Head Position Matters

John Lyons shows you how to cue your horse to put his head anywhere you want so that you can choose the best head position for your horse and the job he has to do.
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John Lyons shows you how to cue your horse to put his head anywhere you want so that you can choose the best head position for your horse and the job he has to do.
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Few things are as frustrating as trying to reason with a horse whose head is up in the air. It's like trying to get a word in edgewise on "Crossfire." Nobody's listening.

The problem goes beyond aggravating to unsafe when he's acting goofy - and not letting you call the shots, either. There's no steering, slowing or stopping.

When a horse's head is "high," it's as if his brain is experiencing a certain type of static. If the horse could talk, it seems the only word he'd say is "no." But when he drops his head into what we'd consider a normal position, he calms down. In fact, we call the "head down" cue the "calm down" cue for that reason.

Head Carriage Help

  • Horses usually have to be taught good head position.
  • Consider whether a horse's head is too high because he's compensating for pain.
  • Rule out lameness or back pain.
  • Check for bit and saddle fit.
  • Teach the head down cue either from the ground or the saddle.
  • Leave the horse alone when he's doing what you want.

Horses have head-position problems for many reasons, but solving the training element usually comes back to one simple exercise. Let's look at the range of problems, and then we can discuss the fixes.

Problems
Pain:
If a bit hurts a horse's mouth, the horse is going to try to evade any bit action. Bit comfort may be a matter of the size or shape of the bit, or it may have to do with the condition of a horse's mouth. If a horse is having tooth problems, for instance, no bit is going to be comfortable for him.

We'll walk you through the training steps, but if your horse doesn't respond to the training, check your bit to be sure it's smooth and not hurting him. Also, have your vet check his mouth and teeth.

Observe how the horse does with the bit when he's just standing there not being ridden. Is he quiet, or do you see signs of discomfort? If it's the latter, then training isn't going to solve the problem.

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Then there's lameness. Quite often a horse who's uncomfortable will raise his head, just as you'd stiffen your neck if you were walking with a twisted knee or other pain. Occasionally, a horse with a lower-than-normal head position is dealing with foot pain. He may not appear lame because the pain is often in both front feet.

One way to observe how the horse carries himself and the bit is to turn the horse out, wearing the bridle, in a small corral. Watch carefully as you move the horse around, including making turns. Loose turnout in a small ring is preferable to lungeing because the horse is likely to raise his head or change his balance in response to the line.

Back pain can also affect how a horse carries his head. Sore feet or hocks often show up as if the horse has a backache. The horse can also have a sore back because of a pulled muscle or an ill-fitting saddle. Sometimes a saddle appears to fit correctly when it's just sitting on the horse's back. But when it's cinched up, the rider's weight is added to it and the horse moves, the fit may be different.

You might borrow a different saddle (don't just pad up the one you have) and see if that solves the horse's problem. If not, talk with your vet about other possible causes of pain.

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Habit: Some horses are in the habit of carrying their heads in awkward positions. They may have learned to do that when they were dealing with a physical problem or perhaps in response to a particular rider's style. Maybe they were never taught how to best carry a rider. Regardless, the habit can be changed with training. But realize that, like most habits, it will take work to replace the old habit with a new one.

When you change a horse's head position, the rest of his body changes, too. When a horse carries his head too high, he is probably bracing his back (sometimes referred to as being inverted), and often his hind feet stay behind him, pushing him forward. When the horse is in good position, he rounds his back, and that allows his hind feet to step farther under him and carry, more than push, him forward.

As you can imagine, though, making a big postural change is hard on muscles, even if it's from a bad position to a better one. When the back muscles start to hurt, guess what the horse is going to do? Raise his head. So when you work with your horse to change his habit, keep in mind that his muscles will protest, and keep your work sessions short at first.

No Head Restraints

Many people are tempted to use tie-downs or draw reins to hold a horse's head in position. We don't recommend that, for various reasons. It's far better to train the horse - to be able to tell him what you want and have him do it.

Horses also learn to depend on those aids for their balance. The moment the restraint is removed, they have to raise their heads again. And while wearing the restraint, even though their heads may be down physically, mentally they're up. That means their muscles aren't carrying, but are bracing.

Beyond that, tie-downs often give riders a false sense of security, giving them the illusion of control where there is little or none.

Excitement or Fear: When a horse is on alert or excited, he's going to raise his head. That's natural. But you don't want him to be so scared or excited that he can't think straight. Aside from control problems, he's much more likely to injure himself or to be uncoordinated and hit one foot into another. He'll be much bouncier to ride and much more likely to have a big spook reaction.

So you'll want to develop a cue to tell him to "calm down." That's a simple matter of training, as we'll describe below.

Ignorance: Just as people aren't born knowing how to read, horses aren't born knowing in what position to hold their heads when carrying a rider. And just as you can't scold someone who was never taught to read, you can't legitimately scold your horse for not holding his head where you want it. Fortunately, training head position is a lot less complicated than teaching reading.

Good Head Position
Before figuring out how to solve a problem, we have to determine the behavior we want. Different sports require the horse to carry his head in different positions. That's because the horse uses his head and neck for balance for the various jobs.

We want the horse's head at a height where he can comfortably carry a rider and navigate the terrain. He has to be able to see where he's going, and to balance his load. Depending on the job he has to do, he may need more or less adjustability. For instance a jumper or packhorse requires more up-and-down use of his neck than a Western pleasure horse.

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We'll work on training the elevation in this lesson. Once you've taught the cue, you can adjust the height easily.

We also want the horse to carry his head evenly, with both ears about the same distance from the ground. We don't want the horse's head tipped to one side or the other. Frequent changes of direction with a complete release of the rein will take care of this automatically on most horses, unless there's a bit or mouth problem.

Then whether the horse's nose is poked out or his chin is tucked back toward his chest is a matter for you to decide according to the horse's conformation and his job. Generally speaking, most horses benefit from having some collection. That way, they can stretch out as need be, but they have better carrying ability. (The article "Developing Rein Control" in the May 2005 issue will be a big help with this.)

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Give Down
Using a simple snaffle bit, we're going to "talk" to one side of the horse's mouth at a time, conditioning it to respond to the rein on that side. Once you've taught each rein separately, you can mix and match according to the level of control you need. For now, we're going to concentrate on teaching the horse to "give" - the word we use for "respond to" - the rein.

In order to do that, you have to consciously stop thinking about the rein mechanically and start thinking about it as a communication tool. Begin this lesson in an area where you don't have to steer much, and without too many distractions. With the horse walking forward, look at the tip of the horse's ear. Notice how high it is - as if you were going to measure it against a doorpost, the way people do as their kids' age.

Now slide your left hand down the left rein until it's about 6 to 8 inches in front of the saddle. Grasp the rein and bring it back to your saddle, taking the slack out of the rein as you do. Hold it against your saddle, and focus on the tip of the horse's ear.

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The horse will likely bring his head to the left, which is fine. As he does that, the horse's head will drop about a half-inch. When that happens, let go of the rein (as in open your fingers and let it go). You can immediately pick up the rein again, but that generous release is important for letting the horse know he did what you wanted.

Pick up the left rein again, and again hold steady tension on it until the horse drops his head a little bit. (It's easiest to see the head drop by focusing on the ear.) As soon as the horse drops his head, release the rein.

Your horse might not turn his head to the side or drop it right away. Instead, he'll wonder why you have that rein and how he can get it back from you. So he may pull his head to the right. He might raise his head or try to yank the rein out of your hand.

Activate Your Horse's Caller ID


If you think of the rein as a communication tool, you'll find that your training will make a giant leap forward.

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Here's where remembering that the rein is a communication tool pays off. If you think in mechanical terms, the rein pulls the horse's head in just a particular way or you have to hold your hands in a special position. But if you think of the rein like you might a phone, it doesn't matter what room the phone's in when it rings - you recognize the ring and pick it up. The horse doesn't care if your hands are up or down, if you're on the ground or in the saddle. When you pick up the rein, his phone rings. His special sense of observation and memory for patterns allow him to discern what you want.

The horse learns to recognize the subtleties that accompany your wanting his head up that are different from wanting it down - or moving his hip or anything else we're going to eventually tell him with the same rein. It's easier for him if you do not exaggerate any body or leg cues - just be yourself.

In order to get the most from this lesson, you may have to consciously remove the mechanical model from your mind, and replace it with the telephone analogy. It might help you to imagine that as you begin to take slack out of the rein, you're ringing your horse's phone. As soon as the phone rings, his "caller ID" tells him what you want him to do. The rein is like the phone that carries the message. The rein isn't the message. The rider is. Just keep your mind on what you want the horse to do, and release as soon as you think he's on the right track, and you'll see it works.

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Keep your cool and try not to release or let him move your hand until you see that ear drop just a little bit. Then release generously. After about 10 times on the left, then do the same thing with the right rein.

At first, you're not going to know when to release the rein. If you think the head dropped a bit, release. You're going to repeat this enough that the horse will figure out the pattern, so releasing a few times too early won't hurt. But holding too long may prolong the training. If he eliminates dropping his head as the option that won him the release, he may have to try lots of other options until he tries the head drop again. Err on the side of generosity.

Ask him to drop his head, then leave the reins alone until the horse raises his head again. You can work with him at the walk or the trot with this lesson, but begin at the walk until you've figured out how to coordinate everything. Continue using one rein to ask the horse to drop his head, until you can put his head down by his knees.

Give Up
Obviously, you're not going to ride your horse with his nose by his knees, but you should work with the exercise enough that you can put it there. When the horse is excited, the same cue that dropped his head to his knees in practice will drop his head about two inches. But then you can ask for another two inches, and another two and so forth until you have the horse under good control.

What if your horse naturally holds his head too low? Or maybe he thinks that he's supposed to carry it low, now that you've worked through this lesson? Use the same system to tell him to raise it.

Since you didn't pull the horse's head down, you're not going to pull it up. Hold light tension on one rein and think about your horse raising his head. He'll probably give down first. When you don't release, he'll wonder what you want and he'll try other options. One of them will be to raise his head. When he does, release the rein. You've just taught him to "give up." It will seem like the same cue to you as "give down," but the horse will recognize the subtle difference in you as you give the cue.

That said, the horse will be confused at first, but that's OK. Because you release the rein each time, he won't get too frustrated, and any confusion will resolve itself in a few minutes, if you stay consistent. He'll know there's a solution nearby, and he'll be motivated to find it. PH*