Train your horse to master the essential skill of wearing hobbles.
Hobbles are a liberating piece of tack; you can travel the backcountry with confidence, knowing you can restrain your horse no matter what the terrain. After all, the old standby of tying to a tree doesn’t work when there aren’t any trees around – say an alpine meadow, grassland basin, or desert landscape.
It’s never too late – or early – to train your horse to wear hobbles. Here are 10 tips that will lead you and your horse to a rope-free future in the backcountry.
1. Leg Up. A horse should freely give his leg for hobbling, just like he would for a farrier putting on a horseshoe. Also, because hobbles require that a horse stand with his feet closer together than normal (about 12 inches), he should allow you to control where his foot is placed back down on the ground. Give your horse plenty of foot handling practice before ever attaching hobbles for the first time.
2. Danger Zone. Squatting at a horse’s feet while fastening hobbles puts a rider in a vulnerable position. If the horse steps forward, you can easily get kicked or stepped on. Minimize danger by attaching the near-side (left leg) hobble from a standing position. Then walk around to the off-side and carefully kneel to fasten the right hobble.
3. Hobble Selection. Hobbles are constructed out of a variety of materials (leather, nylon, neoprene, cotton) and come in several different styles (cuffs, figure eight, rope twist). For introductory training of an adult horse, go with padded cuff hobbles ($28, outfitterssupply.com). They fit snuggly around the leg, and the padding protects the horse from injury if it should struggle against the restraint. For a young horse (age 2 or under), simulate hobbles by using a bed sheet tied around the legs. A sheet is soft on the skin and forgiving if the colt struggles – good qualities for a youngster experiencing hobbles for the first time.
4. Proper Fit. Many horsemen aren’t aware of how to properly fit hobbles to their horse. Fasten hobbles at the fetlock, not the pastern. Hobbling around the pastern can cause injury to ligaments and joints, and increases the chances of rope burns. Hobbling at the fetlock maximizes restraint by reducing the distance a horse can spread his legs, lift them, or move forward and backward.
5. Corral Classroom. A dirt corral is a safe place to hobble a horse for the first time. Walk him to the center, attach the hobbles and then throw out a fresh flake of hay for him to munch. The feed keeps his mind occupied and encourages a head-down position, a posture that least encourages him to struggle. Like with all training, keep introductory lessons brief.
6. Progress to the Pasture. Once a horse tolerates hobbles in a corral, graduate into a larger space like a pasture or riding arena. Turn him out hobbled for incrementally increased periods of time (15, 30, 45 minutes). Pay attention that a horse doesn’t try to walk or run long distances wearing the hobbles. A short, hopping-with-both-feet motion is fine.
7. The Runaway. Odds are that a horse will eventually test his ability to move while hobbled. I’ve witnessed horses that could strike a gallop while hobbled. Obviously, this is a bad habit for a backcountry horseman who relies on his horse staying put. To solve a runaway problem, fasten a lead rope to a halter and tie it to the hobbles at a short length (3-4 feet). This restricts a horse’s ability to lift his head. A horse that can’t lift his head can’t run.
8. Graduation. When a horse pastures calmly while wearing hobbles, you’re ready for a backcountry trail. Graduate into a trail-worthy model of hobbles, like a figure-eight or a braided rope hobble. These styles are easy to put on and take off, lightweight for the horse to wear, and convenient to carry on the saddle. It’s worth noting, though, that cuff-style hobbles are still the best option for long-term turnouts, such as overnight grazing on a multi-day pack trip.
9. Hobble Holder. Many horsemen will fasten a “hobble holder” to their saddle. This is typically a metal or leather cut-out ring, two inches in diameter, and located adjacent the cantle on the saddle’s near side. A pair of hobbles hang looped through the ring, conveniently located at arm’s reach for easy access the moment you dismount.
10. The Hobble Way of Life. To keep your horse’s training fresh, hobble correctly and hobble frequently. Rather than tie to a hitching post to tack up, throw on the hobbles. When stopping for any period of time during ranch work or on the trail, throw on the hobbles. When turning your horse out for an hour of pasture time, on go the hobbles.
When his training is complete, you’ll see a change for the better in your horse’s behavior. He’ll stand stone still for saddling, he’ll be more attentive to his rider, and he’ll be considerably more aware of what he does with his feet. These are good qualities of a horse on the ground, in the saddle, and in the backcountry.