Picket Breaking a Horse by a Front Foot
- October 2, 2017
- Jan Swan Wood
Picket breaking a horse is an important lesson. Having a horse that is picket broke is pretty handy. Nearly anywhere you end up, you can picket a horse out so he can graze, lay down and move around. It’s also handy for keeping a horse up close when you need him. A little strategic yard care can also be achieved with the grazing horse. Getting that horse broke to being picketed takes some patience and time, but done right, will yield multiple benefits.
I always picket by a front foot. We as horsemen spend a great deal of time making our horses light in the face and easy to handle, so it would be pretty foolish to dull that response by picketing to a halter where they learn to pull that picket rope around with their nose. The other reason I won’t picket by a halter is the possibility of a horse getting a shoe caught in the halter and having a wreck. It’s just safer, all around, to picket to the foot.
I use a nylon picket cuff with a buckle and a ring sewn into the cuff. They are strong and hold up through the wet grass, urine, manure, and dirt they get exposed to. I have used a leather cuff, but they get stiff and can make a horse’s pastern sore. Outfitter suppliers nearly always carry the heavy nylon cuffs.
The cuff buckles loosely around the front pastern. You want room for it to turn on the pastern. I alternate front feet when I picket a horse regularly just to keep any abrasions from starting. I also keep the cuffs clean by soaking them overnight in water and then cleaning them with a pressure nozzle and letting them dry before using.
The picket rope needs to be a thick diameter rope, like a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inch cotton, so it won’t tangle easily or burn the horse. I put a heavy bull snap with a swivel on the end and braid the rope back into itself for six or eight inches to ensure a good, strong hold. Making the rope strong enough to hold, but soft enough to not cause a painful burn, will ensure the horse won’t get afraid of the rope. A rope 25 to 30 feet long is adequate for my purpose. It leaves enough to tie a bow line around the base of a post or to drop over a picket pin. You can also shorten it up when you tie it off if you need to.
The process of picket breaking begins with getting a horse accustomed to having his feet restrained. We rope the feet of our young horses as part of their education so it’s not a big deal to them. Once they are “giving” to the pressure of the rope and leading by all their feet, they are ready to move to the next step.
At this point, I put the cuff on and use the picket rope, I let them get used to the weight of the rope and lead them with it. I will let them start stepping over it and help them work their way out of the tangle, keeping them quiet and letting them think it through. If they kick at the rope when it’s around a hind leg, they need to have more work in that area. Not being in a hurry is essential.
When they have repeatedly figured out how to think their way out of the rope around their legs, I usually quit for the day. If they are in a sturdy pen alone, I will let them drag a short, soft halter rope, same diameter as the picket rope, snapped to the cuff overnight. They learn to stop and step off of the rope in that time and get used to it dragging around their feet and legs.
The next stage of the game it to introduce them to the solid pull of being tied off and learning the limit of the rope. I always do this in a controlled environment with the softest ground possible as the horse may well spill himself in the process of learning. They all seem to have to do it at least once, so they might as well get it over with on the soft ground of an arena or round pen.
I’ll put an inner tube around the bottom of a stout post for this phase and tie the picket rope off to it. I’ll review all of the work done in the previous lesson before I do so though. I want it fresh in their minds before stage two is embarked upon. Once they are picketed solidly to the post, I’ll lead them out to the end of the picket and let them feel that solid pull. I’ll slip the halter off and stay close by while they figure it out. Most of them walk out to the end, stretch their leg out behind them a few times and settle right down.
I will usually put out some feed in several spots for them so they learn to move around and feel and see that rope dragging. When they are calmly accepting all of that, one can move them out to a grassy area to graze. I’ll do a little review of the limit of the picket rope and let them see how the rope looks in the grass before I remove the halter.
The inner tube will stay in the game until I’m sure they are ready for the solid tie off to a post. I’ll picket next to a good wire fence once they are really picket broke, but not for the first days.
A stake with a smooth or rounded top can be driven into the ground and the bow line knot’s loop dropped over it for more room to graze. The large loop allows the rope to rotate around the stake, preventing a twist. It’s amazing how much grazing there is in a circle that a 25 foot picket rope affords. They can also lay down and rest if they want to.
A great side effect of a picket broke horse is that they are virtually oblivious to anything dragging on the ground under or around them. They’ll also usually give to the pressure and stand their ground if they get their foot caught in something.
At calving time, I’ve found it handy to keep a saddled horse on a picket near where I’m working so that they can graze while I’m doing something else. It’s pretty quick to just bridle him, take off the cuff, lead him forward and ride away.
The advantages of picket breaking are huge and the effort well worth it. It will also save you a little time on the lawn mower!
About Jan Swan Wood
Born and raised on a ranch near Newell, South Dakota, I have spent my lifetime in the cattle and horse business. I've cowboyed in Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota before settling down in my home country, where my husband and I bought a...