Breakaway halters are useful if you have a horse that has to wear a halter all the time. The most common reason is because the horse bites. If he’s already haltered, you can snap a leadrope directly to the halter while standing at his shoulder, where you can deflect a nip. I also use a breakaway halter on Prim, my old mare with the dropped fetlocks, when I turn her out to self-exercise. (She never lets Gunsmoke out of her sight, which is the reason I turn him out in the arena first.) When I let go of her leadrope (a very short one, called a “catch rope”) and cluck, she gallops towards him and they circle the arena a couple of times, Gunner on the inside, Prim on the outside. It’s short, so she can’t step on it and trip, or get it snagged on something. Even if she did manage to do that, her breakaway halter would do its job and break. Unlike Gunner, she doesn’t wear it all the time—just when I turn her out.
Most breakaway halters are constructed so that the crownpiece, the part that goes behind a horse’s ears over the poll area, is thin, cheap leather. The rest of the halter looks like a flat nylon halter, except there’s usually a snap on the left side—the kind you have to flatten with your finger, not the usual kind with a spring in it that you lower with your thumb. Exert enough pressure on the halter, and the leather will break. Instead of buying a whole new halter, all you do is buy a piece of cheap leather of the same dimensions from a shoemaker or tack repair shop.
My experience with these halters is limited to Gunsmoke, and he’s had four different ones. He’s a very busy horse—always curious, always investigating—typical behavior for a stallion, and the day I officially rescued him, he was a stallion. Since the vet was coming to geld him the following day, John and I decided to leave a breakaway halter on him overnight, since he hadn’t been handled a lot in the three years he had spent with an absentee owner. When we walked up to feed that morning, there was Gunsmoke—no halter. We searched everywhere, and finally found it beside one of the fence panels. He had obviously caught it on something and pulled back to free himself. But the leather was intact. One of the metal parts had broken.
The reason most horses shouldn’t wear a halter all the time because eventually they’ll do what Gunsmoke did and catch it on something—and hurt themselves trying to pull free. If your horse wears one for safety reasons, make sure it fits his face. Most don’t, and unless you loosen them or tighten them every day, the halter can rub his hair out or cause sore spots on his face. Once I began having problems with Gunner nipping, we left a breakaway halter on him. One morning when I went to feed, his halter was no place to be seen. When I found it—I’m still not sure what he caught it on—the leather had broken. About two weeks later when I came out to feed, Gunner he was standing perfectly still—not usual for him—right next to the front of his corral, parallel to the fence. Normally he’s very interested in how fast I can get hay into his feeder and will approach me as soon as he sees me. This time he didn’t move. Although he didn’t have the rigid stance of a horse with tetanus (and he’d had all his shots), I was afraid he’d hurt himself. As went inside and I approached his head, I saw that he had caught the snap—the kind you press down on—on a piece of unconnected stud wire, probably the only one in his entire corral. Thankfully he hadn’t panicked, because he could he could have done a lot of damage to himself and the corral if he had. Instead, he just stood there, waiting for somebody to free him. So I did.
Some horses are going to get in trouble no matter what precautions you take. For the rest, a breakaway halter is good insurance.