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.
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.
Horse Master How To
“Heads Up” Teaching a horse to lower his head and accept the bit and bridle
By Julie Goodnight
In the Horse Master episode we named “Heads Up,” I help a horse learn that the bridling process doesn’t have to be a fearful event and teach his owner how to correct his head-butting behavior. This is a common problem—often times the horse is taught to toss his head and avoid the bit because he’s been knocked in the teeth or felt the bit being pulled from his mouth. It’s important to take your time each time you bridle and unbridle your horse so that he learns to relax and accept the bit with ease.
Read on to find out more about bridling and un-bridling your horse easily and without a fight. The show is part of a whole new series of episodes shot at my ranch. In the new shows, there’s help if your horse refuses to approach obstacles, if you’re a new rider and want help learning how to work with your new horse, if you’re horse shopping, if your horse won’t accept a bit and bridle without raising his head, and if you want help finding the proper bit for your well-trained horse. Here’s more about choosing a bit that will allow your horse to swallow and relax—helping you make precise rein cues without causing undue worry and pressure….
Bridling Without a Fight
If your horse is tossing his head or raising his head so that you can’t place the bit and bridle, it’s time for some training. I recommend using the “advance and retreat” method. First, approach your horse as if you were going through the motions of bridling–but without the bridle. Make sure your horse is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist (toss or raise his head, etc.). When you see his resistance behavior, stop and don’t go on. Hold that position quietly until he relaxes, then retreat (walk away a few steps for a moment).
Count to five and then approach again in the same way; advance and retreat repeatedly while watching for his relaxation signals. Do not try to hold his head or confine him, just advance until he resists, then hold that position. The worst thing you can do is to grab at his head or try to hold him still. That will reinforce his instinct to move away from your flighty movements. You should wait to retreat until there is some small sign of relaxation. That might just be when he stops throwing his head or it might be when he actually drops his head and takes a deep breath. Ideally, that is what you want him to do.
Your horse will learn that when he relaxes, the thing that causes him fear will go away. Then he will no longer be afraid of it. Gradually advance, but always retreat. Do not approach him with the bridle until you can rub all over his head and mouth with him relaxed. Then start all over with the bridle. This whole process could take one hour or one week. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate, this behavior probably started with an honest fear of being hurt.
The Importance of Patience When Un-bridling
Horses that throw their heads up in the air when un-bridling have learned to be fear being hit in the teeth with the bit. It may have only happened once, but getting a chunk of metal slammed into your teeth is enough to make you wince–and that’s all the horse is doing when he throws his head up in the air when you take the bridle off.
Hitting the horse in the teeth with the bit is usually done unknowingly by pulling the headstall over his ears and pulling the bit out of the horse’s mouth before he has had a chance to spit it out. It then slams into his teeth and gets stuck on his lower teeth, which hurts, so the horse throws his head up in the air, which in turn causes more pressure against his teeth, especially if the person pulls on the bridle at that time. It only has to happen once for the horse to learn to panic every time he is unbridled; then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the horse because every time he throws his head up, the bit hits his teeth.
When you unbridle a horse, you should gently pull the headstall over the ears while lifting up on it, and always hold that upward pressure (slight) until the horse lowers his head. As he drops his head, you slowly release the upward pressure and allow the horse to spit the bit out; at anytime the head comes up, lift up on the head stall again. Experienced trainers know that this is a critical process and spend whatever time it takes in the beginning to teach the horse to drop his head to spit the bit out, so he learns how to protect his teeth.
As you pull the headstall over his ears, lay your forearm on the horse’s neck behind the poll, so that if he raises his head, your hand moves with him and so that your arm is stabilized by the horse. If your arm is free-floating, you will end up jerking the bridle and bit around. Take all the time you need—always bridle and unbridle slowly. When the horse tenses at all, pause what you are doing, hold your ground (neither advancing nor retreating) and wait for the horse to relax (drop his head).
All of training is in the power and timing of the release; it cannot be overstated that the horse needs the release and it has to be instantaneously when the horse begins to respond (not once he has completely done it). In this case, you’ll only release the upward pressure on the bridle when he lowers his head; if you released the pressure while his head was up, you would be training him to raise his head. Move very slowly and wait patiently for him to lower his head and open his mouth to spit the bit out. If he is really clamped down on the bit, you can very gently jiggle the bit in his lips, but do not let it drop too low and take the chance of it hitting his teeth. Do not try and force him to open his mouth, just wait.
Proper Introductions and Training
I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com. And for more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php
Caption: help your horse achieve a low headset and look calm and collected.
Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Star Gazer: Teach your horse to lower his head
Do you have any suggestions for helping me set my horse’s head? She’s not too bad at home but at shows she raises her head and doesn’t look ideal! I know she wants to look around, but she doesn’t respect my cues to pay attention. How can I get her to keep her head low and perform the same at a show that she does at home?
Hope for a Headset
There are several considerations for getting your horse to perform at a show at the same level that she performs at home. There is an article on my website about seasoning a horse for shows that will give you a greater understanding of this training process.
A horse, or any animal for that matter (humans included), goes through four stages of learning:
1. Acquisition- horse learns to associate a cue with the behavior you are teaching him (acquires a new skill)
2. Fluency- horse responds correctly to the cue almost always and refinement occurs during this stage
3. 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)
4. Maintenance- the “finished” horse will perform reliably in a variety of settings and does not need to learn more, just maintain his skills
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 (generalization). Stages one and two happen relatively quickly; but to get a horse generalized in his training takes a lot of time and experience.
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 her to perform the skill in the same spot where I had success the time before, because I know she is thinking about it there. Then we’ll move on to performing the skill in other places as we move through the stages of learning.
You’ll need to haul your horse to some different arenas for practice in a different setting, then to some horse shows just for schooling (not competition). It can take years to truly season a horse and get him generalized in his skills. Buying a mature seasoned horse is easier and cheaper than seasoning one by yourself!
To get your horse to put her head in a specific place is fairly simple; to get her to keep her head there is a little trickier.
To teach your horse to lower her head on command, pick up one rein and lift it up until there is pressure on your horse’s mouth. Use only the amount of pressure that causes your horse to look for a way out of the pressure, which you’ll know because she will start moving her head around trying to find a release.
The instant your horse drops her head, even a fraction of an inch, release the rein and rub her on the neck, then ask again. You must reward any effort on the part of your horse to do the right thing or move in the right direction. First your horse must learn that when you pick up a rein it means to lower her head (acquisition). Once she 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, your horse will drop (fluency).
In this process your horse learns that there is a place where she can keep her head and be comfortable (no pressure on the bit) and that if her head is not in that place, she will be uncomfortable (pressure on the bit). For your horse to learn that she must keep her head there, you’ll have to be very consistent in your corrections and have excellent timing for both the release and the correction. That requires a lot of concentration and skill.
If you are having difficulty keeping your horse’s head where you want it, probably you are being inconsistent with your corrections—she doesn’t believe she’ll stay comfortable with her head in the right place and/or that she’ll be uncomfortable with it in the wrong place. Remember, if more than three seconds go by, your horse is unable to make an association between your correction/release and her actions.
One of the very first things I will teach a horse is that she must keep her nose in front of her chest at all times while I am riding her. I don’t care where we are, I will not tolerate a horse looking around—it’s not her job. I am the one in charge and I am the one monitoring the environment; her job is to go where I point her at the speed I dictate. She doesn’t get to make any decisions so she doesn’t need to look around.
Again, consistent correction will take care of this problem very quickly, if you are consistent and have good timing. I use your horse’s points of shoulder as a guideline—she must keep her nose with in those two points. Any time she crosses the line, I will bump the opposite rein until her head comes back to the middle. She can easily see more than 360° around her and still keep her nose between her shoulders. In short order, she’ll quit looking around
We train horses through negative reinforcement—we apply pressure until your horse does the right thing, then we take away the pressure as a reward. In order to influence a horse’s behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure that motivates her to change. For each horse, the amount of pressure required to motivate change is different; if your horse does not respect your hands, you may not be using enough pressure, so it’s easier to ignore your repeated requests than to put her head down.
In training, you must also consider how difficult it is for your horse to do what you are asking. If it’s an easy skill for your horse to perform, it shouldn’t take much pressure or motivation. If it’s a hard skill, it may take more. Again, this is different with every horse—not every horse is built to keep its head low and/or bring its face to vertical.
Spending some time to season your horse and give her the experience she needs to be comfortable in the show ring is a good place to start. Setting some boundaries and guidelines for her behavior and making it clear to her what she has to do to get the release, will give her a better understanding of what she is supposed to do. This will require a lot of concentration and good timing on your part.
A couple of caveats about headset for shows: don’t ask too much of your horse. Many people showing horses today are asking for extreme and unnatural headsets from your horse, which may make her sore and uncomfortable, and can actually damage the ligaments in her neck.
Letting your horse drop her head straight down is not unnatural but asking it to go down and bring the nose in (breaking at the poll) so that the face is behind vertical IS unnatural and I do not believe a horse should have to do that. However, that is what is commonly seen in the show ring in many disciplines.
Secondly, make sure that your horse gets a release when she does the right thing. Most people do not release your horse soon enough or often enough and that causes your horse to be resistant. Often people are so sure your horse is going to put her head up again (or whatever they don’t want your 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’s only if he finds a release that he is motivated to do the right thing.
Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse to perform as well at the show as she does at home. There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician