Prepare a young horse for saddling and having its feet handled with Rudy Lara’s progressive rope drills.

A rope is an important tool in Rudy Lara’s horsemanship, not just to catch a cow, but also to desensitize young horses to a variety of sensations and stimuli. Using techniques from his background in doma vaquera (which translates to Western dressage), vaquero traditions and ranch roping, he has devised a sequence of multi-purpose pressure-and-release drills with a lariat to desensitize a horse and prepare it for saddling, cinching, and having its feet handled and its foot placement controlled.

Here he demonstrates those drills, which can be used for starting a colt or introducing an older horse to a rope for the first time.

“I’ll start working on this while halter-breaking colts,” he says. “That’s the perfect time to start using a rope as a desensitizing tool and building the horse’s confidence and your control of its feet. I’ve also used these exercises on horses that were 10 to 12 years old that have never seen a rope.”

1. Move the Horse’s Feet

Lara begins each training session by haltering the horse and taking it into a controlled environment, such as a roundpen. Before he begins the rope work, he wants a horse to know how to move freely around the pen, and move its forehand and hindquarters away from him in response to the flag or body cues.

“What I want to accomplish is communication between me and the horse,” he says. “[Legendary horseman] Ray Hunt used to say if you can control a horse’s feet you have control of its mind. “Before I introduce a rope, I want to first establish control of the horse’s feet and movement by teaching it to yield its front [end] and hindquarters as a safety precaution so it won’t run into me if it panics.”

Lara moves the horse around him using a flag.
Picking up the lead rope. Lara tips the horse’s head toward him and steps toward the horse’s hip, using the flag to get it to move its hindquarters away from him. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

2. Rub With The Rope

When the horse is responsive and focused on him, Lara introduces the rope. Holding the lead rope in his left hand and the coiled lariat in his right hand, he approaches the horse on its left side and allows it to look at and smell the rope.

Next, he slowly rubs the coiled rope against the horse’s shoulder, slowly moving up the horse’s neck, down its front leg, along its back, and down its hip and hind leg. As soon as the horse accepts the rope touching its left side, Lara does the same on the right side.

3. Release and Coil the Rope

When the horse is comfortable with the coiled rope touching its body, Lara stands beside the horse and throws the end of the rope 30 to 60 feet in front of the horse, depending on the rope’s length, and then recoils it. He doesn’t build a loop and throw it overhead at this point.

“It can make a horse nervous to have the rope go from being coiled in your hand to becoming super long and moving on the ground in front of it,” he says. “I like to coil it with the slack coming toward the horse, like a snake. Horses that have been out on the range associate the rope’s movement with a snake and sometimes want to get away from it. I keep throwing and recoiling it until it doesn’t bother the horse.”

If the horse is reactive, Lara returns to rubbing the rope on the horse. For a horse that wants to move away, he will ask the horse to move around the pen, then bring the horse back to him, disengage its hindquarters and ask it to take a few steps back, and then release and coil the rope again. “It depends on how severely the horse reacts,” he explains. “I want to show the horse the rope won’t hurt him, so if he reacts and tries to get away I go back to something he is comfortable with, like rubbing the rope on him. If that doesn’t work, I put the rope down and go back to working the horse in the roundpen for a few minutes, and then stop him and reintroduce the rope. He’ll learn that when he stands still for the rope he gets to rest and it’s a positive thing.”

4. Loop the Legs

When the horse is confident with the rope’s touch and movement, Lara places the loop around the horse’s left front pastern while still holding the lead rope in his left hand in case the horse tries to get away.

“I raise the front foot off the ground and hold it with the rope,” explains Lara. “I hold the foot up until the horse relaxes and then I place it back on the ground. The release is the reward for standing still.” When the horse willingly lifts its foot with the rope pressure, Lara encourages the horse to lift its foot and step forward with that foot, directing the foot placement with the rope. He repeats on the other front leg and then advances to the hind legs.

Lara using a rope on the horse's foot to direct movement.
Directing a horse’s foot placement with a rope is a way to gain control of his mind. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

5. Rope Both Feet

Once he can move each foot with the rope, Lara places the rope around both front feet and raises his hand to slightly tighten the loop around around the horse’s pasterns, simulating the feeling of being hobbled. If the horse gets scared, he can lower and open his hand to open the loop and release the pressure. “I want the horse to stand still without kicking or trying to get out of the rope,” says Lara. “This will be beneficial if the horse gets tangled in a fence or gets a foot caught in a corral panel. The horse will learn to stand still and wait for help rather than panic.”

Lara urges the horse to move its feet and feel the pressure, but his goal is for the horse to stop and stand still and relaxed when it feels pressure around its lower legs. When the horse is relaxed, he releases the rope and does the same thing to the hind legs. “As the horse takes a step, whether it’s sideways or forward, apply pressure on the rope only until the horse relaxes and stops,” says Lara. “Then release the pressure so the horse learns to yield to it.”

6. Swing the Rope

Next, Lara swings a loop in the air above the horse to accustom it to the sound and movement above it. When the horse tolerates the swinging loop, Lara gently tosses the loop on the horse’s back, simulating a saddle pad and saddle. He works on both sides of the horse so it gets used to him working from both sides.

“When the horse handles me throwing a loop over its back, I’ll let it fall over its hindquarters and put a little tension on the rope, pulling the horse toward me,” he explains. “This desensitizes the horse to different movement and pressure and builds confidence between him and me. He starts trusting me and moving forward without reaction.”

By throwing a rope over the horses back, Lara prepares a horse for saddling.
Lara swings a loop above the horse and lets it land on the horse’s back. The motion resembles placing a saddle pad on the horse’s back. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

7. Simulate Cinching

When the horse is comfortable with the loop around its hindquarters, Lara slips it over the horse’s head and down its neck and lets it drape down the front legs. He uses lead rope pressure to get the horse to step through the loop and then raises the hand holding the rope to slightly tighten the slack around the horse’s girth area.

“This introduces the feeling of tightening the front cinch,” says Lara. “I ask the horse to walk and then trot with the loop around the girth until it is comfortable with it. Then I move it back to the place where my legs will be when I ride the horse. If the horse hasn’t felt pressure there it might tense up when it feels your leg pressure, and spook or start bucking. This prepares the horse for the feeling of your legs against its sides.”

When the horse will walk and trot in each direction around the pen with the loop around its girth and midsection. Lara, still holding the lead rope, either slides the rope back to just in front of the flank, or he throws it over the hip and asks the horse to back up or step forward through the loop. He keeps the horse at lead-rope distance from him. He lifts up on the rope and applies slight pressure to the area to keep the rope in position.

“This is where you might get the most reaction from the horse,” he says. “It’s really important that you learn to time your pressure and release right so you don’t teach the horse to buck. If the horse starts to buck, I hold the pressure until he quits. As soon as he quits and transitions to a trot or walk, I release the pressure so he learns that when he relaxes the pressure will release.” Lara has seen horsemen who slip the loop around the horse’s flanks without holding on to the lead rope and let the horse run around the pen bucking.

“I hold on to the lead rope in one hand and the rope with the other hand so I can direct the horse’s movement and the rope pressure for the safety of the horse and me,” he says. “It’s all in my hands. I have enough slack that if I squeeze my hand around the rope it applies enough tension for the horse to feel it. When I relax my hand, the horse senses the release. This is the same thing I’ll do on the reins when asking the horse for a soft feel.”

Lara uses a rope to simulate the feel of the saddle and to help prepare a horse for saddling the first time.
If the horse bucks when the rope puts pressure on its flank. Lara says it’s important to release the pressure when the horse relaxes and not when it’s still bucking, or you could teach the horse to buck. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

At the Colt Starting USA National Finals last November, Lara used these techniques in preparation for saddling his filly. When it came time to saddle her and then ride her through obstacles, “it wasn’t a big deal,” says Lara, who won the championship title by one point. “People get in such a rush to saddle and get on a colt and don’t take time to prepare the horse,” he says. “It doesn’t take that much time to get a horse used to the sensations of saddling and make it a positive experience. Plus, it helps the horse build confidence in you and carries forward to anything you want to do with the horse in the future.”


Our Expert

Rudy Lara has started colts and trained horses for the public since 2009. He started working with his father, Rodolfo Lara, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but now has his own training program, Rudy Lara Horsemanship, in Taos, New Mexico. He and his wife, Aubriana, have two sons, Joaquin and Santiago. He conducts clinics throughout the United States, specializing in colt starting, problem horses, ranch roping and doma vaquera. He was selected twice to participate in Buck Brannaman’s annual colt-starting clinic and has qualified for the finals at the Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping. He’s also placed at and won several colt-starting competitions, including the Colt Starting USA National Finals.

This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of Western Horseman.

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