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Those are the breaks: How to lead a horse properly

February 3, 2007

Horses can teach us valuable lessons in life, such as the importance of doing the simple things right.

The photograph is evidence of what can go wrong if you're not paying attention to the finer points of leading a horse.

The finger bone split lengthwise, breaking right into the joint. The injury kindly provided a valuable reminder every day as the hand painfully gripped the hay being fed out during the winter.

There were mitigating circumstances. There always are. We were dealing with the aftermath of a snowstorm that dumped 30cm. We had been outside for close to two hours, and coldness and tiredness were kicking in.

Two horses were being returned to a paddock when the younger, unused to snow, veered off. I cannot even remember how the leadrope was being held. I held on too long with a cold gloved hand and a broken finger was the result.

The immediate lesson was that cold is a great anaesthetic. I didn't notice an ache in the finger for 10 minutes. I finished the chores, pulled off the glove, straightened the finger, and went in for a well-earned cup of tea.

Specifically, there were three things that earned a fail mark in the whole exercise. I should have been paying more attention. While I can't remember how I was holding the rope, there's a fair chance something was amiss, otherwise it would have pulled harmlessly through the gloved hand. Finally, given the trying conditions, they should have been led out one at a time.

Most safety measures are common sense:

  1. Pay attention to what you're doing.
  2. Wear sturdy footwear in case you get trodden on.
  3. Keep two hands on the leadrope.
  4. Don't pull on the rope. Give the horse some slack, but you have to stay in control. As little as 30cm will be fine for maximum control, provided you're not hanging off the rope.
  5. Walk on the left side, at the horse's shoulder, or very slightly forward of the shoulder.
  6. If you intend clipping a leadrope to the bit ring, feed it through one side and clip it to the other. Better still, simply lead the horse by its reins.
  7. Run the stirrups up the saddle.
  8. Don't leave any tack dangling.
  9. Use a soft leadrope. It will be less likely to do your hands damage if the horse pulls unexpectedly.
  10. Never cut corners. Give objects a wide berth as you and your horse pass them.
  11. Lead one horse at a time, unless circumstances force you to do otherwise.
  12. Never wrap the rope around your hand. If you want more to grip, fold part of the leadrope into your hand.
  13. If you're going to trot the horse, give him more rope to allow his head greater freedom. It will also get you a little further from the horse and reduce your chances of being trodden on.
  14. Wear gloves where possible.
  15. If the horse crowds you, push it away with fingers on its shoulder. Stop pressing once it moves away.
  16. Never lead a horse by its halter without a rope. If it tosses its head and your hand or fingers get caught, you could be in big trouble.
  17. Horses can toss their heads around without warning. Wear a helmet if you feel it justified.
  18. Stand well clear when you remove a horse's halter, in case it makes a showy departure. If you've just led the horse through a gate, turn it to face the gate before releasing it.
  19. There are no prizes for hanging on to the leadrope at all costs. Let it go if you have to, then go and regather the horse.
  20. Sound a warning to others if a horse gets loose. Aside from avoiding a spooked horse, they may be able to shut gates and help catch it.



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