Our field trial includes half a dozen devices that will help you, as is commonly said, ?set the horse's head.? But this phrase, often used by riders and in the sales pitch for a few of these products, is a misnomer. It suggests that a horse can be induced to automatically carry his head in a certain position, no matter what, just as if you can be forced to carry your left arm over your head, regardless of what the rest of your body is doing.
Proper head position, and the round frame that should accompany it, is the product of strength and suppleness that result from the conditioning developed by regular, progressive work over a period of time. it's that simple ? and that hard. These devices shouldn?t be seen as a shortcut.
You have to train a horse to accept and work with your aids, but it's a progressive, sometimes painfully slow process, depending on the horse's temperament, previous experiences and conformation. With some horses it's easier than with others, but it doesn't happen magically or overnight.
Devices like we're using in this article are just a few of the artificial aids available to help you teach a horse to use his hindquarters and back, to be soft in his jaw while he does that, and to immediately accept your commands to speed up, slow down, turn or jump.
Devices like the chambon, de Gogue, Humane Headsetter or Neck Stretcher can help a young horse or an older horse understand how you're asking him to carry himself, and they can help you build the strength and suppleness he needs to do that. They can certainly help you break through a stone wall of understanding for him.
Some can also help you achieve that magical feeling ? when the horse is truly forward and balanced and answers your correctly given aids with just the slightest cue from you.
But these devices, especially the ones you ride with (draw reins or Neck Stretcher), can be ?like a razor in the hands of a monkey.? If they?re overused or used without sufficient forward energy, they can make a horse permanently overbent, sore or mentally sour. Each of these devices has its proper use, but you must be able to ride well enough or longe a horse correctly to use these products properly.
You must also have the knowledge of equine biomechanics to be able to tell when a horse is merely, and uselessly, in a headset (that is, his head is being held in a position regardless of what the rest of his body is doing) and when he is truly working through his body and over his back. Without that ability and knowledge, most of these items should not be used, especially without the supervision of someone who does know how.
For further advice on longeing and conditioning, see our articles in the January 2011 and May 2010 issues.
A Product You Should Have.
With its 12 D-rings for attaching training devices, a training surcingle is much more useful for teaching a horse on the longe line than a saddle, and the Dover Training Surcingle is an excellent product. We've had one for well more than a decade and found it extremely durable, and it's a great value at $44.90.
The D-rings on the Dover Training Surcingle are perfectly suited to accommodate the Humane Headsetter, made by Schutz Brothers, which can be used in four positions. We?d never previously seen this device, which is marketed primarily to a Western audience, but we found it quite effective, and comfortable, in inducing young and old horses to work in a round frame.
it's a relatively simple device ? six swivel snaps and four buckles attached to some leather and some nylon cord, joined by a u-shaped, heavyweight piece of flexible rubber. it's easy to attach and adjust, and, because of its elasticity, probably the least likely of these products to be misused. Schutz Brothers tout in their marketing that the ?horse doesn't feel trapped,? and that's true. It encourages the horse to go forward and into a flexible contact.
The only thing we didn't care for about this device is the name, which suggests there is an ?inhumane headsetter,? something we?d rather not see. Plus, it isn?t all about the head. We know that the Western world is more concerned about ?head set? than about the impulsion that's critical to dressage-related sports, but that doesn't mean that this device doesn't work for all kinds of horses.
At $85.95, it's more expensive than others, but we used it on seven different horses, and they all went well and happily in it. We used it on two young horses who?d never worn a training device, and each accepted it as easily as the older horses.
The Dover Side Reins act in a similar way, and they can also be attached to several of the D-rings on the Dover Training Surcingle. But any side reins have a more rigid impact on the horse's mouth than the Headsetter, even elastic side reins like these. We found they don't follow the horse's head like the Headsetter does, and some horses, especially youngsters, will react violently when side reins are attached to their bit.
We have long had a set of the Dover Side Reins, but we prefer sliding side reins that attach in a V shape to two D-rings on each side, allowing for a less single-pointed contact.
The Neck Stretcher is inexpensive ($19.95), multi-use and highly adjustable device. You can ride with it, or you can longe with it. it's basically just an elastic cord with two swivel straps that attach to the training surcingle or the girth, run through the bit loops, and fit over the horse's head.
The only real drawback to riding with the Neck Stretcher is that you can't really give your horse a break from work with it, unless you can reach up to the poll and loosen and tighten the tension, or unless you want to get on and off. it's flexible enough, though, that most horses figure out how to stretch in it when you give them a walk break.
Another slight drawback to this simple design is that the loop on top of poll, which forms when you shorten it to increase the tension, can become six to 12 inches or more long. Having that loop bouncing around on top of their head really bothers some horses, especially if they?re sensitive about their ears. You can tuck it into the browband instead, but some horses won?t like that any better.
Like the Humane Headsetter, the Neck Stretcher is a multi-adjustable device in which most horses do not feel trapped. it's less expensive, and you can both ride and longe the horse with it.
The de Gogue and the chambon do essentially the same thing, but with a different accent. There are several varieties and brands of these two devices, and choosing between them is like choosing between ranch or Italian dressing for your salad.
Each has two nylon cords that ascend from between the front legs and slide through a ring of some type on each end of a leather or synthetic piece attached to the bridle?s crownpiece. The chambon then snaps on to the top of the bit ring, while the de Gogue runs through the bit to attach to two straps like a running martingale.
Each can be very effective in teaching horses use their back and topline. The chambon specifically teaches them to stretch their necks and become round, without encouraging them to tip their nose behind the vertical (a distinct possibility with other devices), and that's the main reason we like these two tools. The de Gogue tends to control the nose a bit more, which can be important for certain horses, but for a green horse the chambon is a better choice.
Neither of these devices is as easily adjustable as sidereins, the Neck Stretcher or the Headsetter, because the nylon cord has to be able to slide through the bit rings. Finding the right length tak
es some experimentation and time, as the action on the poll causes some horses to accept it immediately and others to work cleverly to avoid it.
We know that some people do ride with either a chambon or a de Gogue, but we don't recommend it. Riding with these devices is dangerous because of the possibility of a horse panicking and hurting himself or you. Some horses object violently to the poll pressure these exert and will rear, even flipping over.
Then, if they get loose, they?re galloping around with straps running through the bit. Most horses, though, react positively to the poll pressure, especially if introduced gradually. They?re perfectly designed for longeing and should be used that way.
If you?ve never used a chambon or de Gogue, enlist the help of someone experienced with them the first time you use one.
Make sure it's adjusted loosely to start and that your horse immediately obeys your command to go forward on the longe. Should the horse object, the only answer is to send him forward.
The full-sized Shires Equestrian de Gogue Training Martingale that we used seemed sized for elephants. We punched all the holes we could in the leather straps to get it to fit two 17.2-hand draft-crosses, and we had to tie one or two knots in both nylon cords for it to be useful on any other horse. Get the cob size, perhaps even the pony size.
Draw reins are much more preferable to the two previous devices for riding. Draw reins allow you to increase or decrease the tension instantly, and rarely do horses object violently to the downward pressure they exert on the bit. They can be attached on the girth between the front legs or underneath your legs, depending on the result you're trying to achieve.
The Joseph Sterling Pro Series Draw Reins, by Schneiders Saddlery, are made of leather attached to two nylon cords that slide easily through the bit. They?re made with top-quality leather and stitching ? we used them regularly for almost a year, and they look almost as good as when they came. You can find draw reins for less than $89.95, but we?d bet they won?t be as well-made as these.
The only drawback to the Joseph Sterling Pro Series Draw Reins is that they?re very long and come in only one size, so the voluminous bight on small horses can be annoying.
Draw reins are potentially the most dangerous of these devices from a training standpoint, because you can, intentionally or unintentionally, make them really, really short, forcing the horse to flex his neck at the third vertebra (instead of properly, at the poll) and, literally, put his chin on his chest. The negative effects of this position have been widely discussed in the last few years.
You can also become so enraptured with being able to keep your horse's head down that you forget to ride him forward to develop the strength correct impulsion requires. Instead, you create a horse with a short neck who?s behind your leg and not going anywhere. Draw reins require a soft hand, an active leg and seat.
But, unlike the Neck Stretcher or the chambon/de Gogue, you can easily lengthen them and let the horse stretch during training.
Each of the devices in our chart is useful, well-made and reasonably priced, and each one has proper uses, so we're not going to choose a favorite here. If used correctly and conservatively, each of these can help you and your horse leap over the hurdle to being on the aids.