Although the hobble is a tool that dates back centuries and was used
in horse cultures around the world, it is not commonly in use by today's
more recreationally oriented horse owners. It has most definitely not outlived
its usefulness in modern times. The application can vary from an outright
form of restraining a horse (make no mistake, it is an effective and powerful
mechanical device) to a tool to teach a horse to ground tie or to stand
when tangled in wire until help arrives. Not having to live with the horse
and rely on it for transportation and needing it to be roughly where you
left it (which may have been miles from anywhere in times gone by), many
horses and horse owners of today have never used, or even seen, hobbles.
So here is a little primer on the historical use, types and applications
of some of the common "western" style hobbles. The basic training steps
to acclimate a horse to hobbles will also be related with the caution up
front that these procedures are opinions of the author on how and what
to do and are not warranted to any degree of success on your part if attempted.
Hobbling and training a horse to hobble can result in injury or death of
the horse or person involved. Try these at your own risk, they work when
I use them.
The hobbles I'm referring to here are similar to a pair of handcuffs
that are placed, wrapped, tied or buckled around the pasterns or cannon
bones of the front legs of a horse. They come in many styles and pack a
host of different names: vaquero, braided, twisted, burlap, figure eight,
chain or chain link. All commonly are applied to the front legs. Rope restraints
applied to the hind legs are often referred to as leg ropes or sidelines
but you will find an occasional reference to a hind leg hobble. This is
about front leg hobbles.
A Little History -
The historical use of hobbles with a trained or "broke" horse was, and
remains, primarily to slow him from wandering too far, too quickly. These
devices cannot generally keep a horse in one place. In fact, I have chased
horses a mile or more on a couple of occasions. Not a classic lope (more
of a three legged, rambling stumble at speed) but they can motor down the
trail quite well and fast enough to leave me out of breath were I to try
and match the pace. Keep that in mind if you ever use them and are a long
way from the home place.
Hobbles were also used in the rough and tumble manner of "bronco busting"
in the days of the early and wild West of the United States, mainly a Texas
style of horse breaking. They were used, in combination with sidelines,
to keep a horse down while a rope halter or hackamore rig was slipped on
his head for the first time or to hold him relatively in one place, with
one or two neck ropes and a sideline to boot, as a saddle was cinched up
for the initial ride. The hobbles were usually gotten on after the horse
had been "busted" or thrown with a "flyin' W". This is where the broncman
catches both front feet with a catch rope, or lasso, as the horse races
by and then sits back on the rope and sends the horse tail over teakettle
onto the ground. Another fellow would sit on the horse's head (maybe with
an ear between his teeth) while a third tied a hobble on the forelegs.
This hobble was often made of a length of burlap sack that went around
a leg, was twisted several times in between and then tied around the other
leg. Sometimes just a short length of rope was used which would burn the
hide as the bronc fought to free himself. Horses were cheap then and many
were needed on a ranch. Much time could not be spent on gentling so the
bronco buster did not worry much about the loss of hide or hair or even
life or limb (of the horse, of course). With today's horses being a little
more valuable, time and care can be used to introduce the hobbles a little
less traumatically than this old way. With sufficient prior and proper
preparation, to borrow a phrase from a renowned horseman, little struggle
or panic should result when hobbling a horse for the first time. No guarantees,
these are horses after all. But a little, well, let's be honest, a lot
of patience and time will pay huge dividends in the end.
Three Common "Using" Types of Western Hobbles -
or braided hobble is made from four, eight or sixteen strands of narrow
rawhide, leather, latigo or nylon parachute cord strings braided into a
length. This length is then doubled, the ends of which are tied together
forming a large button on the joined ends. This is typically covered with
a fancy braided knot, such as the pineapple or lone star knot. Two of these
doubled lengths form the cuffs by passing each through a central ring (or
two), secured and adjusted by Spanish ring knots which slide over the cuffs
and hold them on the leg. The rings are often covered by a single rawhide
string hitched in a coxcomb or other fancy pattern.
These hobbles usually hang from the saddle by a ring tied to the rig
so that they are ready to use when out on the range and fencing (or a quick
nap) is needed to be done by the buckaroo. These are not for training purposes
as they are often lighter and somewhat thinner than other styles. They
are highly decorative and I have been braiding this style from nylon "parachute"
cord for years. These last a long time and I have not had a horse injured
wearing them (though one horse did tear a pair apart, which is a good thing
and why I usually make them with a single ring rather than two). The pair
pictured are about five years old.
eight hobble is a classic Texas style hobble found in most modern saddleshops.
These are made of two layers of leather, the outside being saddle skirt
(a heavy leather) and the inside (against the horse's leg) being latigo.
The latigo is somewhat easier on the hair of the leg. The hobble itself
is a single piece that goes around one leg, through two slits in the strap
in between the legs and around the other front leg. It is a buckle hobble
which can make its release a little tricky if the horse spooks and goes
down with these on. As you might imagine, these are not training hobbles
either (we'll get there, be patient).
Again, these are easily packed when riding as they can hang from a ring
on the forks or the cantle of a western saddle. They are stout and will
not give unless purposefully made from a lighter leather strap. I have
a pair and prefer the vaquero style for most riding that I do. The figure
eight is kept in my rig and I use it when tying a horse for shoeing is
not possible (that is a whole other article). The adjustment on these is
not very refined and I find that they can slip around the leg quite a bit.
Also, if you try and use these on the cannon they always seem to slide
down around the pasterns. At least, that has been my experience.
twist hobble is versatile and can be made in a number of ways, depending
on the material available and the use to which it will be put. A rawhide
version is the historical bronc hobble because rawhide was a very abundant
and cheap, easily prepared material on a ranch (some old cow was always
dying to provide more material). The rawhide version is a very stout hobble
but somewhat cumbersome and definitely not easily packed for riding.
Another version is simply a three strand, heavy cotton rope that has
been untwisted and then braided back into about a three foot length. This
is a pretty good for hobble training purposes as it can easily be released,
it is tied with a simple shoe string bow, and the cotton limits injuries
if things do not go well the first time. A length of old burlap will serve
a similar purpose. The cotton rope can serve double duty to tie wild cattle
down when such a need arises (not too often nowadays). The rope is just
looped around a leg, twisted a few times in between and then tied around
the other leg like you would tie your shoe. The number of twists determines
the amount of movement you will allow the horse. More twists, more movement.
This version of the twist hobble is very easily packed along for riding
by running it doubled up through the gullet of a western saddle or hanging
from a saddle ring or your own belt.
So How Do You Do That Hobble Thing?
Hobbling a horse is a significantly stressful event for all concerned
if you simply slip on the cuffs and leave the horse to his own resources.
The less time you have spent building his confidence in humans and their
contraptions, the bigger the wreck you may incur. So the first rule of
hobble training is to prepare the horse with plenty of groundwork and trust
building. Once you have reached a point in your relationship with the horse
where he wants to be with you and looks to you for relief when things get
tough you can proceed with some simple exercises that will build to finally
putting a pair of hobbles on.
The first actual hobble related thing I do
is get the horse acclimated to the feel of a
piece of rope on his pastern and cannon. With the lead rope draped over
my arm, I will ask
the horse to lift his leg and then support the cannon bone with one
hand. I then use the hobble rope doubled over to cradle and hold the leg.
If the horse resists too much I just let one end go and the foot is free.
After some relaxed success with both the front and hind legs, over a series
of a few days, I move on to the next phase.
The second thing I do with the cotton hobble is try to lift
the leg forward using the doubled rope. I slip the rope around the
pastern or cannon and hold both ends in one hand, the other hand ready
to control the lead rope if needed. I will slowly and lightly pull the
hobble rope toward me. If the horse takes a willing step, I release pressure
immediately. If not, I wait and give him time to move. If he tries to step
back I will move with him but keep the forward pressure steady. I won't
tighten up with more pressure as I am not trying to stop him and I do not
want to start a fight. I do want him to keep a level head and think through
my request. To do this on the hind end I will ask for a step out to the
side by pulling ninety degrees to his backbone with the rope on a hind
foot. The hobble should be made long enough so that when doubled there
is room to do these exercises but still have a safe zone between you and
the horse. When the horse has reached a relaxed and comfortable response
to the hobble rope pressure on his legs you can move on to another set
The next phase of training involves the use of a 5/16" or 3/8" diameter
60' soft lay poly catch rope with a very free running
metal or rawhide honda ( No, not a car!). This
is a loop on the end of a lasso that helps form the part that slips over
what you want to catch. I use this to begin teaching the horse about trapped
legs. Some ability with a long catch rope is required for this method,
not in throwing it and catching things, just in handling a long line. I
do this in a round pen with at least a 40' diameter but any enclosure with
safe fencing and soft ground will serve. (No rocks or other obstacles in
the pen, please.) Because I have spent the time it takes to get here, the
horse is at liberty (No halter on) and at ease, standing next to me. I
ask him to lift his front leg and slip the noose
of the rope over the pastern and step back, feeding out some slack. If
he will not readily lift his leg for me, he is not ready for this stage
of hobble training. After the rope is on his leg, if he moves, I let him.
If he stands, I let him. I can gauge some of my progress in other training
areas by the reaction I get about now. If he is spooked by the rope, I
may have begun hobble training too soon and I need to back up for awhile
longer and build more trust. This is an individual thing, each horse takes
different experiences and processes them uniquely (Very self-centered animals
in some ways.).
When it is readily apparent that the horse is OK with the rope on his
pastern, I will apply a light pull to the rope and see what I get. Up until
he is ready for a bit of intentional pull it is necessary to keep the right
amount of tension in the rope so that it will stay on his leg but not so
much that he will fight or panic. If the rope does come off before he is
able to accept its presence and relax, you can do a few other liberty exercises
and then try again. Good horse sense is applied all along the way. Remember
to use these steps as guidelines and not get too entrenched in the procedure
that you lose sight of what you are after - a relaxed and thinking horse
who will listen to you.
If the horse backs up, I feed him slack. If he runs forward I feed him
slack and try to bring him down with a relaxed body language that says
it is all right, things are not necessarily as scary as they seem and you
can stop. What I do not do is try to stop him by pulling the rope. Be aware
that a horse can wrap himself
up in the rope and catch ropes can cause abrasions and "rope" burns
to the pasterns and legs. If you do not get in a tug of war with the horse
this will not likely happen. Wrapping himself up can be a good thing but
only if you have his trust and he is not in a panic or a fight with you.
He will look for you to unwrap him if he thinks he is in trouble and you
have his trust. After a bit I will do the same for the other front leg.
Short, positive session are the key to success without battles. I will
eventually work the hind legs also as wire fencing that is down on the
ground can wrap a horse up at both ends.
Eventually I will set it up so that the horse will step
over the rope with his free leg and then I will apply a little pull and
he will be in a semi-sorta-hobble that I can let
go of easily. Again this is a judgment call, you do it when the horse is
ready. I made mistakes in my early attempts by trying to do something before
the horse was ready. There is no ironclad way to tell another person when
a horse is ready for the hobbles, only the horse can do that. The level
of your skill is directly related to how often you judged correctly that
the time was right.
When the time is right, I will tie the hobble to the horse's front legs
as described for the twist hobble. I prefer around the cannon bones for
the training period and I cannot point out a real specific reason why,
I just do. The horse seems to accept this better while he is still in this
phase of early exposure. Now if all has been prepared properly for this
momentous occasion it will be a definite anti-climactic event. The horse
will stand there. You will stand there and after awhile you will take them
off because you want to go for a ride. Your next big challenge will be
to hobble him out in the green grass and watch him do the three-legged
boogie as he tries to get to the greener grass on the other side of the
field or follow a bunch of horses that just rode by. Or maybe, he'll just
stand there and enjoy the view.
Safety Considerations and Disclaimers (again) -
This is a restraint and some horses will panic no matter
how much preparation you endeavor to make. Be sure to do this in an area
that is confined but with room for you and the horse to stay out of each
other's way if things go wrong. Have a sharp knife on you in case you have
to cut the hobbles off (Another reason for using the rope, it's cheap!).
Do not tie a horse by the lead when hobbled, especially for training to
hobble. Do not cross tie or in any other way restrain the horse, the hobbles
are enough for the horse to be dealing with mentally and physically. Never
leave the horse with a halter or headstall on while hobbled, even after
they are "trained". Remove this gear as trailing leads and reins can cause
injury to the neck and back if the horse does the three legged run and
comes down on one. Never leave the hobbled horse unattended for extensive
periods of time, they can always find a way to get into a jackpot. Never
hobble a horse inside a horse trailer, stall or other confined space. This
"how to" is not warranted to be the only way to train a horse to hobble
nor is it warranted to be successful. Horse training is an individualized
activity and has inherent risk to the activity. Use these exercises at
your own risk.