TACK – Tie Downs, Bonnets, Whips and Spurs

Tie Downs & Bonnets

In the world of judging one another’s abilities in horse disciplines, there is more judgement passed on the use of tools like tie-downs and bonnets than anything else. 

There is an underlying tone that your ability to ride is correlated with whether you use these or not.

They can be the kindest thing you ever give your horse to use, or they can make their life hell, it all goes back to the correct use and understanding what the intended purpose is.

It comes down to strengths and challenges – we don’t criticize a human who uses the handrail to go down a flight of stairs . 

When tie-downs and bonnets are used properly, it is like giving your horse a handrail for the turn.

When we added the extra length of stride length from the running bred horses, it created more 2 axis point horses, moved the vertical center of balance back and the horizontal center of balance to a down hill slope to accommodate the length of stride.

In the straights it isn’t usually an issue for a horse to stay united or balanced, but the turn throws a little curve ball into the mix.

1. Does my horse need help?

What if we could stop a wreck from happening by simply having something there “just in case”? 

What would that look like for your horse?

Think of a roofer with an anchored safety harness.  Most roofers will go their entire life without needing one – they have impeccable balance – but what about the one day you NEED it – you trip over your bootlace or take a misstep.   It will save your life.

It certainly isn’t a matter of life or death on the pattern, but what if the handrail we choose never hinders the horses movement or stride, but is there just in case they trip or stumble?

I attended a Rayel Robinson clinic years ago – Rayel is a multi time NFR qualifier, CFR Qualifier& Champion, Calgary Stampede Champion, BFA Champion, many time Futurity & Derby champion and someone in the clinic asked about tie downs.

She explained that she puts a tie down on every single horse they ride, whether they “need’ to use it or not, just so the horse knows it is there, as security.  She also explained that it would prevent a wreck from happening if the horse ever got out of position and why wouldn’t you use a free insurance policy if you got one.

Rayel is known for how broke her horses are and has trained many to go on to be other peoples champions.  She does not use a tie-down to replace any kind of training.

2. Helping Hand not a Hindrance

The intention of the use and how we adjust these tools determine whether they help or hinder.

Just like a handrail does not impede our ability to travel down a set of stairs, a tie-down or bonnet shouldn’t ever restrict your horses stride length or range of motion.

It should not be used on a horse that is fighting a bit or running away.

Tie-Downs or Bonnets see their biggest benefit to a barrel horse in the turns, but can also help a horse to keep their hind and front ends united when they travel straight.

Any tool should be adjusted to the height and length where they activate when needed, but are not active when the horse has good posture and is travelling naturally correct.

Any kind of tie down or bonnet needs to be used with a hobble, keeper, breast collar or a neck strap to make sure there is no chance of a leg getting over the straps.

3. Which for What?

There are 3 main options when it comes to tie-downs and bonnets as there is also a tie-down bonnet combo.

Your horses build will give you the biggest clues on what might be the best fit.

For our horse to use the full length of their stride they need:

  1.  Their horizontal center of balance to travel parallel to the ground. 
  2. Their Nose above their upper shoulder point.
  3. Keep there head a 90 degrees

Bonnets give a horse an upper limit and Tie Downs give a horse a forward limit – something to lean on and help them if they get too far out of posture.

Horizontal Center of Balance Downhill – War Bonnet or Headsetter

Depending on what their conformation is, this can require a lot of elevation through the head, whither and neck to line up where the femur ties into the pelvis and the upper shoulder point.

Horse’s that travel with their head elevated can benefit with an upper limit, through their poll and their forehead.  This can be best suited to a bonnet.

2 Axis Points Moderate to Far apart – Tie Down

Horses that have 2 axis points further away or a high chance of false flexibility through the top line need to keep the hind & front end united and travelling on the same set of tracks.

A well adjusted tie down can keep them from getting their nose too far out in front of the body (beyond 90 degrees) and keep the hind and front end travelling in pairs and united – lessening the odds of the horse being “strung out”.

A tie down can also help any horse that gets themselves in a forward fall or trip.

We can have the most sure footed horse on the planet, but hidden ground ruts can throw a curve no one would see coming and might save you a tipped barrel or fall if your horse gets tripping forward and a tie down is there to save them.

When to use a combo? 

If you have a horse that has a horizontal center of balance that is downhill and 2 axis points moderate to far apart, both the forward limit and upper limit might be a god send to help keep their body moving as a unit.

4. German & Running Martingales

Both of these tools were designed for the same purpose of the tie down & bonnet, but use the bit and mouth for leverage, instead of the skull.

The German Martingale is adjustable in length via the reins – it can help a horse who gets their nose out beyond 90 degrees. by applying pressure and contact only when the head is past the 90 degrees, when adjusted properly.

The Running Martingale or Training forks applies contact to the horses mouth when their head travels higher than the adjustment is set.

It adjusts the neutral position of the bit from the riders hand so needs to be adjusted with caution.


A whip can be used to encourage a horse to run faster or keep going when they are shutting down – but that isn’t always the outcome when used during a run.

As riders we have a responsibility to make sure we have the answer to the following question before getting “whip happy”.
The first question I always ask people is – have you tested it on the clock and do you watch your horses feet when you whip them?
If your answer is “no or I don’t know” you better get watching.

Many horses will shorten their stride or slow down completely when being whipped. This is for 2 reasons:

#1 – They simply do not respond to that kind of pressure with speed

#2 – The rider gets so off balance/out of position while using the whip, the horse is fighting to counter balance the rider and can’t add more speed.

There are 2 times in our run where an over-under, the end of a rein or a quirt can be an insurance policy in your run.

#1 – When the distractions become so great that your horse cannot focus, cannot get their feet moving forward – it can be an insurance policy of movement.  A simple tap or clap can snap your horse back into the moment and get you moving forward again, or focused.

#2 – The “final furlong” in the barrel pen.  The distance between the barrels and the score line is where most horses will shut down if not encouraged to run straight through.  They 1st and 2nd barrels and think “ah, I’m done”, but we need those last 2-3 strides before the clock stops.

If you watch elite riders like Sherry Cervi & Lisa Lockhart, you will notice that is the only time they got to the whip in their runs and it is more about encouragement, than laying down a tan on the hide.

Just like any form of stimulation, when it is over used it becomes a mute point and is no longer effective.


“Spurs are no different than a bat or a crop, or a whip. It’s an aid to help get discipline. He should not be afraid of your crop, or your spurs, or your bat or your whip or your romal. He should not be afraid of it.” Ray Hunt

In the hundreds of thousands of runs I have watched in barrel racing, I can count on 1 hand the number of horses I have seen run faster when they are actively being spurred on the run home. 

There is more “movement” because of the elevation, but that doesn’t equate to a quicker run home.

This makes a lot of sense if you consider the core function of spurs, which is a poke or a jab – this makes a horse jump or move away from the feeling (like when someone pokes you in the rib) in the opposite direction it is coming from.

Spurs can give you elevation or lateral movement through the rib when applied correctly.

Where and how your leg falls against your horse and how you hold your heel in a run truly decides if you have any business wearing them.

Case #1 – your horse has muscle memory around pushing down the sternum and/or dumping on the front end.

To get elevation through the sternum or lower rib , your heel needs to fall at or below the bottom of the rib cage – you can add length to the spur and role your heel up for contact – any higher than this, you will only achieve a lateral movement with the spur.

Case #2 – Your horse has muscle memory around false flexibility/pushing their rib and/or shoulder into the barrel.

If this is the case you could use a spur, even with higher contact to help keep the horse from pushing the rib towards the inside of the turn, helping to keep the horse from rotating through the top line and pushing/flipping the hip to the outside.

Core Function aside – How you hold your heel in a turn ultimately decides if you SHOULD be wearing a spur during your run.  If your toes turn out when you ride in a circle and you have contact through the calf, you should not use a spur, as your horse will never have relief in the turn.