A buyers guide to halters

Time for a little consumer consciousness about halters, the most commonplace piece of horse-control equipment.

When your horse’s halter finally gives out or gets lost, the replacement isn’t likely to get much thought. Halters are such commonplace tack items that they hardly seem worthy of comparison shopping or heightened consumer consciousness. Whatever you’re used to using is what you’re likely to pick up the next time. But wander through any tack store or flip through a catalog, and you’ll find a surprisingly large selection of halters on the market.

A chestnut horse in crossties wearing a leather halter
A leather halter is a classic, but not inexpensive choice.

All halters perform the same basic function—to provide a means of controlling horses’ movements during handling—but all halters don’t serve all control needs equally well. Not every halter is going to suit your management style and handling philosophy any more than every halter is going to fit your horse’s head just perfectly.

The halter is probably the most frequently used piece of equipment in your barn, so you want one that facilitates your day-to-day interactions with your horse. The bottom line of halter selection is your horse’s safety and comfort. Your own expectations for control and convenience narrow the field, and appearance and cost decide the final choice in headgear. The following questions spotlight the considerations involved in satisfactory halter selection: quality and cost.

Question: My local tack store carries nylon halters costing from $10 to $30 and leather halters ranging in price from $21 to $100. Do the price differences honestly reflect quality and durability in halters?

Answer: In general, when you spend more money on a halter, you get better materials and fabrication, just as you do when you purchase expensive shoes and clothing. The difference between “good” and “better” nylon halters comes down to materials that directly affect the product’s strength and durability.

“A higher thread count in nylon is important and means the halter is of better quality,” says Kristin Schlegel, accounts manager for halter manufacturer Hamilton Products, Inc., of Ocala, Fla. “It’s similar to buying better bedsheets that have a higher thread count and a tighter weave.”

In shopping for a leather halter, expect to pay more for one made of English bridle leather than for items made from American cowhide or less refined raw materials, such as buffalo hide from overseas. English bridle leather is typically oak or vegetable tanned, a processing method that’s considered superior to harsher chemical tanning. Leather halters with triple stitching along the cheek pieces and noseband tend to cost more, as do halters fitted with padding or with rolled, curved throatlatches that provide a contoured fit around the jawline. Silver-decorated show halters can cost up to $400 or more, depending on the amount of decoration and engraving.

In both nylon and leather halters, “ply” is an indication of quality–and cost. “Cheaper halters are single ply, meaning you take one layer of leather [or nylon], fold the ends over the hardware and sew the ends,” explains Jeff Schild, owner of B Bar B Leather, a tack manufacturer and distributor in Blackfoot, Idaho. “Double layered has one layer folded over the buckle end and another piece sewn in between, and triple ply uses a continuous piece of leather that is folded in threes.”

According to Schlegel, double- and triple-ply nylon gives a halter more rigidity so that it keeps its shape and is easier to place over the horse’s nose. “Nylon halters tend to be taken off and on a lot,” says Schlegel, “and you don’t want a floppy halter.”

The fittings also influence price. Typically, the more snaps, buckles and latches there are, the more a halter costs. But quality metals increase the longevity and satisfactory service of halters. Brass eyelets, for example, reduce the chances that the nylon around the holes will fray or rip. Solid-brass hardware and nickel-plated or chrome-plated brass don’t rust or corrode as do other metals and contribute to longer product life.

Q: Browsing through tack catalogs, I’ve noticed that some nylon halters are described as “nylon web” and others are “polypropylene.” They’re both synthetics; is there any difference in their performance?

A: The two materials look virtually identical to the hands-on shopper, but nylon webbing tends to be much stronger than polypropylene. Nylon is the better choice when a halter is needed to stand up to rough use and when a tied horse may challenge his restraints. Yet the weaker material may have its place in your horsekeeping setup. “Polypropylene is generally less expensive than nylon to manufacture,” says Betty Flores, manager for Sunshine Nylon Products, Inc., in Spring Hill, Fla. “Poly is probably better for breakaway halters. If a horse gets tangled in a fence, it’s easier to break away from poly than nylon.” In addition, polypropylene does not absorb water as much as nylon.

Q: At a recent horse show, I noticed quite a few people, including English competitors, using rope halters on their horses. What’s the point of this rustic look?

A: Made from a single length of rope knotted to take the shape of a regular halter, this simple headgear has ranching and draft-horse roots, but recently rope halters have gained a wider following. Most of these halters are made from polypropylene, which in rope form is more durable and rot resistant than cotton. Rope used in halter construction is one-quarter to seven-eighths of an inch in diameter. The thinner the rope is, the more “bite” it has when pressure is applied to the lead. “I usually use the thicker rope on a horse who’s very responsive or one who’s very sensitive and a little afraid of having his head taken hold of,” says horse behaviorist Dean Scoggins, DVM.

The rope halter is adjusted to fit the individual by knots that are located at the same points where fittings appear on standard halters. By relocating a knot, one component of the halter can be shortened or lengthened as needed. Most rope halters are sold already knotted and may or may not include a lead rope attached at the chin. Some companies sell unknotted rope with instructions for tying your own.

Handlers who use them say that the greater adjustability and closer fit of rope halters give them better control and make the horses more responsive. “I like the hand-tied rope style halters because they are a lot finer [than thick nylon or leather], and the horse seems to have more of a feel for them,” says Scoggins. “They give the handler more control.”

The all-rope construction eliminates hardware that can be trouble on standard halters. “Basically, there’s no stitching to rip, no eyelets or hardware to break,” says Pete Melniker for Double Diamond Halter Company, a rope-halter manufacturer in Gallatin Gateway, Mont. “When a horse pulls [on other halters] the hardware can break, and in really cold, wet climates, the buckles can freeze.”

At the same time, no-hardware halters do have drawbacks. Because they have no readily breakable parts, they’re not safe for turnout halters. Nor are they usable with cross ties. Scoggins, a confirmed rope-halter user, switches to more ordinary headgear only when he must: “Probably the only time I use a web halter is for trailering because they are easier to use with trailer ties and snaps,” he says.

Q: Am I better off with a halter that’s made to give under pressure, or should I select a really sturdy model to be sure my horse can’t break loose?

A: The choice between breakable and unbreakable halters depends largely on your horse, your training practices and your safety concerns. “The preference in halters has to do with a difference in training and background,” says Scoggins. “My preference is that if I tie a horse, I don’t want any part of the halter to break. If a horse tied with a breakaway halter gets free a time or two, you may have a horse who won’t stand to be tied any longer.”

In the other camp are handlers who are concerned that a panicked struggle against an unbreakable restraint can cause serious injury or death to the horse. Better to have a broken halter, they reason, than a broken bone. Yet a horse running free after breaking his halter faces a new set of risks. Breakable halters are unquestionably the smart choice in one circumstance: when your horse is haltered at all times, particularly if that includes turnout. If the halter gets caught up on a fence post, the horse’s shoe, bucket hardware or some other snag, the breakable segment will give and free the horse without hurting him.

Leather is more likely than synthetic materials to break under pressure, and the failure usually occurs near the buckle on the crown piece where stretching and creasing occur. Nylon halters with breakaway capabilities have either a leather crown piece or a tiny leather flap–a fuse of sorts–between the ring and the crown-piece buckle that will break under pressure. If the leather segment gets broken, replacements are available to return the halter to usefulness.

Q: One of my friends seems to be a halter junkie, with a half-dozen specialized models in her tack trunk in addition to the horse’s everyday halter. Are there really that many useful variations on this simple piece of tack?

A: There are quite a few halters or types of halters designed with specific functions in mind. Most of them are used during special circumstances and not to replace standard halters entirely. Here is just a sample of some of these products.

  • Grooming halters are loosely fitting, stripped-down models–just a noseband supported by a crown piece–to increase your access to your horse’s face during brushing or washing. Available in either leather or nylon, they usually have a single buckle for adjustment on the left side of the face. They offer the handler little control, making them best suited to mannerly horses, and then only during close supervision. Without throatlatches to stabilize them, grooming halters can easily slip over the ears and off of horses’ heads.
  • Shipping halters address the possibility that in-transit horses, restrained for hours on short ties, may develop rubs on their faces. The usual sites are along the bridge of the nose, below the cheekbones and behind the ears. The rubs develop as the horses lean on the ties for balance or bob their heads against the restraint. Sewn-on fleece lining or fleece tubing added onto the halter straps buffers the friction of the leather or web halter against the skin. If natural sheepskin is used, it’s difficult to keep clean, making this a special-occasion halter. Additionally, either sort of fleece retains body heat and can raise the temperature of summertime travelers.
  • Training halters are designed with strategically placed straps to put pressure on the horse’s head for clear reinforcement of desirable leading behavior. Some models have a second noseband to tighten if the horse resists lead-line pressure. Other designs pressure the poll to discourage rearing or halter pulling. “When the horse pulls back, the halter squeezes his head,” says Schild. “When the horse relaxes or stops pulling, the pressure is relieved. He learns not to fight the halter. It also works with horses who hang back and don’t want to lead. When they don’t follow, it’s uncomfortable. They figure out that by following, they release the pressure.”
  • Foal halters have lots of adjustment capabilities, with buckles on the noseband and often both sides of the crown piece, to fit the headgear to the proportions peculiar to younger foals, then to enlarge the halter during their rapid head growth. Some suckling halters even come with a second, longer crown piece to extend the useful life even further. Training halters are also available to encourage good leading behavior. According to Schlegel, the figure-eight suckling halter is a popular style for youngsters. “It’s a figure-eight halter that tightens on the nose when there’s pressure on the crown piece,” she says.
  • Combination halter/bridles are dual-purpose headgear to simplify things for trail riders, in particular. Usually made of easy-care, durable synthetics, the halters convert to bridles simply by snapping on cheek pieces and attaching bit and reins. The combination comes in handy during trail rides including stops when horses will be tied and for overnight camping trips.
  • Show halters focus on appearance as part of the total presentation picture, but control also matters during in-hand classes. Quality materials and, where appropriate, decorative touches make these the most expensive of halter purchases. Styles vary among breeds. Quarter Horses compete in thick leather halters decorated with elaborate silver fittings. Hunters appear in understated fine leather. Morgans, Paso Finos, Tennessee Walking Horses and other gaited breeds show in halters with thinner leather fittings, silver detail or colorful patent-leather cavessons and brow bands. Arabians wear delicate-looking leather or plastic halters constructed over light cable cores and fitted with a thin brass chin chain for control. “Because of its refinement, the Arabian show halter does not fit as solidly as a normal leather or nylon halter,” says Sheila Varian, owner of Varian Arabians in Arroyo Grande, Calif. “Consequently, even though it is remarkably strong, it is not used to tie or cross-tie with.”
  • Collars are used in place of halters during grooming and bridling. Loosely fitting around the neck just behind the throatlatch, horse collars have side rings for cross tying or a center ring for attaching a lead rope. Like the grooming halter, the collar offers less control than a conventional halter and is best used with mannerly horses.

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