When you spend time around Heather Denholm, it’s easy to see a consummate horsewoman who has learned through hands-on experience how to think like a horse. Horses are in Heather’s DNA, originally from Ayrshire in Scotland and now settled in Co Fermanagh, her parents were both in the business. An able show jumper, she has bred and handled youngstock and worked with both thoroughbreds and sport horses. Heather now offers a schooling and halter breaking service, concentrating on the first education for young horses.

Gentle approach

Heather was the woman I called upon to help me with a six-month-old untouched Conthargos x Clinton filly who was a powerful girl and who I needed a gentle yet definite training approach to give her the best experience with the halter and leading.

“I first found out that working with ropes is effective through my experience with Highland Cattle,” Heather says. “I used to show cattle and that gave me a thorough understanding of the psychology of a flight and herd animal, how they move about and how to quieten them, they are very flighty. What I learned on the cattle, I then adapted for the horses. That’s where I discovered that you want a rope to become a horse’s friend. You don’t want the horse to be scared of it. The rope is an aid from us to the horse, and that’s where you get the trust in the animal. Trust begins with the rope for the youngster, before it ever has a proper trust in you.”

Heather begins her process by going in with the animal, not making very much movement and definitely no noise. “You look down, a horse feels a threat at eye-level, and it asks: What’s this? Danger! You very slowly begin to move. Horses are always intrigued. I begin with the rope by my side, the first stage is moving the rope about very gently, not waving it, until the horse starts to nibble. When it starts to show an interest in the rope, then you progress.

“The first place you put it is over the wither because when horses are mutually grooming, that’s the main point of interest when they’re trying to make friends. They go nose, then they come around to and over the wither point. That’s when you put a hand on because they’re now used to the feeling of something touching them. The person is being constant with the rope, there’s been no big gestures or scary moments.”

I have to admit, that I watched in wonder at how quickly my own powerful filly softened to Heather.

Heather Denholm with one of the horses.


“A horse is a lot more intelligent than a cow. A cow you can pretty much put the halter on one day, then as many people do, tie it to something solid and let it pull the head a bit and it just gives in. Whereas a horse, if you take that approach, you are risking broken bones and bust necks, because when a horse realises it’s in danger or it’s under pressure or it’s sore, it hits flight reaction a lot quicker and it wants to flee. Which is why they then pull. When they trust that the rope is a friend, they’re a lot calmer in themselves and they almost seek a comfort from the rope.”

Heather’s process takes place in the stable because it is usually the young horse’s safe space. “If one is really scared, I would take them to a larger pen so that they never feel threatened in a corner. I always hope that within two or three days being quiet with them they trust you, then you start them walking in the stable. The idea is they walk with you, you’re not dragging them and there’s no chasing them. If they are confident in you, then when you leave the stable with the horse, there are no issues because there’s confidence in the rope and the handler, not reliance on other horses or only walking out of fear.”

When I ask Heather if she’s ever had a horse who didn’t respond to the technique, she says no. “I’ve had horses that have taken a lot longer but the dam makes a massive difference. If the dam has been a good mother, and quiet-natured, the foals can be done really quickly. If it’s a flighty dam, it’s already a flightier animal to work with from the start and they can sometimes take me two or three weeks.

“There are horses who are like children, they can only take so much and you have to leave them to a new day because they can’t process everything. The whole idea of it is that they are never under pressure. When they’re done that way, they never forget either. If you go in a field months or years later, and you put the rope over the wither, it has this massive calming effect, even in a herd and you can catch that animal and lead it away.”