Every one of us that rides horses has heard the sage advice, “never tie up your horse by the reins!” And, while most of us heed this wise piece of cowboy wisdom, I’ve heard about a fair number of wrecks when a horse is tied up by the reins and something unexpected happens. From horses pulling back and banging up their mouths or cutting their tongues, to chewed up reins and tack that needs to be repaired on the spot, horses are unpredictable and sometimes do strange things. To be fair, while there are just as many occasions when a horse can be tied up by the bridle reins with no problems at all, I prefer not to take that chance. So, as I was searching for a solution to the challenge of what to do with Whiskey on days when I get on and off of her several times, I learned about hobbles for overnight stays, and the nifty “get-down rope” for times when I need to tie her up for short periods of time.
“A buckaroo never leads his horse by his bridle reins, as that can bump the bit against the roof of his horse’s mouth, causing pain and damage. Instead, he uses a thin rope to lead his horse for short distances when out cowboying.”
A get-down rope is an excellent tool for anyone who needs to dismount and lead or tie their horse during day work. While there are other methods such as teaching a horse to ground tie, a get-down rope is a superior solution as it gives every rider a measure of assurance that their horse will still be waiting for them — safely and without incident — when they are ready to remount. My horse ground ties just fine most of the time, so in the arena or cattle pen that’s all I need. But if I’m out on a more open range, and she decides she doesn’t want to ground tie that one time, I want a back up plan. Yes, I could carry a halter and lead rope tied to my saddle, but if you’re like me and riding with a halter under your bridle isn’t your style or you don’t have the time to halter your horse up every time you get off of him, read on.
A piece of cowboy gear is invented out of necessity
Cowboys have been getting on and off their horses for over a century now, and in many parts of the country that follow the “vaquero” method of horsemanship, the addition of a get-down rope is an effective tool for a cowboy to have at his or her disposal. As the name implies, a get-down rope was originally used for the cowboy after getting down from his mount. Over time, additional uses have evolved, limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of the cowboy. In addition to safely tying up a horse, a get-down rope can be used to lead a horse, keep a horse nearby for just a moment while freeing hands for work, or merely as an extra length of handy rope.
Traditionally, the get-down rope is either tied around the horse’s throat latch or attached to an under bridle (the gear under the bridle), such as a thin hackamore, a leather noseband, a bosal or, what I use, the smaller bosalito. In many parts of the American West, under bridles are often beaded in colorful patterns by talented artisans and since there are only used occasionally, they can be more delicate and decorative than a regular hackamore. For me, a simple rawhide bosalito under the headstall, makes for an effective way to get and keep control of my mare’s head on the ground.
A get-down rope doesn’t need to be fancy
The get-down rope itself is usually made of horse hair, and a few are made of human hair, which while a bit pricier than those of the horse hair variety, are also much softer. Some get downs are also made of nylon, usually with a rawhide button tied onto the end. These are a little cheaper and good for use in inclement weather.
The get-down rope doesn’t have to be fancy. It is generally a function-over-form situation, but some like to make a statement with this piece of tack, as it can be both handy and attractive. Horsemen prefer to use everything from a traditional horsehair mecate to something flashy (or as cowboys say, “punchy”) like purple parachute cord! However, any simple braided rope of correct length—12 to 16 feet—will do. And, while some may want to enjoy the get-down rope purely for function’s sake, I think anytime we can add a bit of cowboy style to our gear, we may as well look good while doing our jobs.
How to use the get-down rope
Regardless of the type of material, get-down ropes are super handy for outside riding. Cowboys use them when they dismount for a short time for little chores like opening wire gates or airing out their horses’ backs. The get-down rope must always be tied around the horse’s neck with a knot that doesn’t slip. This is of utmost importance. The most common and simplest is the bowline knot. It’s a common, useful knot that every horseman should know, but under no circumstance should it be confused with a knot that can move or slip its position. It needs to be tied around the throat latch with plenty of breathing room for your pony. If you’re not familiar with how to tie a bowline, renowned horseman Dennis Moreland has a good, basic tutorial here.
You could also explore learning to tie an equally handy, and slightly punchier knot known as the “parade knot” or “cavalry knot.” Similar in look and construction to a hangman’s noose, the cavalry knot also stays in place on my horse’s neck and never tightens up on her. She wears it proudly, in part because of the compliments we get in the form of a knowing nod of the head from other riders.
Regardless of the knot you choose to tie, the tail and remainder of the rope is run through the noseband or bosalito you prefer and half-hitched it to the saddle horn, coiled and tied to the saddle strings or tucked (not tied) under your belt. This way, it’s handy to grab and go at any point when mounting, leading or dismounting your horse. I prefer to tie mine to the saddle by the front strings on the left side, but basically wherever is convenient for you, will be just fine. As with everything else in the cowboy class, form and function is far more important than the convention of others and standardized rules.
Now, the get-down rope isn’t without controversy, mind you. Some believe it’s dangerous to tie a horse up by the get-down rope because of the pressure it places on the horse’s neck. I personally believe that if you’ve trained a horse to respond appropriately to that sort of pressure, and you tie your knots properly, you’ll be just fine. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to try it; I just know what works on my horse. If you’re not comfortable with it, I’d recommend against it. However, if your horse is comfortable with this sort of pressure, a get-down rope is a convenient and safe option to explore. Just always remember to use caution and common sense when you tie your horse up, and always tie at shoulder level or above.
The get-down rope is handy and punchy
Using a get-down rope offers many things to the rider. Whether we have leather split reins or hand-crafted rawhide romal reins, our tack is better cared for and preserved when we don’t have to use it to lead or tie our horses. There is a lot of security in having the get-down rope handy, because every time we step off — whether it’s on the trail for lunch, to doctor cattle, or just to pick up an iPhone we dropped in the dirt — we have direction and contact with our horses. This means heightened safety for us, a feeling of security for our horse, and a little insurance that he’ll be close by when we need him.
My get-down rope has helped me immensely with my daily tasks. I no longer waste time with a clumsy halter, reins wrapped half-assed on my saddle horn, or busted tack. I love knowing that if I need to hold, lead, or even tie up my horse while working, I can do so quickly and without incident. And yes, both Whiskey and I take a bit of pride in admiring how punchy it looks.
Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★