Neu Perspectives

Halter-Break or Leave ‘Em Be?

When we bring new horses to our place, there are usually two methods of unloading them.

There’s the traditional “untie, unload and lead to the designated pen,” and then there’s the “turn your rig around, back up to our load-out, open the door, send them down the lane and run each horse into its designated pen.”

Naturally, this decision depends on how much the horse has been handled. It’s generally safer and simpler to unload them with our back-up-to-the-lane method if they’ve had very little time with people. (Although, let’s not discount that horses who have been overly handled in the wrong way can bring their own hazards too.) This leads me to a semi-controversial and interesting question: Is it better to take and start a horse with little to no handling or have one that already knows the basics?

Photo courtesy Kelli Neubert.

My husband and I have a bit of a niche with what we do and happen to start a large number of horses every year. Some arrive and are pushy and wild. Some are gentle and unhandled. Some horses hit the ground running with good manners, and some are frustrated or extremely fearful. Sometimes, horses show up with no manners and seemingly no education to a halter and are gelded, trimmed and (no joke!) sport Show Sheen in their manes. These ones always amaze me.

Some people prefer a horse that hasn’t been handled to one that’s been over-handled, for they say that they are a clean slate, free of bad habits. To me, this can be discouraging to someone who wants to handle their foals and yearlings with good intentions. I know that I sleep better at night knowing that all my weanlings have been handled, with some bend and some lead to them. If something colicked, got loose or was injured, I could help them without fear that they would get themselves – or me! – in a bind. But hey, that’s just my personal perspective.

Photo courtesy Kelli Neubert.

I understand how a lot of programs just don’t have the time, the help or the knowledge to handle and halter-break young horses, and we don’t really mind being the people to do it.

Bend is key. A horse that can move its hips and build or cease life when asked keeps things safer. It’s also important that they learn respect, don’t crowd their handler or get pushy. This all means that there’s plenty to work on before they get saddled. Young horses are extremely fragile, especially when it comes to their heads, necks and brains. If they’ve never been tied up before and are handled as though they have been, wrecks may ensue, sometimes with problematic aftermath and unfixable damage. Never underestimate the value of someone who can safely teach a horse to lead, tie and respond properly to basic pressure.

Often though, it seems to balance in the end. Whether the horse rattles off the trailer, loose and wild with knots in his mane, or If he softly steps out of the trailer in response to his owner’s wink and whistle, it seems that most of them learn, grow, settle and generally retain the basics of being a human’s horse. One of the most humbling and wonderful parts of our job is the variation and individualism of every horse. We get opportunities each day to strengthen weaknesses, foster strengths and assist a horse to be successful in life beyond our first 60 days.

If they come here handled, gentle and ready to be saddled, it seems that more gets done in a shorter period of time, and it’s usually safer for all parties involved. But if they show up wild, we usually do our best to get them gentle, trusting and ready to be functional young members of our equine/human society. And we’ll even remove the witches’ knots, too.

But no promises on the Show Sheen.

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