The Art of Wrangling: Keeping Your Horses Close
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Wrangling means working with horses on the trail or in camp, including when they are not ridden or packed. It involves bringing them in at morning, turning them out at night, and managing their movement and use. If you ride out from your yard or trailer to the trailhead and back each day, it is possible you may never get to know wrangling well. For those of us who overnight it, or travel long distances and need to turn horses out overnight in unfenced areas, wrangling becomes a necessary chore. And it can be much more than a chore: you would rather have nothing to do with it, but you’re stuck with it. Horses get tangled in ropes, hobble-rubbed, make you get up in the wee hours and work overtime, get lost, and need to be dug out of hidey holes you didn’t know existed.
Like most things in life, the decisions you make will greatly affect the outcome, and good decisions using strategy and wrangling gear can at least make wrangling bearable. Calling wrangling an art might be a stretch, but as the years go by the little tricks and techniques certainly make it feel artful. First we’ll look at wrangling gear for handling your horses in the bush, and then tips for packing in.
Hobbles are really the primary tool for temporary or overnight feeding. Relatively speaking, a horse prefers being hobbled in an open field, feeding and lounging about, rather than being tied or confined to a stall or a small corral. How do I know? Just watch their mannerisms when turned out with hobbles in a grassy meadow. They roll, shake themselves, head out munching, and forget they even have hobbles on.
Hobbles on the rear feet are uncommon, but an excellent choice if the horse accepts it. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Only hobble a horse that has established a trusting relationship with you, through appropriate groundwork. Basic hobble training should take place at home and begin slowly. The horse should be accustomed to having ropes around his pasterns and cannon bones. Use extreme caution when introducing your horse to hobbles for the first time. The first few times you use hobbles, place them for short periods, say an hour or so, until your horse gets used to them.
Between the collars, hobbles can be narrower than six inches or as wide as 14 inches. Narrow hobbles are sometimes used to train a horse to ground-tie, but if they are feeding hobbles then they should be wider than six inches. This allows the horse to take tiny steps rather than having to jump forward with feet together. The pastern area is less likely to rub with more length, but rubbing is common with horses learning to accept being hobbled. Placing the hobble above the ankle is a good alternative and it can reduce rubbing.
Use a forgiving material and a soft rope, about 18 inches between the collars for the first time. Use a bowline knot around each pastern, as it can be easily removed. How much a horse gets a hobble rub really depends on how quickly it learns to accept the hobble, and what material the collars are made from. You would think to call a horse dumb or smart depending on how fast it learns to take small steps, rather than hitting the end of each step. It does not work that way. We have very intelligent horses that need to re-learn hobbles each year, even after ten years, and still seem to fuss with them all season. Most calm-minded horses struggle with the first few steps, but inside of five minutes act as if they have had them on their entire life. I would agree with many old-timers that some horses who are stubborn learners, and experience some degree of hobble rub, need the uncomfortable feeling to learn to stay off of the hobbles and walk gently.
Hobbles on the back feet are excellent if your horse can get used to them. They can truly be effective in preventing a horse from running off. However, some horses never learn to accept them, and they just stand still or repeatedly crash off looking for an accident.
These front hobbles have a “side-line” attached, to further limit how far the horse can travel and reduce the possibility of kicking. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Sidelines and Tie-downs
Hobbles are often not enough. I have had many adventures retrieving hobbled horses that hopped as many as 20 miles away. Consider a sideline, tie down, or hobbles on the back feet as alternatives. A sideline is simply an additional hobble from a front foot to a back foot. It allows the horse to walk as it feeds but not to run. We use them extensively and have found them to be safe and very effective. Again, the horse often needs some time to accept them. For your average 1100 pound Quarter Horse, we find about 26 inches between the front and back foot is about right.
As well as having hobbles on, some riders prefer to tie the horse’s head low to one foot, ensuring the head is about level with the back, as a method of keeping the horse from running off. It works well, but personally I don’t like to see a horse stand around all day with its head down so we use it rarely.
A picket rope is a soft three-quarter inch or larger diameter rope, 20 to 50 feet long, attached to a tree, post, or peg on one end and the horse’s foot on the other. It should have a swivel on the foot collar and be able to slide freely around the tree or post.
A picket rope is attached to a tree, post, or peg on one end, and the horse’s foot on the other. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
A bowline knot will keep the post end from tightening so it is easily undone. We find that attaching the rope to a foot far safer than attaching to the halter as the horse is more likely to become tangled and possibly choked when tied to the halter. I realize that many riders successfully tie picket lines to their horse’s halters for feeding but once I left a big palomino gelding to feed in a meadow for a few hours, and returned to find him down and tangled, and once was enough. Never leave a horse unattended while on a picket line for more than an hour or so, and never overnight.
Always walk your horse to the end of the line before letting him go. We find the back foot safer than the front foot, but it takes some getting used to. As with hobbles, safely familiarize your horse to a picket rope at home before you try this in camp; you can tug on the rope tied to the back foot to get it used to the feel.
Be sure there are no obstructions for the horse to get tangled in, and enough feed to keep him well fed. Riders often picket the dominant horses or the ones that like to wander, in order to keep all horses close, but rotate your picket horses so that they all have a chance to free graze.
High lines are another effective way to control and feed horses. A high line is just that; a line tied above the horse’s heads between two trees. Tie your horse to the high line above long enough so it can eat the hay or feed provided, but short enough so it cannot get a leg over the lead rope. We recommend commercial metal fasteners, about eight to ten feet apart for each horse.
High lines are supposed to be environmentally friendly, but after several horses were kept on a highline each night for a week I’ve seen the ground look like a hog wallow 20 feet across and 80 feet in length. Every small tree, willow bush, and blade of grass was destroyed. High lines are for hard ground areas only.
Horse bells have been used for centuries to locate roaming horses.
One day while deep in the remote Spatsizi country near Smithers, BC, I roamed helplessly about following tracks, trying to figure out where the horses had gone. The horse tracks walked out in many directions from camp and eventually ended. After returning to camp from a fruitless mile walk, tired and distressed, I caught the slight ‘tink’ of a horse bell. And there, 75 yards from my tent, behind a few big spruce trees, were the three culprits, watching me with smiles on their faces. Just think: if they did not have bells on, that ‘tink’ would not have happened.
Horse bells have been used for hundreds of years to help locate horses in the dark or in heavy scrub. Traditionally, a bell is worn by one ‘bell mare’ — a dominant herd leader. The sound of the bell when she moves helps to locate the herd. We now try to have bells on all of our horses, not just the bell mare.
Tying a horse’s tail to the other’s halter shank is a great way to keep them in place if there are no trees, in alpine or prairie regions for example. Tail tying allows the horses to graze in open space, while preventing them from wandering too far. Leading horses back to camp head-to-tail is great, we just find that using an 11 foot lead rope and leading head-to-neck is faster. Leading packhorses together head-to-tail is a time honoured tradition, but knots can become jammed, tail hair lost, and horses stuck between trees; people can get hurt. A breakaway string behind the packsaddle is better.
A fencing kit works if you have a few horses. It does not have to be elaborate. A battery powered, hand-sized fencer and several stakes is all you need. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Portable fencing kits work great if you have only a few horses, and your horse respects hot wires at home. Put on hobbles even when confined inside a hot wire because if the horses “crash” the fence, you could be in for a long walk.
Unless you are a well-honed wrangler with well-honed horses, you need to control your horses at all times. The more horses that are free, the more trouble you have. If you are bringing in a large number, say eight or more, tie all of them to trees. Then, take half of them and tie their necks together, then release them from the trees to bring in first. Sometimes, if not too far from camp, we bring a few of the leaders in and let the others hop in with hobbles on. Again, keep all of your horses confined, tied with leads, tied to each other, or still in hobbles. When leading a string of horses, keep your bell mare or dominant horses up front.
Horses are large animals and can do quite a bit of damage to the environment, if you aren’t aware. Tying a horse overnight to a tree is very destructive. The horses can trample and expose root systems, and an active horse can completely destroy a good-sized tree in one night. We find that tying a horse to a tree, for the few minutes it takes to put hobbles on for free grazing, is the friendliest to nature.
Government offices and individuals in many areas, including many parks, have decided that horse riders should pack in their feed. These areas are now terribly infested with buttercup, white daisy, thistle, and a host of other terrain-eating weeds that came in with the hay. Many grasslands have been ruined this way; by the very laws that were supposed to protect them. If packing in feed is necessary, it should be pellets or cubes, which generally have few weed seeds.
Good luck on your overnight trips, and may the great wrangling spirit be with you!
Main article photo: Keep the high line above the horse’s head, with the rope long enough to allow it to lie down, but not long enough to get a leg over. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Pacific & Prairie Horse Journal.