3 Basic Options for Horses that Pull Back when Tied

Every trainer and clinician gets asked about handling horses that don’t tie or sit back when they are tied. It’s a universal problem because there isn’t a perfect answer. 

If you canvass equine experts you will get two basic responses, one that makes sense, and one that doesn’t make any sense if you happen to like your horse.  I have not included any images of horses sitting back or the consequences when they do. Don’t even search for such photos if you have a queasy stomach.

Some (bad) online advice for horses that pull back:

  • “If it could still breathe, I would just leave it there until it got up and stood for a little while, then untie and let it go.”
  • “As harsh as it sounds, sometimes the only way is to let him fight it out. Most of the time, even when they get down, they are perfectly capable of getting up on their own when it gets really uncomfortable.”
  • “You could use a neck rope, and tie your lead to it, and run the lead under her chinstrap on the halter, and tie her with that. Make sure what ever you tie her to is strong enough to withstand her freakouts, and try to use a rope halter, and solid lead rope.”

This question popped up in a horse forum recently.

 Q: I am a professional trainer and have lately been faced with an abundance of horses who do not tie/pull back. I have a fair set of tools but could use some more resources.

Referring back to the two basic responses among professionals, the first suggests that the owner get a halter that won’t break and tie the horse to something that won’t move. Some people will even mention the age-old method of using a belly rope. Some folks swear by it, I do not. Anything involving ropes includes the possibility of injury and unintended consequences. The second basic response will be some variation on my answer to the question.

A: There are basically three options that I can think of:

1. Don’t put the horse in a situation that you already know it can’t handle – like sitting back when left alone on the side of a trailer, etc.

2. Don’t tie the horse. Seriously. Unless you have to leave the horse for an extended period of time, why not teach the horse to stay put? That’s what I do with mine. They tie regularly, but most of the time I just say, “Sit. Stay” with no halter or lead.  Have you tried teaching your horse to ground tie?

Click for article on teaching ground tie.

Click for article on teaching ground tie.

3. Take the long slow approach. There are 100 ways to get started, from the gadgets clinicians sell to doing it the way I do. (If you want details I will provide, but read more before thinking about it.) The habit of pulling back is a hard one to break because each time the horse fights and gets loose it learns that the answer is to fight harder.

The only way to break an old habit is to replace it with a new one. The only way the new one gains value is when it becomes a stronger habit than the old one. That can take months or years or never. Once you start on this road you are committed for the long haul. You can’t get the horse to tie three times (or 20 or 100) and think you’re finished. The new habit has to be maintained, maintained, maintained.

Once the horse ties in the stall begin again in the breezeway. Once that’s mastered, being again at another location. When I say begin again, that means at step one, not just tying the horse up and walking away. Horses pull back from fear. You have to give them more faith in something than they have fear of being tied. If you can’t commit to that – go back and reread numbers 1 and 2.

Sometimes being a pro means telling folks the truth. There are ways to break horses from pulling back, but all the quickie effective ones also put the horse (and often the trainer) in danger. Sometimes the fix is worse than the problem.

Be honest with your clients. If they’re not willing to do the work over the long haul or risk the life of their horse, they may want to take more time to think about it.

Some horses just aren’t going to tie once they’ve learned to sit back. Others won’t learn to tie quietly until one of two things happens:

  1. GOOD RESULT. The habit of giving to pressure even when tied up eventually becomes stronger than the established habit of pulling back. Then it’s maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.
  2. BAD RESULT. The horse becomes more afraid of the punishment for fighting the pressure (pain) than being tied. This is not a good plan and often leads to even more dangerous troubles.

Here’s a rule of thumb to consider when evaluating training methods: The release of gentle pressure is how a horse learns. Techniques that rely on pain to “teach” a horse is abuse.

Remember, the only way to break an old habit is to replace it with a new one. That can take months or years or never. The best way to handle a bad habit is to never let it begin. I teach horses to tie gradually. When the process is finished, horses think being tied up is a cue to take a nap. That’s only possible if the horse isn’t already afraid of being trapped by its head.

I am also VERY particular about who handles my horses. No one ever ties one of my horses except me or my husband. All it takes is one bad experience. Some horses must be handled by a variety of people. Fear is a tough emotion to extinguish. Whenever possible, try your best to protect your horse from negative experiences.

What do you need from your horse? How much expertise do you have or are able to afford? How much time are you willing to commit to breaking the established habit of pulling back, keeping in mind that your commitment must last indefinitely?

Be a good steward. Be a responsible horse owner.  Your horse will thank you for it. And really, who else matters?

~     ~     ~

Interested in learning more about relationship with a horse? Take a peek at the Amazing Grays Trilogy of books:  Click image to visit Lynn’s author page on Amazon, then scroll down to individual titles for more information and reviews.

Click to visit Lynn's Amazon page!

Click to visit Lynn’s Amazon page!


Horse waiting beyond rainbow bridge

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