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Rope Tricks
George Slater

The basic goal of Rope Tricks is to get the horse to move its body back, away then forward, toward you, take its hips away, take its shoulders away. Then circle around you keeping its body out of your space, all under close control. Lunging the horse in this way exercises its mind as well as its body and re-establishes your control over its actions in a quiet, deliberate way. Too often, lunging is used to "take the edge off the horse" meaning to get it too tired to want to fight. Lunging should be used to warm the horse up while conserving its energy for learning.

The group of exercises described in Part 2 was jokingly called "Rope Tricks" when we introduced them into the program at Orchard Land & Cattle, and the name just stuck. The methods work universally for starting babies, starting young horses, retraining older horses and rehabilitating "problem" horses.

Using the Rope Tricks to evaluate new horses gives a true measure of how much "ground work" preparation has been done. You can quickly tell how much the horse has been handled, especially on its right side. Too often you find that the right side of the horse has been ignored badly.

The methods described in Rope Tricks are very similar to those Pat Parelli describes in detail in his video, "The Seven Games That Horses Play". At Orchard Land and Cattle, the methods have been modified based on the experience of George Slater, Wade Clayton and Stefan Slater. Barb Apple has also had a strong influence on the evolution of the methods, especially in minimizing the pressure needed to get the desired response and learning the patience to wait for the move to happen.

Tools For The Rope Tricks

The round pen is still a great place to start the Rope Tricks after completing the exercises of Part 1, presented on on November 26, 2000. The pen acts like a second set of hands for keeping the horse's focus inside and on you. It is not necessary, but a fenced area is recommended so that the horse cannot run off if it happens to get loose from you.

A 12-foot lead rope with leather thongs on the end (as used by Pat Parelli) is recommended for the Rope Tricks. You may use lunge lines, a lariat or any lead rope. The Parelli rope is a unique tool that has "life" in it and allows you to exercise great control over the action of the rope. The leather thongs are also useful as a "popper" to give impetus to rope commands.

A good quality, soft rope tied halter is preferred for this work. The Parelli organization sells one of the best and it is the preferred equipment at Orchard Land & Cattle. Other halters (including the flat strap halters) are acceptable, but most of them do not seem to get the horse's respect and give the desired quick response as well.


Once you have achieved all the goals of previously described in Part 1, the next step is to put the rope halter and lead rope on the horse so that you can begin to teach the Rope Tricks. The horse should offer no resistance to the Haltering if you have captured its respect and it will follow you anywhere you go in the round pen.

Get yourself prepared by standing next to the horse's left shoulder facing forward. Fully open the neck strap of the halter, holding the halter in your left hand. Make sure that you can comfortably place your right arm over the horse's neck without the horse moving off. Pass the loose end of the halter under the neck and place it in your right hand, the one that is over the horse's neck. The loop end or buckle end should be in your left hand. Now, using both hands, calmly work the nose-piece of the halter over the horse's nose and up its face until it gets snug. Bring the loose end over the horse's neck and tie an overhand loop below the loop end or buckle the halter depending on the type of halter you are using. Reward the horse with a few kind words and a little rubbing.

The secret is to be calm, quiet and persistent. You have already taught the horse to be quiet and respectful while in close contact with you. If the horse shies a bit, try to stay with it without getting into a wrestling match, waiting until it quiets. If it gets excited and pulls away, send the horse out to work around the circle, bring it to you quietly, then start over. The goal is not to get the halter on the horse. The goal is to teach the horse to accept the halter without fear and apprehension.

Sacking Out With The Rope

Once you have the horse haltered and connected to the lead rope, you should immediately start to get the horse accustomed to the lead rope being swung all around it and bouncing off all parts of its body. This is called Sacking Out With The Rope..

Start by standing and facing the horse's left front shoulder holding the lead rope by the left hand with a big U shaped loop in it. Do not hold the horse tight, but prevent it from running off if need be. The objective is to bump the horse with the end of the lead rope without frightening it enough to flee from you.

Keep about 3 feet of the rope hanging from your right hand and gently start to bump the horse's left front leg with the end of the rope. Do this in a "matter of fact" rhythmic way, expecting the horse to stand still. Keep the initial moves quiet, soft and non-threatening. As the horse begins to relax, move to the right front leg, keeping up a nice rhythm with the rope. If the horse shies off, stop it, quiet it down, and then begin again in a very soft, deliberate way. Pretty soon you will see the anxiety level come down dramatically. Be sure the horse is comfortable with you and the rope before moving on.

Now, move to the neck area and continue the rhythmic bouncing of the rope off the horse's body. Start to build the intensity of the rope strokes as the horse becomes more accepting of the exercise. Stop short of frightening the horse off. Then work around to the chest of the horse and between its front legs.

Now, begin to throw the rope over the horse's back, down its sides, then to the hips. Be careful when you start back in the area of the hips. The horse may want to kick at the rope. Just be sure you are far enough away to not be in the way. Try to work the rope end around and between the back legs and feet. Be persistent, but back off if the horse shies a bit, then go forward again.

Come back to the front of the horse and work on the ears and face area, then start throwing the rope at random around the horse, covering its back, hips, legs, belly and neck. By this time it should be a relaxing game to the horse and there should be no shying away or erratic behavior.

Once you are comfortable with the exercise on this side, move to the right side and be prepared to work a lot harder. Don't assume that all this work will transfer over to the opposite side. It might, but don't count on it. Repeat all the exercises on the right side until the horse is comfortable. Then switch sides again and again, until the horse is completely quiet with the rope.

These suggestions are just a few of many exercises that you can invent with the rope. Be creative and try to think of new things to do to challenge the horse's willingness and acceptance. This is one of the most important things you can do to safeguard yourself and your horse from spooking accidents and situations where the horse might get entangled in ropes or wire. These are the primary "de-spooking" or "de-sensitizing" exercises. These, in conjunction with the exercises of Part 1, make you the "safety net" for your horse. Experience has shown more de-sensitizing work after this point is usually not necessary.

Back And Forth

The next step is to teach the horse to back away from you and to come forward toward you in a straight line. Spread the thumb and index finger of your right hand into a wide V shape and place it across the horse's face, several inches above the nostrils with the palm down. Hold the lead rope in your left hand with a large U shaped loop in it being sure that the rope will not come tight while moving the horse back away from you. Now, bring yourself up to your full height, throw out your chest and start pushing on the horse's face. Raise the index finger of your left hand and bring it up near its right eye and shake it forward and back, at the same time quietly saying "Back." The horse should take at least one step backward with all this urging. When you get that first step, relax immediately, and stop. Pet the horse and tell it how good it did. Be satisfied with a small response at the start.

Now, before trying any more backward moves, step back several paces keeping the rope very loose, and ask the horse to come forward to you. This Come Forward exercise is the most important one for getting the horse to want to come to you on command. If you tap your chest with the fingers of your right hand (palm facing you) and say "Come", it will usually start forward. If the horse seems to freeze up, step off to the left a pace and ask again. Watch for its opposite front foot to move forward or sideways toward you; then relax. Repeat this move to the right, then alternately left and right several times.

If that is not enough stimulation to get it going, start pulling your hands alternately toward you in a nice rhythm, allowing the lead rope to slide through your palm without grabbing hold of the rope. Resist the temptation to grab hold with both hands and yank the horse forward. The trick is to quickly move up the pressure you put on the horse in stages from very soft to strong if necessary.

The next stage might be to tug the lead rope easily and release quickly while giving the Come Forward signal. You may have to increase to a harder pull, but try not to put steady pressure on the halter yet.

The last resort is to step off to the side and put heavy pressure on the lead rope with both hands, bracing against the horse and waiting for a response. Be sure you do this from a sideways pull if it becomes necessary. You will not win the battle of a straight on pull. Pulling from the side will tire the horse's neck causing it to cramp and get sore. It will eventually come to find the release. When that happens, or if the horse even thinks about it, drop the rope immediately and praise it.

Then calmly start over and repeat the exercises back and forth as many times as are necessary. Ask for more response as you increase the number of tries until the horse moves off your hand easily with only light pressure and will come to you freely without pulling the rope.

Move The Hips Away

The next exercise teaches the horse to take its hips away from pressure on its flanks. On the ground, this means to move those hips "out of your space." It is a precursor to moving the hips away from the heel of your foot once you are on the horse's back, one of the essential tasks the horse must execute without resistance.

This is one of the most dangerous exercises you will teach the horse so be very aware of where your body is in relation to the horse at all times. Starting on the left side, take a short hold on the lead rope. Hold your left hand about 12 inches from the halter snap. Keep your rear end toward the front of the horse and be prepared to pull the horse's head around strongly if it tries to spin its rear end into you, which means you are going to get kicked! A sharp yank on the rope will stop this move if you catch it in time.

Now, place your right hand on the flank of the horse, a little behind where the heel of your boot would be when riding. Focus your eyes on the flank and put pressure on the flank while pulling the horse's head steady. If the horse moves its hips to the right, or even thinks about it, stop and reward it. Then try again. If that pressure does not work, use your finger tips, pressing harder. Move the pressure up in stages until the horse moves its hips. If nothing happens for three seconds, be ready to increase the driving force until the horse moves. Use your knuckles, the end of a cane or whip handle if necessary, but be very careful not to over stimulate the horse at this vulnerable point, causing it to kick.

Accept a little movement or even a "thought" on the first tries. Work up to quicker, more definite responses over time. The move has to be to the side, so use the rope to keep the horse from moving forward. Moving backward is not usually a problem because your body will mostly be behind the withers. This will tend to drive the horse forward. If it does move backward, increase the cue pressure until it moves away sideways from you. Stop every time it moves, and reward it before asking again. Don't be tempted to do a half or full spin on the front feet after you start getting a couple of good steps. Be patient, relaxed and persistent.

Move The Shoulders Away

Once you can Move The Hips Away, moving the shoulders away from you is much easier on both the horse and you. The idea is to teach the horse to move its front end away from you or "out of your space" while on the ground. Again, this is a precursor to moving the shoulders from horseback by putting pressure from the toe of your boot ahead of the girth area.

Stand facing the horse's left front shoulder, slightly ahead of its front legs. Take the lead rope in your left hand, maybe three feet from the halter snap. Let the rest of the rope drape over your right elbow and keep your right hand free. You will place it just ahead of the girth area, just about where the toe of your boot will be when riding. Apply pressure with your palm and try to get the horse to move sideways to the right. If it tries to go forward, take hold of the front side knot on the rope halter (side nose band on a strap halter) with your left hand and push its nose around to the right. It is quite easy to stop forward as well as backward motion with this left hand. The objective is to get the left front foot to cross over in front of the right front foot in a sideways move.

As in the earlier exercises, if the horse does not move within about 3 seconds, increase the pressure. Push with fingertips, knuckles or any other tools you have handy. Reward each thought or try. Pause after each attempt, letting the lesson sink in. The only way the horse knows that it got the right answer is when you release the pressure on it. Once you get a step or two, resist the temptation to go too far, too fast. Work until you get several steps with minimal resistance, then go on.

Now, it is imperative that you move to the other side of the horse and repeat the last two lessons, Move The Hips Away and Move The Shoulders Away. You will find a different horse over on that right side. Try not to rush these exercises. Plan your work so that you have plenty of time to do the Rope Tricks on both sides all on the same day. Each exercise builds on the previous one and they flow nicely together into a natural unit of training.

Another Back Up Cue

Before going on to Circling the horse around you, it is very helpful to have another cue which gets the horse to back up (stop forward motion) so that you can signal the horse to stop and come to you from the end of the lead rope.

Start at the front, facing the horse as you did for teaching the Back And Forth maneuver. Instead of using your hand to pressure the horse backward, take hold of the lead rope with your right hand about 4 feet from the halter and shake it from side to side. Say "Back", and give the signal to back up with your left index finger at the same time. If the horse moves back a step, stop, ask it to come to you and reward it. If it does not move, increase the strength of the rope shaking in stages. The head will normally go up in the air in surprise, but be prepared to pay this price for a little while. Once the horse gets the right answer it will calm down quickly and the head will come back to normal.

This becomes a useful trick for moving your horse backward, away from you when you are at a distance from the horse. When you are Circling the horse around you at a distance and give the "rope shaking" cue, the horse will stop its forward motion and turn to look at you. Now give it the signal to come to you. Very soon the cue becomes "Stop going forward, Turn, and Come to me" and the horse will keep its momentum, moving in to you without hesitation.


Now you are prepared to teach one of the most important lessons the horse will ever learn in its lifetime, how to calmly Circle around you while staying completely focused on you at all times. Before riding or working your horse from now on, you should Circle it a few times around you just to find out where the horse's mind is on that day. You may use a lead rope, or just your reins, but this exercise will re-assert your dominance as the "Alpha" partner and the horse will let you know "What side of the stall it got up on today."

Barb Apple teaches an easy way to get the horse started moving in a circle around you. Start by taking a position facing the left front shoulder of the horse as you did with the method for taking the shoulders away from you. With your left hand, grasp the lead rope about two feet away from the halter snap being sure to put the heel of your hand (little finger end) toward the halter. At first this will be awkward and you feel it is completely backward from the way you would normally grasp the rope. Just think to yourself, "pick up the rope backward" and it will be easier. Your right hand should grasp the rope about two feet from the free end.

Now, put your right hand on the horse's girth area like you did to move its shoulders away and put your left hand on the left side of its face. Push the horse away from you with vigor, walking after it until it starts to drive forward. Try "kissing" or "smooching" to the horse to add impetus to your cues.

When the horse moves forward, immediately open your left hand and either let the rope slide through your hand without restriction, or just drop the rope from your left hand. Don't let go of the rope with your right hand. Lock your eyes on the horse's eyes and drive it forward around you with the pressure of your body language. When the horse stops or hesitates, swing the end of the rope sticking out of your right hand at the horse's ears, driving it forward. Keep your feet inside a small radius (six feet at most) if possible. As the horse becomes comfortable, stop your feet and stand at the center of the circle facing the horse at all times to begin with. Keep your eyes on its eyes to keep driving it forward. Try not to get forward of the horse's withers during the Circling. This is easy to do in the confusion when you start to learn this exercise. It will shut down the horse's momentum in a heart-beat.

This is much easier to learn than methods that require you to get your body in behind the horse's head to drive it forward with the rope swinging. If a horse is protective of either side of its body (which most of them are), it can get very frustrating, very fast. A lot of people are just not quick enough or have enough confidence to get around a horse that is backing up, going the wrong way. This happens regularly with the conventional methods.

If everything "goes to pot" and you and the horse get confused, stop and start over again. Get your starting position correct. You may need to lengthen or shorten the hold you have on the rope depending on your size in comparison to the horse. Check to see if you picked up the rope "backward" as needed. You may need to be more assertive when pushing the horse away from you initially. You can try pointing your index finger of the left hand forward and up instead of pushing the head. You can physically push the shoulder or neck much harder to give it the idea to go away from you. The biggest mistake that is normally made is not letting go of the head once it starts away from you. If the horse even slightly bumps the end of the rope it will usually stop dead because you have taught him to do that in earlier training. You must let the head go off on its own until it reaches the end of the rope you hold in your right hand. Now you can appreciate the preparation for moving hips and shoulders away from you that you did previously. This is no time to have the horse walking all over you!

Once you have the horse moving around you comfortably for several circles get yourself prepared to stop the horse and bring it to you in the center of the circle. Let the rope appear to come out of your belly button holding it in your right hand. Shake it vigorously left to right to signal the horse to stop. If it stops or slows and turns into you, immediately give it the signal to come in to you like you did with the round pen work. If it comes all the way to you that is wonderful. If it stops out on the circle, use the rope to urge it in. Start by sliding the rope through your hands as you draw them rhythmically toward you. Add pressure with little tugs if that doesn't work, then increase the pressure as necessary to get the horse to come to you.

If the horse does not stop the first time, get it going comfortably again, then repeat the process using more vigorous shakes of the rope. If that does not make it happen, give it another circle, gather up your courage and as much strength as you have and wait for the rope to come tight between you. Then pull the rope as hard as you can, trying to bring the horse's head around to you, stopping its forward momentum. Don't pop the head from a loose rope. It could take several tries like this the first time, but the horse will soon learn that it is much easier to stop than to keep circling for an eternity.

The Go Forward Cue

Once you are able to start the horse with this technique and stop it reasonably well, then you can start to develop some finesse. The most important cue you can teach the horse for all "ground work" is the Go Forward cue. It also lays the basis for getting a horse to start once you get on its back.

Instead of pushing the horse's shoulder away to get the Circling started, raise your left hand upward and out (fist closed, heel of your hand toward the halter) with the arm straight and pointing to the left side of the horse's face. Point your left toe forward in the direction the horse is facing and look down your left arm. Pull the horse's head slowly around to your front, kiss to the horse, then gently swing the right end of the rope toward its ear to get it to move away from you. Keep your focus forward. Be sure to let the rope slide through your left hand, or just drop it as the horse moves away. Do not stop its forward motion. After a few tries the horse should start to move off quietly and under control. This is the cue that you will use from now on to move the horse forward on the ground. You can use it to send the horse around you, through a gate ahead of you, into a stall, into a tight spot and best of all into a trailer. Repeat this exercise over and over until it become second nature to you.

Improving the stop during Circling is a matter of using less and less shaking of the rope, calming down all your cues, teaching the horse to willingly come into you by body language cues. The Come Forward cue is extremely important in reinforcing the horse's desire to be near you and to relax while near you. You can also start pointing at the horse's rear feet, or shaking the loose end of the rope at them to accelerate the turn into you.

Getting the Horse's Respect by George Slater
Contact: George Slater
PO Box 409
Orchard, Texas 77464

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