Catching a hind leg to start a young or green-broke horse teaches it to yield to pressure, and keeps colt starters safe if done correctly.
I get a lot of questions about what I do for work. I suppose, as with anyone who has animals and property, the umbrella of my job description covers a lot of different titles, but for the most part, I am my husband’s right-hand “man.” We have a business where 90 percent of what we ride are young horses, so my set of skills has to be very, hmmm, specific. I’ve learned to read the actions and body language of a horse so much better than I used to, mostly due to sheer volume of breakers and the fact that colts are generally so much less seasoned and more reactive to stimulation than older, broke horses are.
That being said, I’d like to explain something that we do to every colt, filly and gelding that we start. It’s not something that everyone who starts horses does, and without the proper training, I personally don’t believe it should be attempted unless there’s someone knowledgeable there to help. But it is efficient, it keeps us safer and our horses, too. Catching everything by a hind foot is an instrumental part of what we do.
The method involves my husband, Luke, working on the ground in a round corral with the colt, and me working from horseback with a rope. In general, Luke teaches the colt to accept the touch of a flag, the lead rope and his hand, and also respond to pressure or direction from those objects. Meanwhile, I stay horseback with a rope looped around the colt’s hind leg and dallied to my saddle horn, which teaches the colt to handle pressure and also keeps Luke safe on the ground.
Now, some folks and spectators are inclined to say “rope by a hind foot,” but that’s not really an accurate description of what’s happening. When I am assisting Luke — or anyone else for that matter — I don’t swing my loop and chuck it at a hind leg trying to snag it up. I simply set a trap in front of whichever hind foot I’m wanting to catch and the person on the ground leads the horse into it. I only let the honda come tight once it is below the fetlock. Anywhere else — especially above the hock — increases a potential risk for injury to the animal.
The two most important things to keep a horse safe when doing this is that I always let my turns (dallies) run as the horse moves and works and that I don’t let the horse kick the fence/panels/etc. while working. I can’t use a saddle with rubber on the horn, as it stops a kicking horse too quickly. The main thought I have while having a horse caught with my rope is that I encourage it to work physically and mentally, instead of trying to get it to shut down its motion. It helps the colts get gentler and quieter in an efficient manner, it keeps the handler/starter on the ground safer, and it helps the horse learn how to think better through pressure. I have seen several instances where teaching horses to yield to being caught by a hind foot saves their lives when they are caught in wire or a bad situation where they have to think clearly, rather than react rashly to the pressure. They learn to stand and wait, rather than fight restraint against wire or a tangled-up situation.
I usually start by catching the right hind foot, and we let the horse kick and work at the rope as it responds to both a flag and the handler’s touch. It is important for me, the “catcher,” to pay attention and keep the handler and the horse safe. There is no room for distractions or big mistakes, as it’s easy for someone to get kicked when the person horseback with the rope isn’t paying attention. The horse will eventually soften and yield to the rope on the right foot and learn to think through the pressure. This might take several days or a matter of minutes, depending on the animal. Then, we move the rope to the left foot, repeat the process and leave the left foot rope on to saddle the colt. It gives the handler security and safety when saddling something green, and it saves our saddle from getting dumped if the horse tries to squirt away.
Doing this is also a great way for me to get whatever horse I’m riding more broke and seasoned to ropes, commotion and being handled and manipulated while there are other horses, flags and activities happening in a confined space. It gives my using horse a specific job and helps me find reason for the buttons and maneuvers I try to work on with my own mares and geldings.
From my understanding, this whole method of catching a horse by a hind foot was discovered as an accident by horseman Mr. Tom Dorrance. He roped a waspy colt and the loop ended up on a foot. This horse worked and kicked and tried hard to get away, and Tom couldn’t get the rope off. So, rather than get frustrated and bind the horse up to remove the rope, Tom let him work at the pressure and discomfort of being slowed down by the roped foot until he was gentle enough to allow Tom to remove the rope. Tom, being the thinker that he was, found value in the process and implemented this same situation intentionally when starting something. Students of Tom’s, including Ray Hunt, adopted this method into their programs as well. Students of Tom’s adopted this method into their programs as well. Luke’s dad, Bryan Neubert, learned it from Ray, and Luke got it from Bryan. That’s why we catch horses by a hind foot today.
I’ve said it before — training horses is an art, not a science. We all have different expectations, visions and methods to our own programs, and we must modify based on the horse’s personality, situation and sensitivity. I don’t think there is one right answer to any equine question, but I respect and value anything that makes our jobs safer and more efficient. Catching colts by a hind foot is a method I’ve learned to appreciate, and I enjoy learning and growing right alongside our young horses as they’re started.
And I’m pleased as punch to be my husband’s right-hand “man” — especially when that right hand gets to handle a rope.