A no affiliate-link, no bullshit guide to buying, using, and repairing horse lead ropes
A horse lead rope is one of the most basic pieces of equipment for horses. It’s so basic that sometimes it’s even included when you purchase a horse! A lead rope is a specific type of rope with a horse-safe clip on one end that is used to lead, tie, and handle horses.
What makes a Horse Lead Rope?
You might think that a horse lead rope is just the equine equivalent of a dog leash – but there’s more to this simple piece of equipment than meets the eye. Here are a few aspects of horse lead ropes that make them different from dog leashes and other similar pieces of equipment:
1. Heavy-duty material.
Lead ropes are thick and strong. This thickness serves two purposes:
- The thick material is very strong – so strong, that when a 1200 pound horse pulls against the lead rope with all their weight (for example, if they are tied up and get scared) the material will not break under pressure.
- The second reason that lead rope material is thick and chunky is as a safety feature for both horses and humans. If the lead rope gets caught or wrapped around a human hand or a horse’s leg, the wider material helps distribute that force along a larger surface area of skin. Serious injuries can still occur with thick lead ropes, but these injuries tend to be less severe than they would be if lead ropes were made from thin and narrow rope or webbing.
2. A plain cut-off end (or sometimes a square knot).
While dog leashes have a loop on the end that is added for easily holding them or even wrapping them around your hand, horse lead ropes never have a loop on the end.
When handling horses, wrapping a lead rope around your hand can be extremely dangerous. To help prevent injury if a horse spooks or suddenly pulls the lead rope out of your hand, lead ropes end in a simple rope cut-off. This allows the lead rope to slide freely (sometimes causing rope burns but nothing more serious if handled properly). Some horse handlers choose to add a knot at the end of their lead line. This can help a handler retain their grip, while still keeping their hand from being trapped, like a loop at the end of the lead line could.
3. Heavy-duty hardware
One specific aspect that sets horse lead ropes apart from dog leashes is the ultra-heavy duty hardware. Generally, the hardware used for good horse lead ropes is cast in one piece from solid stainless steel, brass, or high-quality alloy (aka blended) metal.
When I was a tack store owner earlier in my life, my shop also carried an extensive line of hardware items used for the construction or repair of horse tack and equipment. One thing I always communicated clearly to customers was the difference between equestrian grade hardware and the type of hardware used on dog leashes, and why horse-safe hardware costs significantly more than equipment made for smaller animals.
Horse hardware is much, much heavier duty than most hobby grade hardware. You might be surprised to learn that it is not unusual for hardware – that is the metal parts – of cheaply made equestrian equipment like horse lead ropes to burst under pressure.
4. Long Length
Lead ropes have to be long enough to safely lead a large animal and leave plenty of room for large, looping knots around fences and hitching posts. While dog leashes most commonly measure 4ft or 6ft long, horse lead ropes usually are 8 feet long at minimum, and often as long as 10 feet in length from clip to rope-end.
Parts of a Horse Lead Rope
The Shank. The shank refers to the entire length of the lead rope that is not the snap or clamp. The shank is the part that is held in the handler’s hand, gathered but not looped. Sometimes horse lead ropes are called “lead shanks.”
Rope clamp: not all lead ropes are constructed with a lead rope clamp (some are stitched) but for rope-style lead ropes, a rope clamp is used to securely attach a snap to the shank of the lead rope.
The snap. The snap (sometimes called the “clip”) is the part of a horse lead rope that allows you to connect the rope to a horse’s halter. Snap styles include the previously-popular bull snap (which usually requires two hands to attach it to a horse’s halter), a spring bolt snap (similar to the kind most often used on dog leashes, which can be operated with one hand), and various other less common snap styles.
The Best Type of Horse Lead Rope
Horse lead ropes come in many different materials and snap styles. The best lead rope for a horse largely depends on the handler’s preference. Most horse lead ropes are equally effective at leading, tying, and handling horses. Here are the pros and cons of a few types of horse lead ropes:
Flat Nylon Webbing Lead Ropes
Pros: This type of lead rope is inexpensive and comes in a variety of colors. It’s easy to tie initially.
Cons: Flat nylon webbing is difficult to hold safely if a horse pulls back. Flat nylon is prone to causing rope burns or more severe injuries. Knots made in this type of material can be very difficult to untie – including quick release knots used to secure horses to hitching posts, rails, and horse trailers.
Cotton Rope Lead Ropes
Pros: This type of us lead rope is very soft to handle, easy to tie, and comfortable in the hand. Cotton lead ropes are very very flexible. Though still capable of causing severe injuries, cotton horse lead ropes tend to cause fewer rope burns in day-to-day use.
Cons: Cotton rope lead ropes tend to be a little more expensive and may have a lower breaking point than other materials.
Polypropylene Rope Leads
Pros: Inexpensive, easy to find, and popular, polypropylene rope lead ropes come in a variety of colors and patterns to match your barns colors or personal preferences. These ropes are flexible, easy to tie, and easy to untie.
Cons: Polypropylene rope lead rope tend not to last as long as other materials, as the fibers are prone to fade and fray even over the course of 1-year of use (especially if stored in direct sunlight instead of a tack room). Polypropylene rope is essentially plastic, so unlike cotton or leather horse lead ropes, poly propylene creates more landfill waste.
Leather Lead Ropes
Pros: Leather horse lead ropes are, when well oiled, buttery soft in the hand, easy to grip, and add a polished look to your barn or turn out. Leather lead lines may be required for showing your horse in halter or in-hand competition.
Cons: Leather lead ropes are expensive and require more care than other materials. (Like other leather horse tack, they require cleaning and oiling regularly) leather lead ropes are generally not recommended for tying a horse and have a lower load capacity before reaching their breaking point.
Braided Nylon Webbing Horse Lead Ropes
Pros: Braided nylon webbing horse lead ropes are wider and easier to grip than flat nylon lead ropes. They come in a number of different colors.
Cons: Braided nylon webbing lead ropes can be difficult to tie and untie, when compared to smooth round ropes like cotton lead ropes and poly propylene rope leads.
Making your own Horse Lead Ropes
If you have curiosity about trying your hand at making tack, lead ropes are one of the very best places to start. With only a few supplies, you can braid, stitch, or rivet your way to a unique, functional, and safe horse lead. Making your own horse leads can even be a great side income to help support your horse hobby. Etsy, eBay, and even local tack stores and horse shows are great places to sell your handmade lead ropes.
Braiding A DIY Horse Lead Rope: Start with Hardware
The best hardware for making your own lead ropes is still up for debate. A decade or two ago bull snaps were virtually the only snaps available for the end of horse lead ropes, but today XL spring bolt clamps and even cross tie snaps are all available in sizes and designs suitable for full-size horses.
Beyond lead ropes: making your own cross ties, lunge lines, and more
Once you’ve discovered how easy it is to cut, seal, and rivet webbing or leather straps into horse lead ropes, you may be tempted to make more DIY horse tack. While much horse tack construction should be left to experts and professionals, making your own strap goods is a way to save money and control the quality of your cross ties, lunge lines, and other strap goods.
Choosing the right lead rope for your horse isn’t a make-or-break issue, but making sure that your lead rope is safe, easy to handle, and can be tied and untied without issues is an important part of basic horse management.