Issues From The Saddle: Headset For Shows

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie I have a question for you…do you have any suggestions for helping me set my horses head? She’s not too bad and I really think its a big part of me that she just cant understand me…but then last year she was being pretty good but at shows she stinks… I know she wants to look around although she does not respect my hand. Also how would you recommend for me helping my horse move out at the trot? If I ask her to move out more (I can do it ok at the walk) she just trots REALLY fast and choppy…I am hoping to get her stride just a tad longer! Only when she’s in a really good mood and no one is around I can sometimes get her to move out better. Just wondering what you think on those. I hope you can understand what I mean.

Answer: Erin,

There are several considerations for getting your horse to perform at a show at the same level that she performs at home. There is a Q&A on my website about seasoning a horse for shows. A horse, or any animal, goes through several stages of learning:

• Acquisition- horse learns to associate a cue with the behavior you are teaching him

• Fluency- horse responds correctly to the cue almost always and refinement occurs during this stage

• Generalization- horse takes a skill he has learned in one environment and comes to understand that he can perform that skill confidently in any environment (such as at a horse show)

• Maintenance- the “finished” horse will perform reliably in a variety of settings

Your horse is somewhere between stages one and two and does not yet have the training and experience to perform reliably at shows or away from home. This takes time and experience. You’ll need to haul your horse to some different arenas for schooling then to some shows for schooling (not competition) so the horse can practice in different settings.

Horses are very location specific in their training. They tend to associate a specific place with their action or behavior. That is why horses will tend to act up in the same place of the arena. To use this tendency to our advantage, when I am training a new skill to a horse, I might ask him to perform the skill in the same place in the arena for a few times. Then we’ll move on to performing in other places as we move through the stages of learning.

To get your horse to put his head in a specific place is fairly simple. Pick up one rein and lift it up until there is pressure on the horse’s mouth. Use only the amount of pressure that causes your horse to look for a way out of the pressure. The instant your horse drops his head, even a fraction of an inch, release the rein and rub him on the neck, then ask again. You must reward any effort on the part of the horse to do the right thing or move in the right direction. First the horse must learn that when you pick up a rein it means lower your head (acquisition). Once he makes this connection, hold the rein a little longer until the head comes lower, then release. Gradually increase the amount of time you hold the rein up until the head is where you want. Then whenever you want to lower the head, if you lift slightly on one rein, the horse will drop (fluency). By consistently but gently correcting his head, he will learn to keep it where you want it.

A couple of caveats: don’t ask too much of your horse. Many people showing horses are asking for extreme and unnatural headsets from the horse, which makes him sore and uncomfortable, and can actually damage the ligaments in his neck. Letting the horse drop his head straight down is not unnatural but asking it to go down and bring the nose in so that the face is behind vertical IS unnatural and I do not believe a horse should have to do that. Secondly, make sure that the horse gets a release when he does the right thing. Most people do not release the horse soon enough or often enough and that causes the horse to be resistant. Often people are so sure the horse is going to put his head up (or whatever they don’t want the horse to do) that they hold pressure on the reins trying to prevent it. This will cause a horse to lift his head and be resistant. When a horse gets constant pressure, he will almost always do the opposite of what you want. It is only if he finds a release that he is motivated to do the right thing. To get your horse to move out at the trot, you should post the trot, pushing hard with your seat each stride and bumping with both calves each time you sit. Make sure you are giving a slight release to her mouth so that she is free to move forward. Horses tend to get choppy and fast when they hollow out their backs. Therefore, you need to get her to drop her head and collect up, rounding her back and bringing her hocks up underneath her. You collect a horse by driving him forward with your seat and legs, into a resistant hand. But try to keep your hands soft and giving and make sure to release the horse slightly when you feel her round out and relax.

Good luck with your shows.

Julie Goodnight

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