Tying a Highline

Learn to tie a highline for use during your horse-camping adventures. A tie-in to the July 2002 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

A highline (also called a picket line–a line stretched between two trees to which you tie your horse) is a safe and practical tying method while camping overnight with your horse. Here’s how to tie a highline, starting with a few preparatory steps.

High country trail in the Never Summer wilderness area. Lolabean/adobe.stock.com

Steps to Start

1. Check your halters. First, check their condition. Examine the stitching for signs of wear or breakage. Make sure the buckles are in good working order. Then check their fit. They should fit your horses comfortably without constricting or rubbing. Make sure each throatlatch is snug enough so that you can’t pull the halter over your horse’s ears.

2. Get the right lead ropes. Make sure they’re soft and pliable. If they’re too stiff, the knots will slip. Cotton is a good choice.

3. Get highline rope. You’ll need 3/8 to 1/2-inch-diameter cotton rope, which you’ll find at your local hardware store. For two horses, get at least 15 feet. Add 5 feet for each additional horse you’ll tie to the line.

4. Practice your knot tying. My favorite highline knot is the taut-line hitch (described below). It’s easy to tie, and with a combination of half the hitches, you can tie almost anything. And unlike quick-release knots, the half hitch won’t jam. However, always keep a sharp knife handy to free a horse in trouble.

Once you have the basics down pat, you’re ready to create a highline at your campsite.

Here’s How

1. Choose two sturdy, firmly rooted, live trees. Look for those with branches that will help support your highline from below.

2. Locate a place on each tree at least 5 feet high where you’ll tie your line. Wrap a ‘tree saver’ around each tree trunk to protect the bark. You can use a gunnysack, or a commercial webbed model.

3. Wrap the line around the tree-saver, and tie two half hitches with an extra wrap (below left).

4. Draw the line over to and around the second tree, pulling out as much slack as you can. Tie this end with two half hitches and an extra wrap.

5. Now, swing on the rope at its midpoint to stretch it. (And giggle a lot–this can be fun!)

6. Untie one end, take up the slack, and retie the line.

Now you’re ready to tie your horses’ lead ropes to the highline. Here are some tips.

7. Always use a taut-line hitch (described below). The three wraps in that knot provide sufficient friction that the hitch won’t slide sideways along the line.

8. Tie the lead rope just long enough to allow your horse to touch his nose to the ground directly under the knot, when he pulls the line down slightly. Any longer, and he might put his foot over the rope, which could cause him injury. Place his feed under the knot.

9. To keep horses tangle-free, tie them at least 5 feet apart. More if they’re either aggressive or overtly passive and likely to be picked on.

10. Tie horses far enough in from the trees so that they can’t paw the roots or chew the bark–either can kill the tree.

Taut-Line Hitch

Here’s how to tie a taut-line hitch–that is, two half hitches with an extra wrap.

1.Hold one end of the line in your left hand; this will be your working end. Hold the other end of the line in your right hand; this will be the standing end. Wrap the line’s working end once around the tree trunk, leaving extra length. (You may need to experiment a little with the length.)

2. Wrap the working end once around the standing line you’ve just created.

3. Make a half hitch. Bring the working end through the hole created by the tree trunk and the standing end. Pull it snug.

4. Do an extra wrap. Wrap the working end between the highline and your first half hitch.

5. Make another half hitch. Bring the working end toward your horse, past the first half hitch. Bring the working end toward your horse, past the first half hitch. Then wrap the working end around the standing line again in the same direction, and up through the hole between the first half hitch and the tree trunk. Snug it up. You’re set!

Mary Anna Wood taught horse packing in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, where she managed a herd of 185 saddle and pack horses. A certified instructor for both arena and trail riding, Mary Anna, and her 31-year-old Half-Arabian gelding, Elmer Bandit, completed more than 14,000 competitive miles with the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC). Elmer was the first inductee into the NATRC’s Hall of Fame.

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