Q: What is the best way to teach a youngster to tie, both singly and on cross-ties?
JAKE NODAR: When teaching horses of any age to tie, the most important goal is to minimize the risk of injury, which can result from fighting the rope, pulling back forcefully against it or even slipping and falling. The best way to do this is by teaching your horse to react to pressure on the other end of the rope always by yielding—never resisting—no matter what the circumstances are. This makes the next step of being attached to an immovable object less surprising and upsetting for him. Even so, I still do not recommend beginning to teach foals to tie until they are at least 6 months old and fully weaned. Before then, however, you can build a good foundation in preparation for this lesson by halter-breaking your foal and teaching him the first step I describe below.
I take cross-ties even more seriously, as horses find them more frightening than a single tie and can injure themselves or others if they’re not introduced to the concept properly. Don’t teach your youngster to cross-tie until he is relatively mature (at least 2 years old) and extremely comfortable with being tied with a single rope.
Practice the following steps in short sessions, no more than 10 or 15 minutes each, several times a week.
Step 1: Yield to pressure
Teach your youngster to yield to pressure from the lead rope straight off the bat. Ask him to stand still, then walk around to face him, standing a few feet in front of him. Next, gently apply pressure to the lead rope. The moment he steps toward you—and toward the rope pressure—release the pressure and give him lots of praise and affection. Repeat this several times. Then do the same thing from either side, asking him to turn his body left or right and step in your direction. Ingrain in his head that he always reacts to pressure on the rope by moving toward it, not away from it.
Step 2: Simulate tying
When your horse has mastered Step 1, find a solid fence post in a roundpen or small paddock surrounded by level, dry ground. In this early stage of tying training, avoid any potentially slippery footing—mud, pavement, concrete, etc. Also check that the fence post is smooth enough that the rope won’t snag on it. For this exercise, replace your regular lead rope with one that is 10 to 12 feet long.
Lead your youngster into the roundpen or paddock and close the gate to be sure he’s safe in case you have to let him go. Ask him to halt 2 to 3 feet away from the post, just as if you were going to tie him up. Loop the rope around the post at about his head level, but instead of tying it, hold the excess in your hand and step a few feet to one side. This way you’ll be safely out of reach if he does anything unpredictable. It will also help him to disassociate you from the rope pressure. He needs to learn to respect and yield to whatever the rope is attached to in the same way he learned to yield to you.
To help him achieve this understanding, gently pull on the rope, applying pressure in the same way you did in Step 1. As soon as he steps toward the post, release the pressure and give him plenty of praise. Then ask him to back up a few steps and repeat the exercise. Always be sure he has a few feet of space between his nose and the post before applying the rope pressure so he feels like he has enough room to move forward. Also be careful never to let any part of the rope dangle down near his legs.
When he’s responding consistently to this kind of pressure—which may take several sessions over a number of days—raise the emotion level slightly. Loop the rope around the same post and stand to the side again. This time, wave your hand in the air, just dramatically enough to startle him but not so wildly that he panics. Ideally, he should raise his head in mild alarm. When he does, hold steady pressure on the lead rope so that he can’t back up. As soon as he relaxes and yields to the pressure on the rope by lowering his head or stepping toward the post, praise him.
Next, find ways to increase the emotion level gradually and test his response to pressure on the rope. How far you take this depends on how spooky your horse is. Waving a feed bag in front of most horses usually produces the right reaction, but you might need to get more creative than that if your horse is not easily startled. If you ever overdo it and scare your horse so much that he pulls back violently, let go of the rope. Then start over at Step 1 to rebuild his confidence.
Step 3: Tie for short periods of time
Once your youngster has mastered Step 2, he’s ready for short, supervised periods of tying. Do this in the same paddock or roundpen you used earlier or in his stall if there is a solid post or tie ring attached securely to the wall. (Never tie your horse to metal stall bars/dividers. They can pop free under force and cause serious injury.) Tie your horse with a quick-release knot and proceed with your normal grooming and tacking-up routine. Be ready to untie him quickly if anything upsets him enough to make him fight the rope.
Never leave him unattended at this point. Have all of your grooming supplies and tack within reach so that you don’t have to walk down the barn aisle or disappear into the tack room.
For the next several weeks, keep these tying sessions short and stay close to him until he seems accustomed to the routine. Give him lots of love to show him that he’s doing the right thing.
Wait until your horse is absolutely reliable on a single tie before introducing him to cross-ties. For his first lessons, use cross-ties in a stall or grooming stall so that he’s surrounded by walls on three sides. This will make him feel safer than putting him on cross-ties in an open barn aisle. Knot a short length of baling twine into a loop on the wall end of each cross-tie so that it will break under extreme pressure. Do not use flexible, bungee-like ties. These not only encourage horses to back up and lean on them, but they can snap dangerously if they come undone, posing serious risk to the horse and people around him.
The first time you cross-tie your horse, attach only one cross-tie to his halter. On the other side, attach your long lead rope and tie it to the wall ring on that side of the stall with a quick-release knot. Allow a few extra inches of slack in the rope so your horse feels a little more freedom to move his head. Then go about your normal grooming and tacking-up routine. As with the early single-tie lessons, don’t leave him unattended.
Repeat this lesson multiple times over the next several weeks. When he seems really comfortable, attach both cross-ties to his halter. Don’t progress to cross-tying your horse in the open barn aisleway until he’s very good about being cross-tied in a more confined space. If he ever freaks out or reacts poorly to the ties in any way—pulling back or fighting them—go back to tying him with a single rope.
With both single ties and cross-ties, wait until he’s proven himself completely trustworthy—always standing quietly and relaxed when tied, never pulling back—before tying him in spooky situations or on pavement or other potentially slippery footing. Given plenty of practice, positive reinforcement and patience, he’ll get there.
Jake Nodar began his horse-training career at the age of 17 at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, Maryland, first as a volunteer and then as the farm manager. He oversaw the care of up to 60 abused and neglected horses at a time, helping to rehabilitate them and place them in new homes. After becoming a certified trainer through John Lyons’ horsemanship program in 1999, Jake started his own training business, focusing primarily on young and problem horses. In 2003, he spent a year as a working student for Olympic eventer Stephen Bradley, learning how to combine classic English training techniques with his natural-horsemanship methods. A fan of all horse sports, he’s successfully competed in hunters, jumpers, dressage, eventing, Western pleasure, barrel racing and in-hand breed shows and has even tried his hand at vaulting and jousting. Jake currently works as a freelance trainer in the Darnestown, Maryland, area.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.