Using Hobbles on Your HorseBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · July 16, 2012
Hobbles—connected loops that tie a horse’s front legs loosely together—have been used for centuries to keep horses from straying when there is no place to tie or confine them. Several types of hobbles are available; most connect only two legs, though for horses that have learned to cover quite a bit of ground while wearing hobbles, a third leg can be tied as well.
Material used for hobbling should be strong but safe. Loops should not be large enough to catch on brush or other objects, and should be adjusted so that they are neither tight enough to restrict circulation nor loose enough to allow the horse to get another hoof through the hobble. Leather, soft rope, and nylon are common hobble materials. Any material that is capable of abrading or rubbing the horse’s skin should be lined with a protective covering such as neoprene.
The process of introducing hobbles should begin with desensitizing a horse to having its legs handled. The trainer should spend plenty of time in accustoming the horse to the feel of a rope or other material touching every part of its body, especially all around the legs and pasterns. Many short sessions are better than a few long sessions for this training.
When the horse is completely calm and does not react to the rope, the trainer can pass the rope around the horse’s pastern and pull forward gently, releasing pressure as soon as the horse yields by moving its leg in the direction of the pull. This should be done on both front legs for hobble training, but desensitizing all four legs is a good idea because it will encourage the horse not to fight restraint if it ever becomes tangled in wire or other fencing.
After the horse learns to yield quietly to rope pressure around its pastern, the trainer should strap the hobble to just one leg at a time and let the horse walk around to get used to the feeling of something on its leg above the fetlock. This should be done on each front leg, taking all the time necessary to allow the horse to accept the sensation without getting nervous. Each horse will react as an individual; quieter breeds will probably accept this training more calmly than more nervous horses such as Thoroughbreds.
Finally, the hobbles can be put on both front legs and the horse should be quietly asked to take a step forward. Some horses may lose their balance when the foreleg is unable to take a full stride, so the trainer needs to ask quietly for a small step and be ready to react quickly to the horse’s movements. As the horse becomes calmer with the hobbles, it can be asked for more steps in successive training sessions.
Before turning the hobbled horse out for the first time, provide a few piles of hay so that the horse won’t be tempted to take off across the field. Keep an eye on the horse until it is obvious that it understands how to move with hobbles on. Some retraining may be necessary if hobbles are used after the horse has not worn them for several months.
Like many other things horses are asked to do, wearing hobbles creates some stress because it limits the horse’s ability to run from danger, a strong instinctive reaction to many situations that seem threatening. Horse owners who have never used hobbles are strongly advised to get assistance in hobble training from a more experienced handler, and to move very slowly through the training process to avoid setting up problems.