The horse's head and neck are arguably the most beautiful part of this wondrous creature. They're also vital to the horse's perceptions, reactions, and balance. Some people really mess with their horses' heads-in all senses of the word. But, for the moment, let's just talk about physical placement of your horse's head as you ride.
Gadgets, Fads & Shortcuts
It's past time to take a clear look at some of the odd and incorrect "tools" that are touted for improving the position of your horse's head and his responsiveness to the bit. Remember that you improve your horse's performance by using a specific formula: What's real? How far? How little? How fast? All of these tools require an objective outlook.
In his natural state, a horse knows exactly what to do with his head and neck. When we climb on top of him, he has to learn how to carry our weight and respond to our cues in a new state of balance. And he tries. We, however-interfering creatures that we are-keep putting that important head and neck in places and positions they shouldn't be. Some of those places and positions aren't particularly safe for either of us.
Training fads in the horse industry can be tricky things. The show ring regularly creates really bizarre postures that bring blue ribbons-until the fashion changes. For the rest of us, maybe we don't want to ride with our horse's ear in our mouth or his chin dragging on the ground. Gadgets and shortcuts can be really tempting, especially if someone famous pushes them.
Unfortunately, gadgets don't work. There aren't any "shortcuts" in horse training. It's easy to go too far and lose sight of what we really want to accomplish. And it's really simple to inadvertently teach our horses things we really don't want them to learn. This is what has happened to many people over the last decade in regard to bending the horse's head.
It has become quite the fad to "soften" or "supple" the horse's neck and "make him responsive to the bit" by bending his head all the way to the rider's knee while the horse stands perfectly still. But having the horse stand while his head is pulled around very clearly says to him, "Let me bend your head to my knee, but don't change what you're doing with your feet." This is not at all the message we want him to remember as we ask him to respond to a bit cue at a walk, trot, canter, or especially a dead run while heading for the highway or a cliff.
If we need a panic stop, some people tell us to bend the horse's head around until he's so unbalanced that he stops moving his feet. Then we release the rein as the "Yes, that's what I want" cue. It's okay to release the rein when the horse stops moving his feet, but the extreme overbending repeats that "Let me haul your head far to the side, but don't move your feet in response to the rein" message mentioned earlier.
Bending the horse's neck for any reason while his feet are stationary makes no sense because what we need is the exact opposite. We want our horse to change what he's doing with his feet whenever we even reach for the rein. That contact with the rein is his signal to do something different in speed or direction. This is definitely not a tool we want to make dull!
Sometimes what we're teaching is correct, but we stay with the lesson too long. This has happened to many people in regard to bending or positioning their horse's head for a particular movement, such as softening the shoulder to move the horse diagonally. It's useful for a time, but can be and often is done too much and for too long.
This sort of thing happens when you don't have a checkpoint to let you know when you and your horse have succeeded. Or maybe you find that you've been struggling for what seems like forever with no progress. In this case, you may find that there's a more productive way to reach your goals and get back on track with what you want to teach.