There are proponents and opponents of the rope halter. The proponents find it a useful aid to do groundwork, the opponents argue that it is “animal cruelty”.
I’m not a real proponent but neither a typical opponent. I usually choose to work with a cavesson, however, for some exercises I do sometimes choose for a rope halter.
I do believe you have to use all training equipment(aids) in a conscious way, so therefore also a rope halter.
So what is the use of a rope halter?
The rope halter is made from a fine rope. Because of this the area where the rope sits on is smaller than for example with a wide strap from a normal halter. A normal halter is made to distribute the pressure over a larger area.
A rope halter is made to put pressure on a smaller area. That is why you can give subtitle aids while doing exercises and to teach the horse to yield to pressure, for example “head down”. You need to give even more subtle aids with very sensitive horses since narrow straps can easily hurt them when you give a little bit too much pressure.
There are also knots on a rope halter. These knots can affect the sensitive head when pressure is used and when they move around. A solution could be to make a rope halter without knots, which is possible if you are handy. Another solution is that you use a cavesson.
All aids need a conscious trainer
The biggest problem is not the rope halter itself, but the fact that some people cannot use the rope halter in a gentle way. It is very painful for the horse when you give a firm pull. It looks like the horse is immediately “obedient”, but you have to ask yourself if this is what you want: a horse that does everything you want but only because it knows it will hurt otherwise.
Rope halters are therefore best to be used by people that don’t pull the horse’s head (not in any way, so not only to halt the horse, but also neither to let the horse go backwards by pulling very hard). The trainer needs to know how the rope halter works on the horse and know how to train the horse with minimal pressure. Therefore, a rope halter needs a conscious and experienced trainer.
First experience yourself how a rope halter works.
Practice on yourself. Put a rope in your neck, around your shin, over your nose, … Put pressure on the rope and feel what this does. Do it roughly first. Give a sudden and hard pull. How does this feel? (And you probably hold back because you’re scared…)
Use a different approach: work in static phases: first very subtle during 5 seconds, then a little bit more pressure during 5 seconds. How does this feel? When you hold the pressure long enough before increasing the pressure it doesn’t hurt, right? That is because your body can get used to it. But if you go up a step, so a bit more pressure? And eventually another phase? At a certain point, even if your body can get used to it, there will be too much pressure that will hurt.
The problem is clearly that pressure is used too sudden, there is too much pressure, and that there are too many phases.
Besides this, a rope halter cannot be used for all exercises because it starts to move and the knots can move against the face which hurts sensitive horses. In that case you can better work with a cavesson (like with working in a circle). A cavesson can be secured better, making it a lot more stable.
Every aid can become a means of punishment.
But also with a cavesson you can use pressure too suddenly and too much of it. Switching from a rope halter to a cavesson because the horse reacts sensitive to your high pressure is therefore not a solution.
You have to consciously work with all training equipment you have available, both the rope halter – if you decide to use it – as well as the cavesson.
Yeah sure, but what if the horse pulls very hard?
For whatever reason, it can indeed happen that a horse pulls very hard or tries to pull away (it is frightened by something, it is a “pattern” by wrong training, …). This can indeed hurt. But often also a cavesson or a normal halter hurts when suddenly too much pressure is used.
If you have to use a certain amount of pressure with a rope halter to prevent that the horse is pulling itself free than you have to use even more pressure with a normal halter since the pressure with a normal halter is distributed, which isn’t the case with a rope halter. That is why both a rope halter and a normal halter hurt when the horse is pulling back.
It is however up to you as horse(wo)man to handle the training in such a way that the horse doesn’t need to pull itself free, or to pull against the pressure. And that you react in a good way in case this does happen. So therefore, find out why the horse wants to pull free and work on this.
Do I choose for a rope halter or for a cavesson during groundwork?
If you use both aids in a conscious way than the questions isn’t what YOU have to choose. The question is: “What does my horse choose?”
Watch your horse carefully: how does it react to the rope halter and do this with the different exercises you do. Is my horse relaxed, is it happy to be with me, does it co-operate? How is its body language? What happens if the rope halter slides up and down, has the horse a sensitive reaction?
Do the same exercises with a cavesson.
How do the exercises go now? Is there more or less relaxation? Does my horse understand me better or not?
It is therefore not about being “for or against”! It is about knowing the aid (know how it works) and that you chooses the aid that is the most pleasant to train with for your horse on that moment, during that exercise!