Getting your horse to drop his head gives him a serene, quiet place to be.
Getting your horse to drop his head gives him a serene, quiet place to be.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem, since I didn’t find that our instructor found the right thing to do. Instead of finding an answer, he did what a program told him to do.
I have a friend whose horse is a 16-year-old QH gelding and a former roping horse. He still has some trust issues in my opinion and he’s very brace-y when he gets upset. He will lope with her riding him, but he tends to have this “I’m running away from you” lope. He has a hard time in the corners and on a circle, but he will lope. I noticed that she tends to brace in her knees and ankles and that she has her ankles to far forward which of course doesn’t help the horse to lope confidently…
Now, when she tries to lope him on the ground with the 22-foot line, he starts his race trot and carries his head as high as he can and he simply will NOT lope. They were working with him the other day (together with the instructor) for about 40 minutes and all they got was maybe a quarter circle at best at a lope. Her horse was soaking wet and I really didn’t see any real success.
Here’s what they tried: Trot the horse towards the fence and then put pressure on when he leaves the fence. Did NOT work at all! He just ran at a faster trot. Then they tried to bring the horse closer, “reel” him in, lift line, step out, swing and touch hard on his shoulder if he didn’t leave. The horse would make a few jumps and then would race around at a trot, so immediately bring him in again and start the whole thing over etc.
WHAT I SAW:
The horse obviously “shut down” and did not respond anymore besides “running at a trot for his life” (in his opinion anyway). I think his previous owner/s literally beat the crap out of him. It looks to me as if he was abused mentally and probably physically and he somehow learned to live with it by shutting down. I believe that in this state he’s absolutely UNABLE to learn. He braces and tightens up and it makes it even harder for him to get into a lope. I have to add that I’ve been watching the owner for a few months now. I don’t want to say that she easily gives up; she rather thinks she has to live with his antics and makes excuses for him. This of course doesn’t help to turn her horse around. I find that the horse is a mix out of fear and bully, which seems to me especially difficult.
I would really appreciate your input. The owner was heart broken, the horse looked like it’s going to have a heart attack any minute and I really don’t think anything got accomplished! I tried to put myself in her situation and I’m sure I would have told the instructor to stop. At one point he actually got a decent lope off with a few additional steps but he missed the release and felt that he had to “stop on a good note”.
Looking for the Answer
You have made some very astute observations with this horse. When a horse shuts-down mentally, he is no longer thinking about his situation and looking for the right answer that will get him the release. Some horses shut down more easily than others. There are many team-roping horses out there with trust issues and a lot of baggage from the high-stress work that they do and the sometimes harsh and heavy pressure put on them. These horses respond well to slow, quiet and clear handling and do not do well with pushing them beyond the boiling point. A team roping horse that has not been trained and worked in a balanced fashion (schooling on fundamentals of bending, turning, collection) and is only blown out of the box, running hell-bent for leather, only taking the left lead and only turning left when it reaches the steer, doesn’t really know how to do anything else. In some instances, the horse has had so much physical pressure put on his mouth and sides and so much mental stress on him waiting in the box and blowing out after the steer, that he has a total melt down when asked to perform. These horses can have a lot of baggage. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are many excellent rope horse trainers that school their horses more holistically.
When the rider braces any part of her body, especially the knees and ankles, the horse will always become stiffer, hollowed out in the back and more anxious. The reason why is that the rider is no longer absorbing the motion of the horse’s movement and instead is opposing the motion and bouncing on the horse’s back and bracing on his mouth. Bracing or stiffening joints causes the riders legs and hands to become jerky. The increased pressure causes the horse to tense; at the same time the rider is sending a message of tension through her body to the horse (you have to tense muscles and lock joints to brace). Horses will learn that when the rider tenses and braces, that pain in the mouth and back will follow. A horse’s natural response to discomfort is to run away from it, so these horses will generally speed up in a effort to run away from the discomfort. Unfortunately, that will generally cause the rider to brace even more and the downward spiral spins out of control.
In clinics when I am teaching groundwork, I am constantly telling people to move slowly and progressively and never give the horse the sense that you are chasing him. You always want him to be thinking for a way out of his problem, the problem being the mental or physical pressure that you put on him when you ask him to do something. If the pressure (either mental or physical) becomes too much for the horse, his mind shuts down and he kicks into his survival/flight (or fight) mode. From this point, you have very little to gain and much to lose.
In the situation you are describing, it sounds to me like damage was done to this horse and certainly there was no positive benefit from the training session. Perhaps there would have been if the person had capitalized on the horse finally doing the right thing by removing all pressure and leaving the horse alone for a while.
It is an old-school of thought but one in which I believe very strongly: whenever you have trouble with a horse getting something (which probably means you are not a very effective teacher to your horse) always return to something more fundamental so that your horse can find some success and be in a better frame of mind.
There is a dilemma because once you have asked a horse to do something, if you don’t reinforce your request and follow-through; you have trained the horse to ignore you. However, if you are not as effective in teaching your horse or communicating with him and you keep asking something incomprehensible to him over and over again, and putting more and more pressure on him until his mind shuts down, you have taught the horse to be frightened and reactive to you, but he hasn’t learned the skill you were hoping for. Knowing when to push and when to back off a horse is a pre-requisite for being a good horse trainer.
There is no one system that could ever account for all the variances and intricacies of horses. The judgment and horse sense you need to train horses comes from the experience and wisdom gained from working with many, many different horses.
Timing is another essential skill needed to train a horse effortlessly. Although you hear a lot about repetition in training horses, if your timing is good you’ll need little, if any repetitions to train a horse a new skill. It is hard enough to teach people the physical skills they need to work horses from the ground or from the saddle, but to teach them timing is really difficult. Getting people to understand that to the horse, it is all about the release- of both mental and physical pressure. I’ll bet that with this exact scenario, if they had just stopped the horse and let him chill out for a few minutes here and there during the session when the horse made some kind of effort in the right direction, he may have made some progress toward the goal.
Of all the training systems, programs and techniques in the world, the one thing that they all have in common is that ability to give a timely and significant release to the horse and the judgment to know when to press your horse and when to back off. You only have 3 seconds with a horse to reward, release or correct, in order for him to make an association between his actions and the release/correction. It is a well-documented fact that the sooner within those three seconds the release/correction comes, the more meaningful it is to the horse. So by the time you have to think about what the horse did or what you should do to correct or reward, you are well past the optimal time period for training your horse.
Unfortunately, there are lots of horses out there like you describe, with baggage from bad handling. These horses will turn around dramatically, in the right hands with a trainer that is competent, clear, consistent and kind.
One final thought has to do with asking the horse to canter on a 22′ line. This is an awfully small circle for a horse to execute at a slow and balanced canter; it would be less than a 15-meter circle. There are some articles in the Training Library on my website that detail my opinion of cantering a horse (unmounted) in a round pen, which is closer to a 20 meter circle. For most young horses and for all un-athletic horses, this is very difficult, even when they are at liberty. A much smaller circle and the interference from the human on the other end of the rope make it hard for the most athletic of horses to canter, especially if they are untrained. In my experience, you are more likely to cause balance problems with the horse or problems with its purity of gait by working at the lope on a line or in the round pen.
I hate to pass judgment on a person when I have not personally witnessed the event, however, since I have known you for some time and know that you are an astute student of horsemanship, I am taking your descriptions of the event at face value, and it does not seem like the horse left the training session a better trained horse.
I have known Joe to roll for years and always warn riders if he puts his nose down and smells the ground get the nose up and move him or he will roll. He has rolled with riders on his back in sand and in deep fresh snow. This past spring we trailered with our horses to a favorite riding trail. The day was glorious and I was enjoying myself so much I forgot my own advice. My daughter who often rides in front of me in Joe’s saddle had grown taller so I didn’t see his nose go down. He dropped quickly to start his roll and in my effort to get him up, I reached over and pushed off from the earth bank. It worked and got him up before rolling but my arm no longer works—it broke in 4 places. It has been 7 weeks and I can almost buckle his halter again. When stronger I’d like to know what to do to break this? His only bad habit–I love this horse!
Roll No More
Roll No More,
First of all, let me address the issue of riding double with a small child in front of you. Don’t do it. It is highly dangerous to the child and this case is a perfect example of why. First, you do not have adequate control of the horse so things are more likely to go wrong. Secondly, if you or the horse falls, chances are you will fall on top of the child and could potentially crush him/her.
As for the rolling horse, this, of course, is a perfectly natural behavior and horses are basically impulsive animals, unless trained to ignore their impulses. Ideally, the first time a horse drops and rolls, he should receive a punishment (a spanking followed immediately by hard work), making it abundantly clear to the horse that the right thing (not rolling) is much easier than the wrong thing (rolling). Chances are if the harsh punishment is doled out the first time, the horse will never do it again.
Unfortunately, in your case, the horse has rolled repeatedly and has clearly learned that it is okay to do it. Engrained or learned behavior is not easy to undo. I would set your horse up in the situation that prompts him to roll and be prepared with a crop. As soon as he puts his nose down or buckles at the knees, Spank him with the crop, yell at him, get him moving, then work the pants off of him (lope circles). You will probably have to do this exercise repeatedly to convince the hose that rolling is not a good idea.
Whenever you set about to change a horse’s behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure that it takes to motivate the horse to change. While I surely don’t condone abuse or pain, you do need to find the amount of pressure that will motivate him to stop this dangerous behavior. You’ll need to show you’re in charge by stopping the behavior with a spank of the reins or with a crop then put him to work. For each horse, the amount of pressure needed to motivate him to look for a way out of the pressure, is different. My guess is that in this case, it will take a lot of pressure.
As you have discovered, this is a very dangerous behavior. In CHA, we talk about the “three strikes and you’re out” rule. I am not saying you should get rid of this horse because I think this is fixable, but in the meantime, he is a dangerous horse. Do not let others ride him because if he were to lie down and hurt someone, you would be VERY liable, because you negligently put them on a horse with a known dangerous behavior. Invest some time and effort in getting him fixed before you let anyone else ride him. Good luck with your healing.
Using The Goodnight Bitting System
The self-correcting bitting system I use is often called an elbow pull and it is a long harness leather cord with snaps on each end. To use the bitting tool, you place the middle of the cord over the horse’s poll and then run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs and up to the saddle. Adjust it so that when the horse is standing square and relaxed, there is no pressure on the bit. The pressure will come as the horse walks or trots; his elbow will cause a pull on that side of his mouth.
It is a self-correcting tool– meaning that when the horse does the right thing (brings his nose down and in), the pressure goes away. It teaches the horse to drop his head, bring his nose in and round his back when he feels pressure on the bit. Since the horse is coming off of the bit pressure, he is required to hold himself in the frame rather than have something to lean against like with side reins. This requires the horse to bring his hind-end up underneath him and lift his back in order to hold himself in the frame while keeping slack in the reins.
I like this training tool much better than other bit-training techniques because it gives an alternating pull on the bit, not pulling on both sides of the bit at the same time, so it keeps the horse very soft and relaxed in the neck and jaw. Also, you can mimic the action of the bitting system from the saddle, by using alternating sponge squeezes in time with the horse’s front legs. Finally, I like this system because it teaches the horse to give to the slightest rein pressure and to seek out the slack in the rein.
I think is very important is to teach the horse to seek out the slack in the rein. From day one, I 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.
Again, the beauty of this system is threefold. One, 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.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my video, Bit Basics. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills in my Training Library, JulieGoodnight.com/Academy
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.
Proper position unites the balance of horse and rider, giving the picture of a team moving as one. If I were to guess at the single most common equitation error I see, what immediately springs to mind is the rider that is braced on the stirrup.
By learning to release the heel and take weight off the stirrup, gravity will help hold you close to your horse. And anything that brings you closer to your horse is your friend. Certainly you’ve been told, at some time or another, to keep your heels down and you don’t need too much experience to realize that weighting your heels helps hold you on the horse. But few riders really know how to accomplish that seemingly simple task and fewer still understand the significance of being weighted in your heels.
Jamming your heels down won’t quite do the trick, for two reasons. First, if you force your heel down, it pushes your lower leg out in front of that all-important balanced alignment (ear-shoulder-hip-heel). Not only is your balance affected, but also you compensate by holding on with the reins, causing an immediate negative reaction from your horse. Secondly, jamming your heel down requires you to stiffen joints and muscles and to brace against the stirrups. Tension anywhere in your body, particularly the joints, makes it impossible to follow the movement of the horse and feel his rhythm. Stiffening your joints stops the flow of energy that is created by your horse’s movements and your joints are no longer able to function as shock absorbers, so instead, you pound mercilessly on your horse’s back.
To feel this for yourself, right now, just stand up and get in the position that you ride (feet a little more than shoulder width, knees bent, eyes forward). Standing balanced (ear-shoulder-hip-heel) and relaxed let your weight shift mostly into your heels. This position feels comfortable and steady. Now lift your heels up and let your weight move onto the balls of your feet. Feel your balance change as you lose the alignment and tension runs up your leg while you start gripping with your toes in a precarious perch. This is the same thing that happens in the saddle except that you compensate for the diminished balance by leaning on the reins. It is sad, but true, that horses more quickly recognize this common equitation flaw than humans.
For when a rider raises his heel and weights the stirrup, a chain reaction takes over and the rider begins to lean on the horse’s mouth for balance and pressing on the stirrup, accompanied by tension in the joints, causes the rider to bounce up and out of the saddle. But what goes up must come down, so the horse gets the double whammy by getting hit in the mouth and the back.
So now that we understand the significance of keeping the heels down, how do we do it and still maintain proper position? Instead of forcing the heel down, you need to learn to open the pelvis and lengthen the back of your leg. Go back to the standing-as-if-you-were-mounted position and find a comfortable balance. Now rotate your pelvis so that your tailbone drops toward the ground and your belly button sucks back. Notice that as your pelvis joint opens, you feel more weight in your heels. Now rotate your pelvis to the closed position (arched back) and feel your weight shift toward the balls of your feet. Herein lies the secret to lengthening your leg and letting gravity flow through your heel.
So riding with your heel down is more than just jamming your ankle into your boot. It starts with proper position, an open pelvis, relaxed joints and lengthened muscles in the back of your legs. Remember, your heel only needs to be slightly lower than your toe; too much of a good thing can be a bad thing and by forcing your heel down farther and farther, you will only ruin your alignment and balance.
Riders that are in the balanced position and properly weighted in their heels will have an open pelvis, which allows for a following seat. Picture the elegant rider who moves fluidly with the horse, in balance and rhythm with every movement This picture is made possible because gravity is our friend, and the key to gravity is through the heel.
My horse is generally great on the trails, but has one annoying habit that makes him uncomfortable to ride. Every time we head down a hill, even a small ditch crossing, he trots to the bottom like he was shot out of a cannon. This makes me uncomfortable and nervous and I feel like I have a lack of control. What can I do to make him walk down hills?
Down in the Dumps
This is an obnoxious and disobedient behavior that your horse is showing and it needs to be corrected right away. This is a bad habit that he has learned because you or someone who rides him has condoned it–and it most certainly needs correcting.
The reason why your horse prefers to trot down hills instead of walk is that he’s lazy and succumbing to the force of gravity. If you have done much hiking yourself, you already know that going down hills actually requires more muscle strength than going uphill—which stresses you aerobically more than muscle strength. If he gives into gravity and trots down the hill it’s actually easier than walking because he does not have to brake his body weight.
But when a horse trots down a hill, he lurches forward and leans into the bridle–which makes him feel heavy on the forehand and out of balance. Furthermore, if your horse breaks into a trot without a cue from you to trot, he’s disobedient and making an unauthorized decision. One unauthorized decision will always lead to another, so it’s a very bad precedence to set.
It’s also bad etiquette when riding with others to allow your horse to break into a trot when going down a hill. It will cause the other horses to want to trot and may catch a rider off guard.
To fix this bad habit, you simply need to think ahead of your horse and be prepared. As you approach the hill—small or large—shorten your reins and shift you weight back to check your horse’s speed. Let him know you are monitoring him closely. Stop him momentarily at the top and let him proceed slowly.
As you maneuver down the hill, do so in a “check and release” fashion, picking up on the reins and shifting your weight back on your seat bones, then releasing momentarily before you check again. Bring him to a complete halt with each step if necessary.
Enforce this rule each and every time you approach a hill. Horses are very good at following rules, if the rules are well-defined and consistently enforced. Be diligent about requiring your horse to walk slowly down embankments and hills and in short order, he will understand this rule and monitor his speed himself.
Your horse seems to think he’s allowed to trot when he wants to, regardless of your directives. This could be an indication that you have given your horse this opinion by not being assertive. Take a broad look at how you interact with your horse. Is he making other unauthorized decisions? Is he walking off when you mount without a cue? Is he veering from the path you have dictated to avoid a puddle or something he doesn’t want to walk through? Is he speeding up and slowing down without a cue? These are all indications that you are not being a consistent leader to your horse and they could be indications that you are eroding your authority with your horse every time you ride him.
Leadership is a very black and white issue to a horse. Either you are in charge of him or he’s in charge of you. Make sure that you exert complete control over your horse at all times and do not compromise in your authority. Once you ask a horse to do something, make sure you reinforce it. He will appreciate your authority much more and come to admire you as a worthy leader.