Using ropes around horses is a natural thing to do. We horsemen and women use them to lead and tie our horses as well as for reins to ride our animals. Ropes are a fundamental part of the Western ranch as cowboys use them to rope cattle for branding and veterinary treatment. Look in any horse catalog and you will see that ropes of various sizes, lengths, and purposes take up a significant portion of the "sales floor"--from leads and lassos to reins and lunge lines.

Cut on Horse's Leg

This type of injury is common when a horse gets tangled in rope or wire. Have a good working knowledge of rope safety when working around horses.

For the purposes of this article, the "rope" might be made of leather, hay string, cotton, hemp, nylon or poly braid--any item that is used to connect our horses to us or to a stationary object--but that has the possibility of wrapping around us or a body part (of us or the horse). Using this definition, rope might even include the electric braided poly or wire that is commonly used for electric fencing. And it certainly includes the ropes that emergency responders would use to attempt a rescue of a person or a horse in a backcountry situation, loose on the highway, or being extricated from entrapment (such as deep mud, a horse trailer, or a flood).

The hidden dangers of ropes are highlighted by the numbers of people who have met death or incurred serious injuries while using them. The amount of power and speed that a horse can exude when panicked or spooked is impossible to predict and measure--and it far surpasses our paltry efforts to physically restrain them when they are really scared. Loss of a digit by traumatic amputation even has a name in roping: RODEO THUMB.

This week there was a horrific rope-related injury that made the news in New Zealand. This story shows the amazing success of doctors in restoring this woman's hand, although it remains to be seen what function she will retain.

Consider a few scenarios based on real situations:

A 9-year-old girl is leading her pony in an arena, but he keeps taking off and going back to the gate. In her frustration, she ties the end of the lead rope to her belt - intending to keep the pony from running away from her. Tragically, when the pony ran off again, he was still attached to the little girl. He jerked off her feet and, unable to get loose, she was dragged by the now-terrified pony who kicked at the scary thing bouncing behind him. Blunt force trauma was listed as the cause of death.

A college student is leading a horse from a truck window back to the barn, with the rope wrapped around her wrist so the horse can't pull away from her. When the horse spooks, her hand is separated at the wrist traumatically with a degloving injury. At the hospital, the surgeons attempt to reattach this most vital of sensory and functional organs--and are unsuccessful.

A cowboy participating in the bronc riding portion of a rodeo and with his hand tied into the harness, is unable to release the knot when he loses his balance on the horse. Knocked unconscious by the horse's flailing head, his body flops across the horses' back until a safety catch-rider is able to pull him loose. Several surgeries later for torn rotator cuff ligaments and broken bones, and recovered from his concussion, he is fully recovered.

A woman is loading her horse in the trailer looking forward to a fun weekend ride and camping with friends. As she attaches the bungee cord trailer tie, something spooks the horse, who panics and flees backwards out of the trailer. The tie breaks and slices the woman's cheek to the bone, barely missing her eye, and slaps the horse in the face, making him severely headshy.

A young roper is catching a steer during a team roping competition and, in his effort to stop the calf and wrap the rope around the horn, his fingers get under the rope. Even with the glove to protect them, when the steer hits the end of the rope, a severe crushing injury occurs to the thumb and avulsion with amputation occurs.

The aforementioned scenarios are just a few examples of why equestrians need a working knowledge of rope safety to keep both humans and horses safe.

Recommendations for horse handling safety with ropes:

Hold Ropes Correctly

"Z" the lead rope to prevent fingers and hands from becoming tangled.

Never wrap a rope around your hand for ANY reason. Nor allow a rope on the ground to encircle your leg, neck, foot, or fingers. If the horse begins to move and your body part is inside the rope's loop, it will either tighten down to crush it, or even traumatically pinch it off. There are far too many horsemen with broken joints and crushed fingers from this type of injury. Instead, "Z" the rope in your hand so that it can be pulled out of your hand without looping around a body part.

Wear gloves regularly - especially when handling young, fractious, or frantic horses and especially in situations that tend to cause excitement (side of the road, unloading in a new place, new horses in the pasture, etc.) Emergency responders are taught to ALWAYS wear gloves in TLAER situations with horses and cattle.

If the horse really fights you, let the horse go! If he gets loose, at least you won't get injured yourself. Getting a rope burn (a very common abrasion of both horse's lower legs and people's hands) is something that happens especially to novices--the friction of the rope running across the skin actually heats the skin and can be a very serious and difficult injury to treat. Any rope burn should be given first aide immediately. Talk to your veterinarian about treatment options for your horse if he gets entrapped. (We discussed the use of hobbles and rope training last week to encourage your animals to accept restraint of their legs and minimize panic).

Use a weak link in any tie method that you use in a horse trailer, such as hay string, leather, frangible manufactured snaps (such as discussed in the previous article on tying), or even zip ties that will break if the horse panics. For tying elsewhere, many experts say to never tie a horse to anything less than a SOLID object and prefer to tie to something above the withers. Still, training a horse to tie is an advanced skill, and large animal rescue scenes emergency responders are taught NEVER to tie a horse--you don't know that horse, or his personality or training background, and scenes incorporate so many scary things to prey animals (sirens, heavy equipment, fire gear, loud cutting equipment, vehicles, etc.) that the outcome of tying the horse could be catastrophic.

For further reading and links to the scientific literature on these types of injuries - please see:

What are your experiences with these types of situations and injuries? Yes--we love pictures--they can be emailed directly to me at