Why Cowboys Hobble Their Horses

Hobbles date to at least the ancient Egyptians, who depicted their use in hieroglyphics. And while today they are most closely associated with Western culture and their use by working cowboys to restrain horses in lieu of trees or other tie devices, hobbles are also an effective training tool for horses young and old. Western-style hobbles are traditionally made from leather, rawhide, or braided rope. Some modern hobbles are also made of nylon or neoprene, but essentially serve the same function as they did in the Old West: they keep a loose horse from wandering off into the open range, they teach horses patience and discipline, and they reduce panic and flightiness.

A horse hobble?

Hobbles are usually slipped around a horse’s front legs just above the fetlocks, which allows the horse freedom to graze and yet restrains them from wandering off too far. Cowboys in the early days of taming the west, slept out under the stars on cattle drives, and the hobbles allowed the wrangler to find and gather the horses the next morning before the cowboys rode out. While not fail-safe if a horse breaks worn hobbles, a properly hobble-broke horse will generally be where you left him the next morning.

The most popular styles of hobbles found in the West are the twist; the vaquero (or braided); and the figure eight. The twist is made from leather, soft rope, or sacking, and as the name suggests, is twisted between the forelegs. The vaquero style is traditionally made of a single, elaborately plaited length of rawhide fashioned into two cuffs and embellished with decorative fiador knots. The figure eight (worn by Australian stockmen as a belt until needed) is crafted from three pieces of leather, metal rings, and a buckle closure, and fastened above an animal’s knees.

Elaborate leather hobbles built by Frecker’s Saddlery in Dillon, Montana
(no affiliation with the author)

Some horsemen also break the horse’s hind legs to hobbles, and/or tie forelegs to hind legs to discourage the animal from hopping away, while “scotch hobbling” refers to using a soft rope or a padded cuff to tie one hind leg from the pastern to around the neck and shoulder. This method is used for working on the hind foot of a green horse, or, historically to restrain broncs prior to saddling and their first ride.

While hobbles are effective at restraining horses and still allowing them mobility to graze, there is an even more valuable reason to hobble a horse: teaching a horse to be comfortable in an initially uncomfortable situation. Longtime cowboy and leatherman Dennis Moreland tells a story of the value of hobbling a horse, “When I was young and working on the ranch I turned an older horse out when it was snowing and the herd started playing,” says Dennis. “I heard the wire fence creak. I hurried to check and this horse had slipped and was upside down with his hocks in the barbed wire and both hind shoes in the net wire. He could have cut his legs had he fought that wire but he had been hobble trained and he laid there and never moved.” Because Dennis’ horse had been trained to accept hobbles, the horse stayed calm under pressure. It was the horse’s comfort with being uncomfortable that came from his many years of learning to accept the restraint of the hobbles.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And, like horses, we also can derive great benefit from getting comfortable with uncomfortable situations. Many of us, as humans, prefer the easiest road we can find and in that way are not unlike horses. We possess a natural inclination to stick with the status quo, to resist the unknown, and to stay comfortable.  It’s tied to our primordial drive to survive when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  We’re afraid of trying something new and we dislike change, so we don’t put ourselves in uncomfortable situations.

Is being comfortable healthy?

I wonder, though, if our desire to never be out of our comfort zone is the healthiest thing for us as a people. It is well-known and accepted that if we want to get into better shape physically, we need to exercise. Get a good work out in, and the next day we are uncomfortable, we are sore, and we are tired from the previous day’s session. If we want that new job, most times we have to endure the discomfort of an interview (or several interviews) to land that new opportunity with higher pay and better benefits. And, you can ask any athlete about the butterflies in the gut, and the discomfort that comes pre-competition, to truly understand the value of being purposely uncomfortable.

Think about it. Technology has allowed us to function in a world and never (or rarely) have anything more than cursory contact with another human being. We can order a new phone on-line and have it delivered to us, we can order and pay for our food on the restaurant’s app of that same phone while spending mere moments and three grunts picking it up at the restaurant (or having it delivered to us), and we can send a text message to another when there’s a difficult conversation to be had. For gosh sakes, on Twitter and other social media platforms if we don’t like what someone has said; if we aren’t comfortable with their viewpoint, we can simply — at the push of a button — block them from any further interaction with us. Problem solved! We never have to be uncomfortable again!

Increasingly in modern society, we think life is about creating safety and security and pursuing comfort.  We don’t want to hear things that make us uncomfortable. We avoid people whose views are different than ours. And, we seek to fill our life with every manner of comfort and security. There are “safe rooms” in colleges and support groups if someone hurt our feelings.

Like horses, we also can derive great benefit from getting comfortable with uncomfortable situations.

Now before you accuse me of being insensitive and cold, I recognize the world is an increasingly difficult and complicated place, and survival and thrival (yes, I just made that word up) take focused effort, so I appreciate the desire for safety and comfort. But, at the same time, the immutable truth is life is filled with pleasure and pain, success and failure, comfort and discomfort. If we only pursue a life of comfort, I believe we rob ourselves of a true opportunity to thrive. When we are not comfortable with being uncomfortable, we avoid taking calculated risks and we rarely push ourselves to achieve something more. When we hide from tough issues, from tough conversations, and from tough situations, we lose the opportunity to challenge ourselves to a better life. 

A hobble broke horse is calmer

A twisted rope hobble

Hobble-broke horses know that they will be all right if they get into a sticky situation because they have the confidence that comes from the experience they gained in similar uncomfortable situations before. Uncomfortable situations from which they emerged unscathed and stronger. Since the dawn of time, horses have been prey animals; their driving nature is to protect themselves from unsafe situations and predators. Yet, still, horses have an amazing capacity to learn and to adapt given the proper training. They build confidence from making it through tricky situations.

So, perhaps there is an opportunity for us to practice purposeful discomfort on occasion, so that we too will posses the confidence that comes from being in similar uncomfortable situations before. And, by that I mean the confidence that comes from actually making it through uncomfortable situations. Cowboys hobble-break their horses to ensure the horse’s safety. All of us have an opportunity to hobble-break ourselves to ensure our growth and success.

I’m particularly interested in your viewpoints on this subject. It’s one I feel strongly about, so please reach out with comments or other viewpoints.

And, until next time, happy trails! ★

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