In recent years, rope halters have become very popular with many horse owners. Many 'natural horsemanship' gurus use them and market their own particular type of rope halter. Because they are used by these famous clinicians, many people assume they are 'kinder' than a regular, old leather or web halter. But in reality rope halters are meant to be used as training aids - not as a halter for regular, every day use.
In fact, rope halters can become instruments of torture if used incorrectly.
Rope halters are designed from one long piece of rope or nylon without buckles or clips - so that they don't break. The knots that create the shape of the halter are said to also affect specific pressure points on the horse's head - across the nose and on the cheeks. The halter would have to be tied on extremely tightly and in exactly the right place for the correct pressure to be on these points. The knots do cause soreness and bruising when the halter is pulled or jerked (either by the horse or the handler) and when the halter is left on for any length of time.
The thinner the rope is, the less force is required to create more pressure. Take a thin piece of string and use it to apply pressure across your nose and your cheeks. Then do the same with a wide piece of cloth or leather (like a rein or a belt). You will feel the difference in pressure immediately.
Rope halters much be placed correctly on the horse's head or they will cause more harm than good. If the halter is too loose making the nose band sit too low, there's the potential for breaking the horse's nasal bone. If it is tied too tightly, then the horse feels pressure all the time. With no release from the pressure, the horse cannot learn to give.
Rope halters can be an effective training aid for a horse who pulls when being lead. Any halter or bridle should only be used to create boundaries that tell the horse where not to go. They should never be jerked or pulled as this causes horses to react from fear and often causes rearing, head shyness or pulling away. With a correctly fitted rope halter and consistent contact with the lead rope, the horse feels the pressure from the halter. When the handler uses blocking energy rather than pulling against the horse, then as soon as the horse stops pulling he releases the pressure from the halter himself.
Horses should never be tied using a rope halter. If the horse pulls back and panics, the horse will break before the halter does! The halter puts strong pressure on the sensitive poll and can cause permanent nerve damage. It is even possible for a horse to break his poll fighting to get free. With two fingers apply some pressure at the point where the base of your skull attaches to the top of your spine. This is your 'poll'. You'll feel how sensitive that area is. It is far better for a horse to break a halter than to damage or break his poll. Horses should only be tied with a leather or web halter with a break away crown.
If you have a horse that pulls back when tied, it is best to train him to accept pressure and learn to release it by moving forward. Do this with him in-hand rather than tied. (I explain how to do this in my article "Fit to be Tied" in Horse Canada Magazine Jul/Aug 2012.)
Trends happen in the horse world. But, the latest trend isn't always best for your horse - even if it's recommended by your trainer or a clinician. Before using a new piece of equipment, do your research, understand how it works and whether or not you have the skills to use it correctly. Then, make your own decision about whether it's appropriate for you and your horse. It's up to you to put your horse in good hands.