One of the things that great horsemen have along with the ability to “read” a horse’s body language is their skill with a rope. The average english and western rider can’t accurately direct a rope at an object and hit it. You don’t need to be a rodeo star, but you do need some basic rope handling skills. Thankfully, the basics — all you need to know to get going, can be learned in a short amount of time. Direction and power are the two most important concepts that you need to understand when asking your horse for movement, yields, or posture.
IMPORTANT: Always start with as little pressure as you want to end up with. This sounds confusing, but if you want a horse that responds to an ounce of pressure start with an ounce, but be prepared to use 100 pounds if that’s what it takes. Always start with where you want to end up.
There are many things that you should be able to do with a rope, for purposes of an example we will use longeing with a 12 foot lead rope — these are the basics:
Direction: This is simple, where do you want to the horse to go? Use the lead rope with pressure to ask for movement in a particular direction. When the horse moves into the pressure, release the pressure on the rope immediately. This is the same concept that you would use to ask a horse to lead, moving into pressure.
Power: This is how much or what level of energy you want the horse to use in the direction you asked. On a 12 foot longe line you would ask your horse to move off by raising your hand to your side with the end of the lead in your hand. If the horse doesn’t respond you may need to direct energy by twirling the rope overhand at the horses rear. Once the horse moves off with the energy you asked for, drop your power hand. If the horse slows or stops without you asking, raise your power hand and be prepared to twirl the rope again. One of the most common mistakes that people make is leaving the power on, by this I mean getting the horse to move off with the desired energy but failing to lower their power hand or continuing to twirl the rope. When twirling the lead rope, always twirl it overhand at an object.
Another important thing to consider is that the horse needs to be able to tell the difference between the direction and power hand. If you hold them both out at the same height the horse is going to look at you and then make a guess at what you are asking (at least they’ll be right 50% of the time). Hold your power hand higher than your direction hand so that your horse can easily see the difference.
The following pictures illustrate different uses of the lead rope and what you should be looking for with each concept:
Energy side to side – asking to back: Asking a horse to yield backwards by moving the lead rope side to side. Remember to ask with small movement side to side first and escalate to large side to side movement if necessary. Quit moving the rope immediately when the horse has responded correctly.
Energy up and down – telling the horse to stop: Asking a horse to stop moving by the rope up and down. Remember to ask with small movement up and down first and escalate to large up and down movement if necessary. Quit moving the rope immediately when the horse has responded correctly.
Direct the rope at an object: You may need to move a horse out of your space quickly and your lead rope is the safest tool you can use. In order to use it you need to be accurate with it. It may sound strange but in a stressful situation, like a horse suddenly moving it’s rear into your space – could you quickly and accurately use the end of the lead rope to make contact with an object by twirling it overhand at the horse’s rear? Practice by trying to hit a milk jug with the end of the lead rope.
These are some of the basics, there are many more things that you should work on with your horse and the rope, but you have to start somewhere Remember, always reward your horse when it has responded correctly.