Why do we need to use lead shanks? Control! Without it you can break or even lose a finger. Whenever you walk into a stall and put a halter on a horse, unless you have a tie chain in the stall and you are going to tie your horse in the stall, you should always have a lead shank snapped onto the halter. Even though horses are domesticated, they still will resort back to their instincts when frightened. Horses were here millions of years before man and their means of survival was flight or fight. I can assure you that flight is the first instinct they will follow. If you walk your horse out of the stall or out of the pasture holding the halter without a shank and your horse sees something and decides to shy or duck sideways very quickly and your hand is inside of the halter, you may endure injury. I can say this from past experience. When I started around horses at the age of eleven, and did not know any better, there were a few instances where my fingers were close to being broken as I tried to hold onto the halter in fear of having a loose horse. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to get the message how important it is to use a lead shank not only to keep my fingers intact, but to have better control over the horse I was leading.
When you are leading a horse, you should be back by the horses shoulder on their left side. Always start everything that you do from the left side first. By approaching your horse and starting everything from the left side of the horse, you are creating a movement of habit that will become acceptable to your horse. This means that when you approach to the left of the horse, your horse will be less likely to question why you are there and be more accepting of your actions. Walking with your horse, not in front of them or too far back will help you to have control over them in case of any sudden movements forward, backward or sideways. In this case you would give them a gentle but sharp jerk on the shank in order to get their attention as to say please do not do this. You are in charge and you will need to convey this to your horse as they will sometimes want to be the boss. Usually horses that are trail horses, show horses or just horses that are part of the family, you will only need a rope shank. Nylon shanks are ok but in the case of a horse trying to take off with you, and if the shank starts to slip through your hands, you may encounter some burn marks from the shank. This can happen from rope shanks but it will not be as severe and there are rope shanks on the market that are very soft. At the same time you do not want them too soft especially if you are leading two or three horses at the same time as they seem to get tangled up very easily.
Leather shanks are your other option but of course these will need more care in cleaning and conditioning them. Usually leather shanks have a chain and snap attached to them. These shanks are for horses that are more head strong and need to be under more control. Stallions usually are led with a chain shank especially breeding stallions. You take the end of the chain part of the shank with the snap, start the snap part through the left side of the halter (the metal part of the halter), pulling the chain over the center of the nose piece of the halter and under following through to the other side of the halter were the metal piece is and up the side of the halter and snap it onto the metal ring up higher on the halter. This is debatable of where to snap the shank onto the halter after running it over the nose piece. I personally like to run it through the under side of the halter, through the ring at the lower end of the halter, under their jowl and snap it onto the metal ring on the left side of the halter. In order to do this you will need a chain shank that has a very long chain on it. You may have to special order shanks of this type.
For me, I feel I have more control of the horses head and a horse will follow its head. If a horse tries to overpower you and take off and you can bring his or her head around towards you very quickly, that horse usually cannot follow through as they will need to follow their head. These instances occur mostly with racing horses.
Chain shanks can be very harsh on some horses. Be very careful if you need to use this on a young horse or any horse that is not use to the chain over their nose. This is a very sensitive area on their face and should be treated that way. Never tie a horse with a chain shank over their nose, this could be a disaster. Chain shanks are for leading horses only. Halters and shanks go together. Sometimes it seems like a waste of time if you are only going a short distance but try to stay in the habit. Horses are creatures of habit and horseman should follow their lead.