How to make a rope halter

Making a rope halter for your horse is simple, fun, and inexpensive compared to a pricy halter out of a catalog. This halter uses a fiador knot under the chin.  The fiador knot is fairly straightforward, but it can be difficult to get it placed exactly right for the size of halter you are making.  Since it the the first knot to be completed in making a halter, you can take it apart and try again as many times as necessary to get the positioning you want -- custom-sized for your horse!

shetland pony in rope halter large horse halter

Introduction

A rope halter is an important tool for training and working horses.  Because the surface area of the halter contacting the horse's face is small, a pull on the rope from the trainer (or the horse) will exert considerable (even severe) pressure.  Used correctly, the horse can be taught to be responsive and yielding to pressure.  This is a result more difficult to achieve with a wide strap halter because the same amount of pull from the trainer is spread over a much larger area on the horse's head and so the pressure (pounds per square inch) is much less and horses often learn to lean on the halter rather than yield to it.  With a rope halter the horse learns to respond to pressure and then to even lighter signals.  The horse can differentiate between signals, and you can achieve considerable refinement with the response you get by just small variations in the movements in the rope.

A rope halter should NEVER be left on an unattended horse-- not in a stall nor turned out.   I also do not tie or cross-tie a horse in a rope halter.  I use it only while training. Rope halters are essentially not breakable, and therefore precautions must be taken.   The halter can get caught on something, or the horse can get his foot in it, and since it doesn't break there can be disastrous consequences. 

The diagram below shows the sections of the halter and the lengths (knot center to  knot center) which I use for my quarter horse x Arab mare.  Adjust sizing as needed forhalter sizes your horse.   A rope halter is tied out of a single length of rope, using two kinds of knots-- five of them are a two-stranded lanyard knot (two strands going in; two strands coming out) and the knot under the chin is a 4-stranded lanyard knot.  In the directions which follow, I use a fiador knot under the chin and 2-stranded Matthew Walker knots for the rest of the knots in the halter.

 I like to use soft cotton clothesline when teaching halter construction. It is soft and easy to tie and is very inexpensive and readily available. (1/4" works well.  3/16" or 5/16" is also OK.)  First. practice the knots you will need, then, when you are confident, try making a halter.  While this is clearly a practice piece, it does result in a usable halter. A clothesline halter has several disadvantages, however.  It is a bland boring off-white.  It stretches with use and the knots tighten so it gets too big and doesn't fit after a few dozen uses. It gets dirty easily. If it gets wet, it is really hard to untie the latch knot to get it off.  And if it stays wet, it mildews and degrades.   I use this for student practice because it is <5 cents per foot as opposed to the double braided polyester marine cord which might be $0.50 - $1 per foot.

So, get some cheap rope, practice knots, make a halter, try it out, see what sizes for each section in the pattern work for you and your horse.  Then, when you know how to do it and know what you want, buy the rope that you really want for your halter.  And do it all over again, for real.  

Various sorts of rope can be used for halters. The stiffer the rope and the smaller the diameter, the more severe the halter, while a softer rope in a larger diameter is less severe.  Diameters between 3/16" and 3/8" are usual.  The length needed depends both on the size of the horse and the stiffness and diameter of the rope (which affects how tightly the knots can be tied and how much rope is within the knots).  A halter may take 16 - 25 feet of rope, depending on the size of the pony or horse and the type of rope.  For my mare, with the sizes to the left and using a soft 5/16 " rope, the halter requires about 18 feet.

The knots

There are several choices for which specific kinds of knots can be used in a halter. If you refer to knot references, note that a knot may be known by many different names, and sometimes the same name refers to several different knots.  Also, the same knot (topologically) might have two different names depending on the knot's orientation relative to the free (working) ends of the rope.  This is because the way the knot is tied might be quite different if there is not a free end to work with.  Sometimes two identical knots might have different names (depending on how it is tied or whether the reference is fishing, sailing, or climbing) and they might be called "related" rather than "identical".  An authoritative knot reference is Clifford W. Ashley, The Ashley Book of Knots, 1944, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, NY

For under the chin (forming the loop for attaching a lead rope), use a Fiador knot (aka 4-stranded diamond knot). [Ashley knot #1110, #693].  Other possibilities include a 4-stranded simple overhand knot, a 4-strand Matthew Walker knot [Ashley #692], or a two stranded Matthew Walker knot using doubled cords for each "strand". There are other possibilities as well.  

For the other knots in the halter, use a 2-stranded Matthew Walker knot [Ashley knot #776, #795, #801, #2421] (aka true lover's knot, halter knot, interlocking overhand knots).  Other possibilities include a 2-stranded overhand knot [Ashley #1410, #518] (aka doubled overhand, EDK, European Death Knot, simple overhand, 2-stranded simple overhand, overhand bend, overhand knot doubled), a two-strand diamond knot, and others.

Another note on knot naming: There are quite a few web sites with directions for rope halters.  Many of these sites are derivatives of each other, sharing diagrams, text and nomenclature.  As such, they use the same names as each other for the types of  2-stranded lanyard knots.  However, knot experts --sailing, climbing, fishing, mathematics, etc--use these terms to refer to other quite different knots.  (See The Ashley Book of Knots).  So because of these naming ambiguities, I am not going to use use the knot names the way some other halter sites do.

The Rope

Pick out the kind of rope that you like. This decision can be based on a number of factors including comfort, stiffness, strength, flexibility, color, durability, ease of tying, washability, etc.  Since you will tie the halter to fit your horse, the length of rope needed will depend on the size of your horse. 

Synthetic fibers used in ropes include polypropylene ( MFP-multi filament polypropylene), nylon, polyesters (e.g. PET, LCP, HPE, Vectran), polyethylene (e.g. Spectra,), Aramids (e.g. Twaron, Technora and Kevlar) and polyaramids (e.g. Dralon, Tiptolon). Some ropes are constructed of mixtures of several fibres or use co-polymer fibres.  Rope construction can be twisted or braided, although braided ropes are most commonly used today.  Braided ropes are usually polypropylene, nylon, or polyester.  Rope construction can be single braid (diamond braid, hollow core braid), double braid (diamond braid around a braided core, braid on braid), kernmantle (core of twisted fibers with a braided outer shell), solid braid, etc. http://www.lehighgroup.com/fiber.htm     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rope  http://www.novabraid.com/ropeguide.html

Ropes often used for halters include double braided nylon (a braided nylon sleeve over a braided nylon core),  double braid polyester (braided polyester sleeve over a braided polyester core), marine grade kernmantle braid rope,  braided MFP (polypropylene), and others.         http://www.novabraid.com/rope/application/equestrian.html    http://www.cbknot.com/equestrianrope.htm   http://www.rockymountainrope.com/equestrian.htm

Select rope for your halter that's of a stiffness and in a diamater you want. Compare prices.  And check on availablility.  Many ropes can be ordered on-line, but if you want to feel the rope before you buy, you might try to find it locally.  Accessory cord (rock climbing rope) is found at sporting goods stores. 1/4-inch-diameter  (6-7 mm) works well.  Brands include PMI Perlon Accessory Cord (braided nylon with nylon core) or Samson's Accessory Cord (polyester cover and nylon core).  Some people find it too stiff and hard to tie.  Another source is marine or yachting stores where you can get marine cord or static kernmantle.  Hardware stores carry a number of ropes.  I have had good results with 3/8" MFP braied rope with a core. I did not get good results with hollow core diamond braided polypropylene (POLY) because my knots didn't stay well in the slippery rope.

To determine how much rope you need, use the fit of your practice halter (tied with cheap cotton clothes line) or decide what size the halter needs to be based on your horse’s head measurements. Use a cloth measuring tape to measure around your horse’s nose just below his cheekbone and note appropriate sizes onto the halter pattern.  Add up all the sections, then add the amount of rope in each knot to determine the total amount of rope. To determine how much rope is in a knot, measure out a defined length, tie a knot, measure again and calculate the amount in the knot.  This will differ for different kinds of ropes. A rule of thumb is to use 9-10 inches rope for each inch in the around-the-nose measurement, but this varies considerably with the kind of rope.  If you are using a relatively inexpensive rope, you don't have to calculate it very exactly, just use plenty.  For a typical size adult horse, start with 18-25 feet of rope.  You'll likely have quite a bit longer end than you need, but you can cut it off when you're finished.   
 http://www.naturalhorsesupply.com/halterstandard.htm        http://www.cowboytools.com/CowboyTools/Rope_Halter_Measurements.html  

How to tie a Fiador knot 

completed fiadorA fiador knot has 4 strands of rope going into the knot at the top (and the same 4 coming out the knot at the bottom).  This knot has a 4-fold rotational symetry around the central axis.  I think of it as having an imaginary pole down the middle of the knot, the 4 strands evenly spaced around the pole going into the knot at the top, each strand wrapping the same way around the pole and coming out of the knot at the bottom 3/4 of the way around the pole from where it went in and the 4 ropes still evenly spaced from each other and in the same order around the circumference.  The right handed version is pictured to the right.. (A left hand version is also possible.)  I think of the knot as a cylinder with the strands spiraling around the surface of the cylinder.  The Fiador knot is the same as a four-stranded diamond knot.  [Ashley # 1110, #693]. It is called Fiador when it is tied in a single twice-folded length of rope.  It is called diamond knot when it is tied using four working ends.
 

Practice with the 4-strand diamond  knot

To practice tying this knot, I recommend starting with 4 strands, then after practice moving to the next section where a single folded rope is used.  To tie the 4-strand diamond knot, I look down at the knot from the "top" (what will be the under-chin loops for attaching the lead rope).  I hook the 4 strands together (tape or rubber band) and  place on a flat spot and work the knot loosely around the center.  (It is like a disk shape with the strands spiraling around from the center outwards).  I am looking down at what will be the outside surface of  the cylindrical knot. After forming, I tighten and adjust, then lift and pull up the 4 taped center strands while pulling down on the 4 loose ends.  (Thus, pulling the face of the disk shape into the surface of the cylinder shape).

1. Layout the rope.  Rubberband or tape the 4 strands together, just above where you will tie the knot.  (Or you can use 2 ropes folded in the center, rubber band the two folds together).  I find it helps to pin it down to hold it still. fiador 1-1 fiador 1 fiador1-2
2. One strand at a time, form each strand into a loop (going clockwize around the center) with the  long end crossing over (on top of) the next loop. fiador 1-2  fiador1-3 fiador 1-4
3.  One strand at a time,  tuck each free end through the next (opposite the starting point) loop. fiador 1-3  Fiador 1-5  fiador 1-6
4.  Gently pull on the 4 loose ends (keep the top/center in place or above the knot).  Tighten the loops  until they are close around the center and all 4 are equal sized. fiador 1-4  fiador 1-7  fiador 1-8
5.  Pull up the center 4 strands and down on the 4 loose ends.  Evenly tighten the diamond knot. fiador 1-8      fiador

Practice a Fiador knot

When making the fiador knot in a halter, you don't have 4 loose ends, you only have two.  Since you can not "tuck the loose ends through the loop", you will instead have to make the loop around the constrained  parts.  Practice the diamond knot as above until you are comfortable with it.  Then practice it as in the set of pictures below.  After this becomes facile, try tying a halter. It will be much more difficult in a halter, because the free ends will be very long and because you want to adust the spacing fairly accurately so as to fit your horse, so do practice with a shorter rope first.  Color coding makes it much easier.

1. Layout the rope.  Fold the rope then fold again. Rubberband or tape an inch or so from this fold (which will be the under-chin loops in a halter.) Lay out on a flat surface, spreading the 4 ropes away from the center. fiador knot in halter 1
 fiador 2-1a   layout2
layout3 fa2-1 
2. Form each constrained strand  into a loop (going clockwise around the center) with the  long end crossing over (on top of) the next strand.  Cross the adjacent (counter clockwise) strand over the constrained "end"  and both strands of the next (clockwise) loop, then tuck it's free end through the next loop.  fiador in halter 2
 loops1 loops2
3.  The last strand has a free end. Work it clockwize around the center, over, under, over two, and tuck it through the next (opposite the starting point) loop.
fiador in halter 3
 laststrand   laststrand
 
4.  Gently pull on the 4  strands (keep the top/center in place or above the knot).  Tighten until all 4 strands are close around the center and all 4 are equal spaced. fiador in halter  fiador 1-7  fiador 1-8
5.  Pull up the center 4 strands and down on the 4 ends.  Evenly tighten the Fiador knot, by gently pulling one strand at a time, going around the knot several times.   fiador        fiador

Alternatives to the Fiador knot 

4-stranded simple overhand knot

A simple overhand knot has two versions, right handed and left handed.  Either is OK. To tie an overhand knot with 4 strands, keep the 4 strands parallel.  It is easier to tie than a Fiador knot but has some disadvantage.  
compare overhand vs fiador
Compare the knots in the picture above.  Left is the 4-strand overhand knot.  Right is the Fiador (4-strand diamond) knot.

4-strand Matthew Walker knot

The Matthew Walker knot is a compact knot with a 4 fold rotational symmetry.  It is difficult to untie and unlike the Fiador, it does not tend to loosen.  However, if the noseband needs to be size adjusted after the entire halter is assembled, a Fiador knot is preferred.4-strand matthew walker knot
Two examples of a 4-strand Matthew Walker knot [Ashley #692].  Here it is tied in a single length of rope.  

2-strand Matthew Walker knot, doubled.

2-strand MWK doubled
A two stranded Matthew Walker knot can be tied in 4 strands of cord by using paired cords, (keeping cords together and parallel).  Superficially, this looks somewhat like a 4-strand Matthew Walker knot, but is easier to tie.  It does not loosen as readily as a fiador (diamond) knot.

How to tie a 2-stranded Matthew Walker knot

The 2-stranded Matthew Walker knot is one of several interlocking overhand knots.  To make a 2-strand Mathew Walker knot, make a simple overhand knot in one strand, then thread the second strand through the first overhand knot to make an interlocking overhand knot of the same handedness. [Ashley knot #776, #795, #801, #2421]  In the Mathew Walker knot, the "crosses" of each of the interlocking knots is on the inside, and the loops are on the outside.

Tie an overhand knot in one strand. overhang knot overhand knot
Take the working end of the second strand and thread it through the first overhand knot. It should come into the existing knot parallel to its incoming strand. mw mw knot
Loop the working end around the cross-over in the first overhand knot; cross the standing part of the the original overhand knot and itself.  mw mw
Make the second overhand knot. Tuck the working end through the first overhand knot so that it leaves the knot parallel to the line of the first overhand knot.  Carefully tighten the knots around each other. The cross-over of the two overhand knots will be on the inside of the Mathew Walker knot each cross over being covered by the loop of the other overhand knot. mw mw

Alternative to the 2-stranded Mathew Walker knot -- a 2-stranded simple overhand knot

A simple overhand knot has two versions, right handed and left handed.  Either is OK.  To tie an overhand knot with two strands, keep the two strands parallel.  The knot is flat and the incoming and out-going ropes are not exactly opposite each other, so the knot tends to be the location of a twist or bend.  If this is annoying to you, use the Matthew Walker knot instead.  
overhand vs mathew walker  
Overhand knot (doubled) on left. [Ashley #1410, #518] 
Two-strand Matther Walker knot on right. [Ashley knot #776, #795, #801, #2421]

Procedure to tie a rope halter

Overview

Order of tying the knots for a halterThe entire halter is tied from a single length of rope.  If you look at the diagram, the two ends of the rope lie side by side at the ends of the poll strap.  So how do you get all those knots in at all the right places?  Well, you sort of start in the middle (of the nose band) and work your way out.   The diagram at the left labels the order in which you work.  First  you tie two simple overhand knots (1 and 2) on either side of the center of the nose band (you will come back through these later and tie another knot into them to complete the Mathew Walker knot).   Next, tie the fiador knot (3) to complete the nose band. (knot3).  Then tie a Mathew Walker knot (4) to form the gullet piece.  At this point, the two working ends are of different lengths.  In the longer rope, tie another knot (5) to form the loop in which you will tie the poll piece when you put your halter onto your horse.  Now, come back through the simple overhand knots in the nose loop to make them into Mathew Walker knots (6 and 7).  The final knot (8) completes your halter tying.  The two ends are lined up parallel with each other and the ends trimmed to the same length to finish the poll piece.  Detailed steps are described below.





Steps

1. Assemble your information.  Horse measurements. Diagram with sizes for YOUR horse written on it.  Information about how much rope is used in the knots.  Calculaton of how much rope you need.

2.  Assemble your stuff.  Rope, tape measure, narrow screw driver (helps to untie wrong knots), patience.

3.  Cut rope to length.  Find center of rope.  Measure about 20" from center.  Mark this point (it will be the center of the nose on one of the strands) with a piece of tape.  The two sides from the center point will differ in length by 40"/

4.  Tie 2 simple overhand knots (leave fairly loose), each 4" on either side of  the tape-marked center point. (This is the length of the nose band)

5.   Draw together the rope about 10" from each knot.   Align the ropes, then fold it over, making a 2-strand loop about 4" long.  Rubberband this loop in place.  Adjust so the nose loop is about 8" longer than its final desired length, and the little doubled loop is about 1". 

6.  Pin the loop on to a working surface, spreading out the 4 lines coming out of the loops.  Tie a Fiador knot as described above.  

7.  Measure the nose loop.  If too large or small, try adjusting the Fiador knot.  Alternatively,  mark with some tape or a pen where your loops enter the knot, then untie it, and tie it again making needed adjustments to get the right-sized nose band and loop for the lead line.  I think a little bit small is better than large, because the knots tend to tighten with use, so the nose loop and the lead line tie loops both get bigger with use.  Tighten the Fiador knot.

8.  When you are satisfied with the size of the nose loop (nose band plus chin pieces), procede to the next knot which forms the two stranded gullet piece. This knot is a 2-stranded Mathew Walker knot.  To tie it, make an overhand loop in one strand, then an interlocking overhand knot in the other strand by threading the end through the first overhand knot.  Adust the position and tighten the knot.

9.  The next several steps will use the longer of the two strands coming out of the gullet piece knot.  Form the left side throat piece and the loop (2" loop for latching the poll piece) by tying an overhand knot, then folding the rope over (rubber band it to hold the loop in place while you work) and tying a 2-stranded Mathew Walker knot by threading the end into the overhand knot you just tied.

10.  Now use the long end to thread through the first single overhand knot in the nose band.  Measure the length for the left cheek strap, then tie a Mathew Walker knot.  Run the line to the next nose band knot (so that the nose band is a double line) and form the Mathew Walker knot in the second overhand knot.  Recheck all measurements.  

11.  For the next knot, you will be using both of the strands and tying them together.  For the length of the right cheek piece and right throat piece, use the already tied  left parts of the halter as your measurements, so that the halter is symmetric.    

12.  The two long pieces are for the poll piece.  Run them parallel to each other and rubber band together while you go try it on the horse.   Make any adjustments you need to.  Then cut the two strands of the poll piece so they are equal and finish the ends.  

13.  Other finishing touches.  You can melt the ends together with a match, tape them, sew them, etc. depending on the type of rope. I often sew (or hot glue gun) together the loops (for the lead rope) which is under the chin.  This helps keep the fiador knot from unravaling and makes it easier to hook a lead line on.  Sometimes I hot glue gun or sew the entire length of the poll pieces together. You can put heat shrink on the rope ends, or metal ends.  

Pictures

Here is the construction of a cotton rope halter (dyed with food coloring so you can see it better).  

1   3    4 

6    7  
Fit looks pretty good.  The throat pieces should be a little (maybe an inch) longer .  

Other sites

About rope halters

http://www.horseproblems.com.au/rope_halters__a_halter_makers_p.htm

How to tie a rope halter

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HolZOx1CvUk
http://www.highdesertriders.com/Articles/howtomakearopehalter.pdf
http://www.all-natural-horse-care.com/natural-horsemanship-halter.html
http://www.horseropeconnection.com/collections/frontpage/products/rope-halter-kit
http://www.goddijn.com/halter/
http://www.naturalhorsesupply.com/haltercatalog.htm
http://www.amazon.com/Step-Basic-Horse-Training-Halter/dp/1440487898/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1256271732&sr=1-2
http://hosbooks.net/

Fiador knots

http://www.handcraftedjewls.com/Handcrafted%20Jewels/How%20To%20Page.htm
http://users.telenet.be/vandenberghe.jef/knots/knots.html?1
http://www.knotworkn.com/knots_Lashings.html
http://www.ropehalterjig.com/
http://www.hought.com/pttfl.html
http://www.cowboytools.com/CowboyTools/How_to_Tie_a_Fiador_Knot.html

Two-stranded Mathew Walker knots

http://www.beadandbutton.com/bnb/default.aspx?c=a&id=87
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_lover%27s_knot
http://www.naturalhorsesupply.com/tiehalter.shtml