Head Down Cue

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Check Your Horse’s Mouth and the Bit
When you are having problems with a horse raising his head, the first thing to check is his mouth. Have your veterinarian examine his mouth to make sure there are no sharp teeth, other dental problems or tongue scaring that could be contributing to the problem. You always have to rule out a physical problem before addressing a training issue.

The second thing to do is to consider the bit you are using. With all evasive techniques (throwing the head, rooting, above and behind the bit, opening the mouth, putting the tongue over the bit, mouth gaping, etc.), the horse is trying to get a relief from the pressure on his tongue. If you are using a straight snaffle, which creates the greatest amount of tongue pressure, he may do better in another bit. You can learn more about how horses evade bit pressure and how bits can be designed to help your horse relax instead of tense at http://juliegoodnight.com/myler. It’s difficult to teach your horse to lower his head unless he can relax and swallow when his head is down.

Teach the Head Down Cue
Once you have ruled out mouth problems and made sure your horse is in the right bit, you can retrain your horse to drop his head when he feels pressure instead of throwing it up. What you want to do is make the horse uncomfortable when his head is up (by increasing bit pressure) and make him comfortable when his head is down (by releasing the pressure).

From the ground: I teach this concept of “seeking out the slack” from the very beginning of training, before we even mount the horse for the first time. When “bitting out” a horse, first I want the horse to just get used to the mild snaffle in his mouth, with no pressure applied to the bit. This may take days or weeks; the horse determines the time frame. Then we will put the horse in an elbow-pull (The Goodnight Bitting System available at http://shop.juliegoodnight.com) to teach him that when he gives to bit pressure, the pressure goes away. The elbow-pull is rigged from a 15-20 cord (I use leather); put the middle of the cord over his poll, run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs (behind the elbow) then fasten it to the saddle. It should be adjusted so that when the horse is standing square in a relaxed frame, there is no pressure on his mouth. The pressure will come when the horse walks and his elbow will cause an alternating pull (R-L-R-L) on his mouth.

The beauty of this device is threefold. One, it is self-correcting meaning that the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins) and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back. When he feels the same pressure, he’ll know to lower his head and seek the slack in the reins.

From the saddle: Keep in mind that all your horse wants is a release of pressure. Once you’re in the saddle, you need to create an association in his mind that when he puts his head down, he gets the release. As with all things in training, how good your timing is will determine how quickly your horse can learn this. As soon as his head comes up, you will pick up on the reins to increase the pressure on his mouth and the instant his head begins to drop, you’ll drop your hands clear down to his neck (making sure to touch his neck with your knuckles to give him reassurance).

As you walk, you’ll feel your hips moving in a side-to-side action which causes your leg to close alternately and rhythmically (R-L-R-L) on the horse’s sides. When you want the horse to collect, you’ll first feel the rhythm in your seat and legs and then increase the rhythm in a driving fashion, then add small squeezes with your fingers, alternating R-L-R-L, using the same side hand as leg. Your seat and legs will keep the horse moving forward at the same time your hands are applying resistance to his front end with alternating pressure and causing him to shorten his frame. It is critical that the horse finds a small amount of slack when he makes the slightest effort to collect and it is also critical that you time your hands with your seat and legs. When done properly, the horse will hold himself in this frame. Remember; don’t ask him to hold it too long. You’ll want to release the horse before he becomes uncomfortable and resistant and gradually increase the time you ask him to hold the frame.

With good timing and consistency, your horse will soon learn that when you pick up the reins and increase contact, he should put his head down. Your end of the bargain is to make sure he always gets a release when he does the right thing.

This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my videos, Bit Basics and Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volume 5, Collection & Refinement. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills at my Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php.
–Julie Goodnight

Riding Skills: Collection

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie:
I’ve been riding horses approximately 40 years and yet find myself doubting my riding abilities. I do, however, still trust my instincts. I currently am riding a wonderful 10yr q-horse gelding of western pleasure show quality. He has a great mind and willingness to please. I am concerned about creating bad habits in my attempts to improve his collection. I think I intellectually understand the basics of collection but I lack confidence in my ability to apply them. I don’t want to ask more of him than what he is conformationally equipped to do, nor do I want to undo his “average” way of going. I see so many horses with head-tossing or other resistance habits that I’m always concerned that I could create that with my horse. When should a rider be content? I ride in a curb bit 90% of the time as I get better results with less asking/contact. I have experimented with snaffle bits, bitless bridles and even with just riding in a halter. I feel that with those pieces of equipment I’m always “on his mouth”. I try using leg pressure to push (he doesn’t have a lot of natural impulsion) him forward & at the same time take contact on his mouth to hold him in a frame. We have brief moments of success. He tends to travel heavy on his forehand (q-horse fashion) and not be as light as I would like. Should I train/school him in something other than the curb bit which is what I have to show him in? I feel I have fairly good hands and am very aware of the function of the curb. I feel I am constantly “babysitting” him and constantly reminding him to collect or drop his head. He doesn’t want to keep in a frame for as long as I would like. I’m not looking for the “nose on the ground” traveling horse. I’m so glad to see the western pleasure horses now allowed to travel more naturally. I feel my horse has the potential do better once I’m confident that I have the ability to ask it of him.

My riding club has just recently booked a clinic with you in June ’05 and thought that by contacting you in advance, I would be better prepared. I am so excited, as is our entire club members, to meet and learn from you.

Linda Gadwah

Answer: Linda,

I can tell by your questions that you are a knowledgeable, skilled and sensitive rider with the best interest of your horse in mind. From what I read in your question, you will not have a problem trashing your horse; you are too kind, observant and objective to let that happen. It is natural to doubt yourself at times, everyone does. It is human behavior. I have learned to “ride out” my periods of self doubt, knowing that eventually I will find some validation that makes me realize my self-doubt was unfounded.

As for your horse, a few thoughts come to mind as I read your question. First, you cannot make a horse into something he’s not. In other words, you cannot make a square peg fit into a round hole. If he is built downhill and is a naturally slow mover, it will be difficult to make him into a forward moving, collected horse. Just the same way you could not take a football player and turn him into a ballet dancer (I think they tried that a few years ago with laughable results). You can certainly teach the horse to move off your leg better and you can do collected work with him, you’ll just have to keep in mind that this is not his forte. In the same regard, not all horses are cut out for WP either. It would be difficult to take a forward horse with an upright frame and ask him to move the way we expect a WP horse to do. So be happy that your horse is talented on one area and while I think you should continue working to improve his way of going, don’t expect the world of him. By asking horses for something that they are incapable of giving, we end up with resistance and frustration on the part of the horse.

In our training barn, whether we are training a horse English or Western, WP or reining, hunt seat or Dressage, we expect them all to work on a loose rein and on direct contact, in a low-level frame or in a collected frame in various times during their daily workout. It sounds like you are getting some collection from your horse in short stretches, which is fine. When I am asking for collection from a horse, I start with just a few strides; when I feel him relax into the frame, I release him. Remember the old axiom, “All of training occurs in transitions.” It is in the asking and the horse’s compliance that the training occurs. By asking then releasing, you can reward the horse for his responsiveness and gradually build up the amount of time that you ask the horse to hold the frame.

Working in a collected frame is MUCH more difficult for the horse, particularly for one that is not especially well built for it. It takes time to condition the neck, back and abdominal muscles that the horse needs to use to elevate his back and bring his hind end up underneath him. Asking him to hold short stretches repeatedly will help him condition for collected work. A lot of the time when you see horses throwing up their heads and hollowing out, it is simply because their neck and back muscles hurt.

Another concept that I think is very important is to teach the horse to seek out the slack in the rein. From day one, we teach the horse that when he gives to the bit, he will find slack in the rein. Whether the horse is giving laterally (to the side) or vertically (bringing his nose into his chest) you should relax the reins as soon as the horse makes an effort. Again, this will reward the horse for his efforts (all any horse wants is less pressure on his mouth) and will teach him self-carriage.

I am not a big believer is holding a horse in a frame. I believe if you are light and responsive to your horse’s efforts, you can teach him to carry himself in whatever frame you ask of him. This may sound like a simple concept, but I have found that most riders have difficulty with the release. When a rider picks up the reins and asks the horse to give, most riders will continue to apply pressure to the reins even after the horse gives. I think this is in an effort to maintain direct contact, but it is typically done without feel. Therefore the horse gives in some small way but if he does not find a release, he does not know that he has done the right thing. The horse is searching for a way out of the pressure on his mouth. By and large, horses will gladly hold whatever frame you want if they know that in doing so, you will release the pressure on his mouth.
We teach this concept of “seeking out the slack” from the very beginning of training, before we even mount the horse for the first time.

When “bitting out” a horse, first I want the horse to just get used to the mild snaffle in his mouth, with no pressure applied to the bit. This may take days or weeks; the horse determines the time frame. Then we will put the horse in an elbow-pull bitting rig to teach him that when he gives to bit pressure, the pressure goes away. The elbow-pull is rigged from a 15-20 cord (I use leather); put the middle of the cord over his poll, run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs (behind the elbow) then fasten it to the saddle. It should be adjusted so that when the horse is standing square in a relaxed frame, there is no pressure on his mouth. The pressure will come when the horse walks and his elbow will cause an alternating pull (R-L-R-L) on his mouth.

The beauty of this device is threefold. One, it is self-correcting meaning that the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins) and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back.

As you walk, you’ll feel your hips moving in a side to side action which causes your leg to close alternately and rhythmically (R-L-R-L) on the horse’s sides. When you want the horse to collect, you’ll first feel the rhythm in your seat and legs and then increase the rhythm in a driving fashion, then add small squeezes with your fingers, alternating R-L-R-L, using the same side hand as leg. Your seat and legs will keep the horse moving forward at the same time your hands are applying resistance to his front end with alternating pressure and causing him to shorten his frame. It is critical that the horse finds a small amount of slack when he makes the slightest effort to collect and it is also critical that you time your hands with your seat and legs. When done properly, the horse will hold himself in this frame. Remember; don’t ask him to hold it too long. You’ll want to release the horse before he becomes uncomfortable and resistant and gradually increase the time you ask him to hold the frame.
I am not sure how effective it is to teach this stuff by the written word over the Internet. But I can promise you that we will work on this in clinics, when I have the opportunity to explain, demonstrate and coach you through it. I look forward to meeting you and your horse at that time!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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