Using hobbles goes beyond keeping horses from wandering off when no hitching rail, rigid fence or stout tree can be found. Horses learn to stay calm and collected whenever they get in a bind.
Horses rarely stand still in the pasture when their owner opens the feed bin at the barn. So when Jon Ensign noticed that one of his horses didn’t come in at feeding time, he figured something was wrong. He found the horse standing with its head up and eyes bright, but it was unwilling to move.
Closer inspection revealed that the horse had hooked its left front leg in a fence wire. The metal strand was lodged between the back of the shoe and the hoof. “He stayed there, just waiting for me,” recalls Ensign, a Montana cowboy and clinician. “He let me lift his foot up—without any fight whatsoever—and work the wire back and forth until I got it loose. He knew to be calm and patient because he had been hobble-trained.” Many cowboys, clinicians, backcountry packers and horse owners share similar stories of how their horses did not panic and thrash around when tangled in wire, brush, or other dangerous debris. The reason, they say, is that the horses had learned to deal with having their legs restrained after wearing a set of hobbles. The gear—made of leather, nylon, cotton, rawhide or even horsehair—binds the front legs together and keeps the horse in place.
“Over the years, we’ve had three different horses get hung in barbed wire,” says Texas horseman and clinician Buster McLaury. “But they didn’t get a scratch on them just because they didn’t panic.” McLaury and Ensign agree that the benefits of hobbling horses go beyond keeping them in place when a hitching post or tree isn’t readily available. It also teaches them to keep their composure when they get in a bind.
“The more you can teach a horse to yield to something, whether it’s with his feet or with a rope around his belly or around his neck, the better,” McLaury says. “The more he learns to yield, the handier and more useful he’ll be.”
Once a horse is trained to wear hobbles, a rider has the ability to park his horse anywhere, even if there isn’t a good place to tie it.
“If you’re out in the pasture and need to fix a fence or crawl down in the creek Cowboys often hobble their horses with their tie strings. They fold the rope to make a loop, send the tails around the right leg, twist them in the middle, and then run one tail through the loop at the left leg. They wrap that tail back around the left leg and make a square knot with the other tail on the outside of the left leg. to fix a water gap, and there isn’t a tree handy to tie your horse to, you can hobble him,” McLaury says. “Or if you’re trail riding and want to get off and eat a picnic lunch, just hobble your horse and let him graze a little bit.”
Lee Roeser is a horsepacker who works for the U.S. Forest Service, and he and his wife also operate their own packing outfit based near Independence, California. Roeser travels with a set of hobbles on every mule in his pack string. Riding through the Sierra Nevada, he encounters situations in which he needs to dismount, and he certainly can’t afford for his saddle mule to wander off and possibly take the pack string with it.
“Hobbles are a great tool,” he says. “Every horse or mule that we use knows how to be hobbled. If I’ve got to get off my saddle animal to adjust a load or drag something off the trail, I really need that saddle animal to stay put and hold the pack string while I’m off. And a lot of times there is nothing to tie him to or no one with me to hold him.”
Roeser adds that some people use hobbles during overnight stays in the backcountry, understanding that horses can still move around somewhat to graze. However, if he spends the night, he restrains his mules in other ways, such as a picket line or hotwire fence. He doesn’t want his mules to try to move at all while hobbled. He expects them to associate hobbling with standing still. “It’s pretty common to load and unload [panniers] in a place where there isn’t a good spot to tie everything up,” he says. “I’m often handling large numbers of animals with a small number of people, or sometimes by myself. So to me it’s critical that they stand and not move around. That’s key in my world.”
Similarly, McLaury prefers his horses to stay in one spot when hobbled.
“Some horses learn to travel with them,” he says. “If one has learned to pick up his front feet [in unison] and go, then you can take a short piece of soft rope and catch a hind foot, below the ankle, and then tie the rope to the hobbles.” McLaury brings one hind foot slightly ahead of the other hind foot and ties the rope to the center of the hobbles. He doesn’t want too much slack in the rope, and he also doesn’t want the hind foot pulled too far underneath the horse in an uncomfortable position.
Before doing this, or even before hobbling the horse’s two front feet, McLaury advises training the horse to wear hobbles in a safe environment. “The preparation is the best part of using hobbles,” he says. “Getting him ready to be hobbled is what teaches a horse not to panic when something gets wrapped around his foot, whether it be a set of hobbles, rope, wire or vines out in the pasture.”
Ready to Wear
When hobble-training a horse, both McLaury and Ensign begin by teaching the horse to accept a soft cotton rope against each leg. From a standing position, they swing the rope and let it twirl around each leg. As the horse becomes comfortable with that, they loop the rope around the pastern and, holding both ends of the rope, softly pull. As soon as the horse yields, they release the pressure.
“I might just jiggle my fingers a little, and not to make him pick up his foot, but just shift his weight when he feels that bump on his leg,” Ensign says. “I really want him to release his foot when he feels tension.” After the horse learns to willingly move its feet with the tug of the rope, it’s ready to be hobbled. To keep the horse from burning its legs in case it struggles, McLaury likes to use a very soft set of hobbles, or even a cotton rope that ties the front feet about 6 inches apart.
“The thing to remember when you take a horse’s feet away from him, whether you’re hobbling, tying up a foot or roping a hind foot, things can go wrong and you can hurt one,” McLaury says. “So go about it in a semi-controlled environment. You’re going to be there to help him. Get in a good sandy lot, or someplace where the footing is pretty soft, in case he struggles and falls on his knees.”
When putting the hobbles on, stand at the horse’s left side and attach them to the right leg first, and then to the left leg. This sets you up to buckle the hobbles on the near-side leg. Roeser advises staying on your feet and crouching down.
“The last thing you want is to get down on your knees,” he says. “Stay on your feet so that if the animal jumps or moves, you can safely get out of the way.” McLaury takes the same approach, and remains calm but is ready in case the horse comes unglued. “As soon as I get the hobbles on, I step away from him but keep hold of the lead rope,” McLaury says. “I stand off to the side. You never want to be in front of him because when a horse panics, a lot of times he’ll come to you.”
If the horse panics and lunges forward, McLaury steps toward the horse’s hindquarters and puts a little pressure on the lead rope to help the horse turn and eventually come to a stop. If it falls down, he keeps his distance and waits for it to get up on its own.
“When he gets stopped, I stay out away from him, on the end of the lead rope,” McLaury says. “Usually in a little bit he’ll relax, and then I’ll ease up to him, walking to just behind his shoulder, and then I pet him to reassure him. Then I back off again and let him think about it.
“If he can stand there for three or four minutes, and I see him relax, I’ll finally ease up and take the hobbles off. And then I lead him off and go back to something he’s a little more sure about. Next, I’ll put the hobbles on again and do the same thing. Usually they don’t struggle quite as much the second time. Then I go way out front, on the end of the lead rope, and move to the
opposite side, and I see how he acts with me on that side.”
McLaury doesn’t remove the hobbles until the horse relaxes. He says that most horses learn to stand relaxed in hobbles by the third session, realizing that if they struggle, their situation gets worse. But if they stay calm, their predicament remains stress-free.
While many horsemen attach hobbles around the cannon bones, McLaury prefers to attach them around the horse’s pasterns.
“That’s the way I do it,” he says. “I won’t say it’s right or wrong. I just think about those tendons running up the back of their cannon bones, and I think you could twist one around or maybe bow a tendon. But after a horse gets used to being hobbled, I don’t think it makes much difference where the hobbles are attached.” Ensign agrees that the biggest key to preventing injury while hobbling is limiting how much the horse struggles.
“I like to put mine on a little higher,” Ensign says. “I guess that’s just personal preference. But if a horse is hobble-broke properly, he shouldn’t fight them much, anyway. It all depends on how much preparation they’ve had before the hobbles go on.”
Bound by Design
McLaury prefers to use a soft cotton rope for hobbling, and remembers fondly when he and other cowboys made hobbles out of tow sacks, or burlap sacks.
Ensign likes to use leather “figure eight” hobbles that go around the right foot, weave through two slits in the middle, and then buckle around the left foot. The thick leather is durable and strong, but not abrasive. For Roeser, a set of leather “tworing” hobbles works best for his saddle mule. The strap goes around the right leg, through one steel ring and then another, and then buckles at the left foot. Roeser adds that the “billet” end of his hobbles is extra long—12 to 15 inches—for a reason. “The billet end is extra long so I can reach it from a safe distance, and I use a roller buckle without a keeper so I can unbuckle them quickly,” he says.
On his pack mules, Roeser uses lightweight cotton rope.
Some hobbles are made of nylon webbing; others are leather cuffs connected by chain. Some are lined with sheepskin to prevent chafing, and a growing number of horsemen are trying hobbles made of BioThane, a plastic-coated polyester material that is lightweight, durable and waterproof. Some hobbles are flat-braided with nylon or parachute cord, and they include two slits, a loop and a button, so no buckles are required. And other buckle-less pairs feature steel rings that fit over leather tabs. For riders looking for something more artistic, there are custom rawhide braided or horsehair hitched hobbles, usually attached with buttons.
McLaury says it’s important to use a soft material that doesn’t chafe when a horse is learning to stand still in hobbles. Afterward, the design and material are up to personal preference.
“A good soft rope is hard to beat, and leather hobbles are all right if they’re soft,” McLaury says. “There’s some material that can burn a horse pretty good, or it might over time get hard and abrasive with sweat and dirt. But after a horse gets good about hobbles, the material doesn’t make much difference. They’re not going to fight against them.”
And that’s the ultimate goal: a horse that doesn’t go into a frenzy when in a bind, but instead waits calmly for someone to unbuckle or unravel whatever is holding them in place.
“If he yields to pressure instead of panicking and going against it, which is the horse’s nature, the more you can teach a horse,” McLaury says. “It’s a matter of trust. If he trusts you and yields to pressure, then you can get a lot of things done and be a lot safer doing it.”
This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of Western Horseman.