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.