California Riding Magazine • April, 2014

Ask Charles Wilhelm
How to deal with a horse that pulls back.

Question: In February when I was participating in the Pomona Horse Exposition I was asked about how to deal with a horse that pulls back. The person had read two recent articles, one in Horse Illustrated and one on Facebook, on how to fix pull back. I had read those articles and I thought what was written was good but the articles did not cover everything that needed to be said.

Answer: The first thing, and this was touched on in the article describing ground work, is to make sure the horse is truly halter broke. The horse must learn to yield to the pressure of the halter. That is one step toward dealing with the problem. When you pick up on the lead rope, the horse must immediately come with you. Picking up on the lead means making contact. We teach the horses here at the barn in two ways. One, I take the lead line and walk forward. The horse follows the feel, and with more pressure on the line, I like the horse to trot. The second is that the horse learns to follow me and be with me from my body cues.

The second thing that was not discussed is why horses pull back. I would like to share some insight on the cause. Sometimes we just think the horse is silly but horses pull back because they are born to resist. Resistance is a natural part of the make of a horse. Some horses have more resistance than others. Some horses are more compliant and will give to pressure easier. For what I call a normal horse, somewhat compliant, we work for about two weeks on halter training. It can take more or less time, even up to two months, depending on the resistance in the horse.

A horse may pull back when it is tied to a trailer, a hitching post or in cross ties where it feels resistance, although it is actually pulling against itself, and has gone into panic mode. The fight and flight instincts for survival take over. The horse pulls harder and eventually the rope, snap or halter breaks and the horse has release. The next time the horse is tied, it will do the same thing again and fight even harder because horses learn by pressure and release. We do ground work and teach a horse to give to the pressure of the halter by using leading exercises. There is no time the horse is held totally fast, there is always some type of forgiveness in our hold so that the horse does not go into panic mode.

Another thing that may set a resistant horse off is being suddenly startled. The horse is tied and standing quietly, and then a piece of paper flies up. Up goes the paper and with it, up go the emotions of the horse. Then the horse feels the confinement of being tied and goes into panic mode and starts pulling back.

Not only does a horse have to learn to give to pressure in a quiet environment but also when, for whatever reason, the emotional level of the horse goes up. There is always something that can be a trigger. My own horse Tennison is about as halter broke as a horse can get but he freaked out when I was in Colorado a few years ago. He pulled back and broke the lead rope when someone, who had not been around horses much, walked straight up to him in an aggressive or abrupt manner. A person who is around horses knows to be respectful with a horse that is unfamiliar. Tennison went straight back as this person coming at him was way too much pressure. I learned from that experience and incorporated acceptance of confrontational behavior into our training program.

Years ago, when I worked with a pull back horse, I would wrap the lead rope once or twice around a section of round pen paneling which allowed me to regulate the amount of pressure (see photo 1). I would push a few buttons to get the horse to pull back and then I would regulate the amount of pressure and allow the horse some release. What I see people do today, and what I don't agree with, is tying a horse by wrapping a lead once or twice around a fence post. Not all fence posts are sturdy enough to with stand the pull of a frightened horse. I've had more than one horse come in for training on pull back issues that had pulled over a rotted post and taken off with it on the end of the lead rope. This frightens the horse even more and there is a huge risk of the horse being injured. I never tie a horse to a fence, a gate, a pasture post, or a stall door. Whatever I tie a horse to is solid. Hitching posts can look solid and be rotten under ground. You need to be aware and know where it is safe to tie your horse.

While wrapping a lead rope and regulating the pressure is one way to work with a resistant horse, there is now a piece of training equipment that I use called the Clip (see photo 2). It has a set screw mechanism so that pressure can be regulated. At first when you tie your horse you have it on a low setting of twenty or thirty pounds. If the horse pulls back, the clip allows the pull with about 20 pounds of pressure. As you tighten the screw, which is easy to do, it creates more drag, up to 300 pounds or more and will still give relief if the horse pulls back.

I believe it is important for you to understand why horses pull back and not just think your horse is being obstinate. It is a problem but it can be fixed. I've seen people use baling twine for pull back training. Twine may be cheaper than a halter but the horse will break it and the problem will not be fixed.

Also, it is critical to be aware of the many places you should never tie your horse. If you have a hitching post, the uprights should be 8' x 8' in about four to five feet of cement and the top rail should be 4" x 6", or 3" galvanized pipe. There is little worse than seeing a horse racing off with a post attached to its lead and being struck with every frantic step.

I do have a DVD on pull back issues. When I was making this DVD, I put the word out that I wanted examples. I probably had 300 responses from people wanting me to use their horses. I used three horses and one of them had been with three different trainers without any success. I was successful because I do this training with an understanding of the nature of the horse, by allowing the horse some relief, but not release from the pressure, and by doing all of this in an environment that is safe.

Charles Wilhelm