Practiced Restraint: History of the Hobble

Used as a training device or to limit mobility, hobbles help keep horses under control.
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Used as a training device or to limit mobility, hobbles help keep horses under control.
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Hobbles, or equine leg restraints, date to at least the ancient Egyptians, who depicted their use in hieroglyphics. Today they are most closely associated with Western culture, where the modern hobble has two main uses: Working cowboys and packers use them to restrain horses in lieu of trees or other tie devices, and people in the pacing-horse community use them to help maintain a pacing gait.

Western-style hobbles are traditionally made from leather, rawhide, braided rope, or even gunnysacks. 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 loose horses from wandering off into the open range, teach horses patience and discipline, and reduce panic and flightiness. Hobbles are usually slipped around an animal’s forelegs and positioned above the fetlocks, so the horse is free to graze and yet easily catchable. (Hobbles are not fail-safe, however. My father, a rancher and horse trainer, once lost our family’s four saddle horses on a pack trip after the lead mare broke her hobbles. We found them 60 miles away running down a highway.)

The most popular styles of hobbles found in the West, both then and now, are the twist; the vaquero (or braided); and the figure eight, or Queensland Utility Strap models. The twist is made from leather, soft rope, or sacking, and as the name suggests, is twisted between the forelegs. The vaquero, shown above, 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.

Some horsemen also break the hind legs to hobbles, and/or tie forelegs to hind legs to discourage the animal from hopping about. “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