.
The purpose: The purpose of a rope halter is to apply pressure to the points of a horse’s head that are most sensitive when needed, but remove that pressure when not needed. The pressure points are the bridge of the nose and the poll (top of the head) of the horse. Sometimes these halters will have additional knots on the nose area, generally two, or rawhide to increase effectiveness.
When to use them: these halters can be indispensable when doing ground training in a horse, or as a replacement for a hackamore or bitless bridle for your horse. These halters should always be used when the horse is supervised.
When not to use them: These halters should never be used for turnout, for trailering, or without the horse being supervised. These halters should never be used in a stall. The reason they are not used in these situations is that – unlike a traditional halter – they will not break if the horse gets caught in one or sets back.
What to look for in a rope halter: Rope halters should be of stiff and preferably rather heavy material. The stiffness allows them to sit off of the pressure points when not being used. The heaviness allows for a better “feel”, allowing the horse to feel them moving before you necessarily give a cue. Most of these halters tie where traditional halters have buckles. Westfall makes one that has a buckle for your ease; otherwise you tie a knot.
Why use this halter rather than traditional? A traditional halter allows a horse to become more desensitized to the pressure areas. When training, this means that they can become less sensitive to your cues. Traditional halters have a wider strap meaning that any pressure put on those straps is distributed over a larger area and diffused. While this is great for trailering and turnout, this is not as effective during training and especially when used as a bitless bridle.
Do the clinician halters really work better? While it’s true that many clinician halters have well-thought-out points, most of them are very highly priced and not necessarily that much better. The key is in the lead rope; clinician leads are often better, but not the halter. With less expense it’s possible to buy a very good lead while not spending 50 dollars on the halter itself.
The Traditional Halter
This halter is the one with which most of us grew up: the nylon, leather, or biothane halter made with generally 3/4 – 1″ straps attached by buckles and other metal hardware. This halter buckles at least at the poll, sometimes at the chin, and sometimes under the throatlatch.
The purpose: the purpose of a traditional halter is to contain a horse while being tied, turned out (if there is a safety strap that will break), or while trailering. This halter is best used with a horse who has a good “feel” and is very well behaved. This is the only halter to use during turnout or trailering, in my opinion, because it is wide, less likely to burn the horse’s head if a horse sets back or is caught, and can break if it has a leather tab for safe turn out.
I still do not believe in using any halters in a stable situation; if one must be used, it should be a “turn out” traditional halter.
These halters are easy to pad for trailering, easy to groom around if you have a throatlatch snap, and easy to apply. I feel that it is best to buy the moderately expensive halter with at least 2 plies rather than the foreign-made one-ply inexpensive nylon halters.
A leather traditional halter can last a lifetime if cleaned and oiled regularly and will feel awesome to the horse’s head. (These also make great gifts to your horsey friends – or yourself!)
When not to use them: traditional halters as less effective than rope halters as a bitless bridle or for training for the reasons explained above.
The “Carrot Stick”
Ahhhh the “Carrot Stick”. This is a name given to a very specific type of stick that was coined, I believe, by Pat Parelli. The carrot stick is a training stick that is approximately 4 feet long, stiff, with a loop of leather on the end through which a string, bag, or rag can be threaded.
How does the carrot stick differ from other whips and crops? The carrot stick is more stiff than dressage whips, buggy whips, and other similarly long whips. While a string can be applied similarly to a lunge whip, this stick doesn’t need the string. The carrot stick is more flexible in use with the ability to attach other aids to its end.
Why use the other aids? The string, bag, and rags which can be used with a carrot stick make it – in my opinion – an indispensable part of any stable. Desensitizing a horse to different, scary stimuli is an important aspect of creating a super-safe and happy, confident horse. Using a rag, plastic bag, balloon, or string at the end of a carrot stick help you to get your horse used to various items while still being far enough from their range of kicking to be safe.
Why does the carrot stick work when whips do not? Unlike other crops and whips, the stiffness of the carrot stick allow it to be used as an extension of your arm for very specific touch without the wobbly effect that other aids have. You can use this stick to press into your horse for a leg-like cue, to tap specifically to a certain point on the horse or ground to ask them to move, and it doesn’t sag with the application of items to its end.
Buying a carrot stick for less. While it is admirable to support the clinician of your choice by buying a carrot or training stick from them, if you cannot afford it you do not have to spend more. These sticks are not found through less-expensive companies, even under $20 – and in colors that suit your personality. For example, horse.com has a “clinician stick training whip” for $15. I have that same stick and find it to be very handy, sturdy, and perfectly capable of doing anything I need of it. Plus – it’s pink! 🙂
The Perfect Lead Rope
Ahhhh the lead rope. Often not given the place of importance it should have in a horse owner’s eyes, this one piece of equipment is the line of communication between you and your horse. As such, it should be given more weight – literally.
Which lead rope to choose: When choosing the perfect lead rope, one should choose a rope that has good “feel”. By “feel”, I mean qualities that allow the horse to feel that you are about to give it a command so that your horse can choose to act immediately rather than you having to exaggerate your cues. Usually this means a good, heavy weight. The weight is mostly for your cues rather than for strength.
The lead rope can be cotton or nylon or any material as long as it has good weight. It should be at least 10 feet in length if not more. Fourteen foot leads are very useful for groundwork as they allow you to have a “tail” available for cue to your horse and circling. The end should ideally have a ‘popper’ which is not to torture the horse but is to enhance cues. Thing of it as the end of a horse’s tail for swishing at them so that they understand when to move as needed.
The snap should be heavy, preferably brass, for both strength and feel. You can test if your snap is true brass or just brass coated by using a magnet. Brass is magnetic; tin is not.
OK you western riders – don’t let me catch your eyes glazing over here. This item is as important as any other item on my list and just as pertinent for you as it is for English riders. This helmet is also not limited to riding work! Surprised? Consider working with a horse that you suddenly find is scared, rearing, and trying to get away. Also consider times when you might find you have lots your balance and are looking at horse feet. It happens to the best of us.
Make a statement: as a horse person, there will often be younger horse people watching you. Make the right statement about responsibility by using a properly graded riding helmet while riding and while working problem horses on the ground. Their heads are just as precious and valued as your own, note.
Riding helmets today are much more affordable and smaller in profile than they used to be. Besides, everyone is wearing them these days so you will not stand out as a “mushroom head” – I promise. That being said, you WILL stand out if you have a mass of bandages around your skull or are the center of a funeral. I hate to be so bold, but I have known a very experienced horse woman who died to a skull fracture; don’t let me know two.
This is another life-saver. The knife in the barn is one of the most often overlooked items that is not only incredibly handy but very important in terms of safety. After all, we tie our horses with rope, and we all know what messes horses can get into with the least effort!
What type of knife to choose for your stable: if you’re only going to choose one knife, choose one that has the following characteristics:
- Folds up.
- Has at least one jagged section of blade for cutting ropes and leather.
- Has at least one smooth section of blade for cutting other items.
- Can be placed in your pocket, a saddlebag, and generally carried around.
Not only is a knife useful for feed bags, hay strings, and other items, it can be a lifesaver if a horse is tangled in a rope, setting back and in danger of flipping, or in other dangerous situations. You never know when you might also find yourself caught, so be sure to keep your knife within reach on trail rides and at other times.
You can find horse-appropriate knives available through horse catalogs or at most feed stores. Sport stores often have knives called “roper knives” that are very appropriate for stable usage. In all cases, when you really need a knife you will certainly be glad to have one within reach.
These are just a few of my favorite items. I will be sharing more with you over the weeks. As the holidays are nearing, consider spoiling yourself by purchasing some of these items on sale through either your favorite clinician, or saving money through online catalogs offering discounts on shipping and costs: that way you can buy MORE goodies for your safety and horse enjoyment.