Your Horse’s Quiet Place; Teaching the head down cue

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Getting your horse to drop his head gives him a serene, quiet place to be. It’s a great horse-training technique.

From AQHA Professional Horsewoman and Certified Horsemanship Association instructor Julie Goodnight.

Your horse’s head is like a needle on a gauge – it can signify your horse’s mental state. When his head comes up in any increment, the horse is tensing; when the head lowers, he is relaxing. When the horse is poised for flight, the head is all the way up, and when he is most relaxed, his nose is all the way to the ground. Signs of relaxation in the horse are synonymous with the signs of subordinance, because once the horse accepts your authority, he can relax and doesn’t have to worry, think or make any decisions.
Dropping the nose to the ground signals a horse’s willingness to accept your authority and his desire to be allowed into your herd. When you show good leadership to your horse, you should see this gesture often, and you should learn to watch for it.

We can teach the horse to drop his nose on command, giving him the same feeling of relaxation and subordinance. This cue comes in handy especially for highly nervous or irritable horses.

The Method

    • With your horse in a rope halter, simply put two fingers on the fiador knot (below the horse’s chin) and put light pressure on the halter. The amount of pressure you apply is equal to just putting your index and middle fingers on top of the knot. Don’t try to pull the horse’s head down – just apply a tiny amount of pressure and wait for the horse to give you the correct response to get the release.
    • When the head drops in any increment, even just a fraction of an inch, release the pressure and praise him, then ask again, releasing the pressure immediately at the first sign of movement in the right direction.
    • The first 4-6 inches of head drop are the hardest to get, but if your release is immediate, your horse will quickly understand what you want. Then, you can hold the pressure a little bit longer until you get more drop. Soon, his head will plunge all the way down with the lightest pressure.
    • In the beginning of this training procedure, squat down as your horse lowers his head, praising and comforting him. But don’t kneel or sit around a horse; you should always be on your feet so you can get out of the way if things go wrong.

Leg-Sensitive Horse

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Leg-sensitive Horse
Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I have been given a 12 year old gelding that I am very much attached to and enjoy riding. The problem is that he has had some past abuse issues and under saddle he is a nervous wreck. On a trail ride, he will mainly jig the whole ride, like he wants to run. However, he is not a ‘hot’ horse by nature. It seems he has been “trained” or it seems more like abused to the point of acting this way. We have come a long way in respects to ground manners (he is now an angel when it comes to handling) and even have some progress under saddle, as he is not bolting anymore. He is highly sensitive to leg pressure (actually, he is highly sensitive to everything), to the point that I only ride with my weight because leg pressure sends him shooting off into a tizzy. However, when I am on the ground with him and I put pressure on his side with my hands (to ask him to step sideways or move over), I get zero reaction. I would like to teach him to yield to my legs and bend, eventually going into side passing and pivots. I would also like to teach him to go on the bit rather than behind it. (His old bolting habit was to go behind the bit and run.) So far, asking him with my seat and legs down into the bit has not worked. In fact, this results in a hyper, hopping mess of a nervous horse. I ride in a loose ring snaffle and I really stay off his mouth when I ride (Western horse, light to no contact). He is not very responsive to this bit and responds better to weight in respects to stopping when working in an arena. (He responds to the tiniest half-halt) On trail, I have to haul on him to stop him much of the time. I need suggestions as to what I should do next? I am continually working on relaxation under saddle using half halts. Also, how do I teach a calm-down cue under saddle?

Thanks so much for some advice!

Answer: There are quite a few questions here, but I’ll give it a crack to try and suggest some solutions to your problems. First, I should say that it sounds like you have made a lot of progress with this horse, so you should feel good about that and continue on whatever path you have been on to this point. Secondly, let me say that I learned a long time ago that it’s very difficult to make a diagnosis and recommendations on horses when I am not actually seeing your horse’s behavior. I have always found that the rider’s interpretation of what is happening and what he or she is actually doing is not always the same as what I might observe if I were there in person. But what I’ll do is answer your question in terms of what I most commonly see when people are dealing with issues such as you describe.

First, I’ll address the jigging on the trail. Most often, when your horse jigs, the rider picks up on the reins to make him stop, but then does not release the reins (or only releases minutely) the instance your horse walks. And/or the rider does not trust your horse to walk and so keeps hold of the reins and pretty soon your horse is jigging because he is anxious about his mouth because the rider is holding the reins too tight. Also, in anticipation of the jig, the rider is typically perched forward in a tense position, with her center of gravity in front of your horse and your horse associates this position with trotting. At this point, it’s a chicken or egg scenario and the rider thinks she is holding the reins tight because your horse is jigging and your horse thinks he is jigging because the rider is holding the reins too tight.

The solution that I have always had success with is to pick up high on the reins (sitting back on your pockets at the same time) when he breaks into the trot, and the instant your horse walks, drop your hands dramatically to your horse’s neck with a very loose rein, your hands actually laying on your horse’s neck so he can feel them. He may only walk a step or two before he trots again, then pick up and release dramatically (the rein drop has to be very dramatic so that your horse notices). Soon he will associate walking with a totally loose rein and that is what he wants (that is what any horse wants). Also, it really helps to concentrate on the walk rhythm and really sit down on him hard and make sure you’re not tensing in your seat in anticipation of your horse breaking into trot. Often in this situation, people tense in their seat thinking that your horse is going to break into trot and pretty soon, your horse thinks he is supposed to be trotting because he feels the rider’s weight shifting forward. So make sure you’re sitting well back on your seat bones with loose and relaxed joints. Trust your horse to walk on a loose rein. If you feel him tense up like he might trot, just sit relaxed. Do not correct him unless he actually breaks into a trot. That way he learns to trust you too and he learns that he is only corrected if he actually trots. Don’t get sucked into the vicious cycle of you pulling all the time and him jigging all the time.

Your horse sounds very sensitive. Another way of describing a “hot blooded” horse is one that is highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. That means ALL stimuli (sight, sounds, smells, touch, weather, movements, etc.). With horses that are sensitive to leg pressure, the temptation is to always brace your leg out away from their sides to keep your leg off them. This is the worst thing that you can do for two reasons. One, when you do use your leg, it feels like a real jolt to him (it requires a big movement of the leg). Secondly, when you brace your leg it causes you to tense and that leads to jerky motions on your part, which will make a sensitive horse reactive to the leg. Keep your legs relaxed and soft and always in close contact to your horse’s sides. This will not only help desensitize him to leg contact but also remove the shock factor that happens when the leg is held off his sides. Again, make sure that you’re sitting well back on your horse and not perching forward in anticipation of his forward movement. This is very common but the result is that your horse wants to move more forward when your weight is forward, in an effort to get back under your center of gravity. So sit back on your pockets and down on your horse’s back and keep your legs relaxed and close to his sides.

If your horse is going behind the bit, it’s likely related to all the other problems and stems from your horse being pulled on too much. Forward or sensitive horses fall into this trap easily. Because the riders are less than confident on them, they tend to sit tense (forward) and clutch on the reins. Which increases your horse’s anxiety (from the pressure on his mouth) and the tense position makes your horse want to move more forward. Horses are herd animals and as such, when their rider is tense, they will tense. Herd animals are programmed to act like the animals around them. So, before your horse can learn to respond properly to the bit, he needs to learn to trust the rider and work on a loose rein (way loose). I would spend a lot of time with this horse working him on a loose rein with a low and level frame. Once he works steady and calm in this frame, only then would I ask him to come up onto the bit, with the lightest amount of contact possible. Contact is contact, whether it’s one ounce or ten pounds in your hands. A very sensitive horse will likely only tolerate very light contact. I might try riding your horse in a rope halter, a bosal or a bitless bridle at first to get him to relax and accept contact without pressure on his mouth. When you’re ready to ride on contact with a bit, you may want to try a fixed ring snaffle, such as a D-ring, egg-butt or full cheek. These bits make it a little easier for your horse to balance on the contact than a loose ring snaffle does.

For a calm-down cue with hot horses, I like to use two techniques. First teach your horse to lower his head on command both from the ground and mounted. A horse has to relax when his head is down low. There are many techniques for doing this. Light pressure on the poll will teach your horse to drop his head from the ground (be sure to release the pressure at the first hint of a drop). The rope halter is an especially useful tool for teaching a horse to drop his head. The first few inches of head-drop may be tough to get but after that he will make big drops all the way to the ground. Be sure to release the pressure immediately and lavish praise on your horse when he drops so that he becomes addicted to this calm state. Once your horse learns this from the ground, it’s much easier to do it from the saddle. Teach him a rein cue for a head drop. Lift up lightly on one rein (make sure the other rein is totally loose) and wait until your horse drops his head slightly to release. Be sure to drop your hand as he drops his head so that he does not hit the bit and punish himself for dropping his head. Then go through the same process of release and reward so that he learns to drop it all the way.

The second calm down cue would be the one-rein stop and disengagement of the hindquarters. Disengagement happens when your horse crosses his hind legs and all forward motion ceases. Disengagement takes away your horse’s flight response and therefore puts him in a submissive and calm state of mind (even if only for a moment). To do this, lift the rein up toward your opposite shoulder so that it’s an upward, diagonal pull (it’s essential the other rein is loose). Pull slowly and softly, this is not intended to be a harsh or quick movement. Hold the rein up until you feel his hindquarters disengage and then drop the rein all the way down to your horse’s neck and he should stop. If not, repeat. So every time your horse gets squirrelly, pick up on the one rein until your horse disengages and stops. Soon, your horse will begin to slow and relax when you just begin to lift one rein. The one rein stop is far superior to pulling on both reins, which causes your horse to stiffen his neck and jaw and lean into the pressure.

It’s sad but true that many horses that have been trained using brutal and relentless training methods, have terrible emotional baggage when being ridden. Even if those techniques are no longer used. Imagine what it’s like for a horse to be constantly criticized and tortured with inhumane apparatus, day in and day out. He will learn to do what he needs to do in order to survive this treatment, but he will be emotionally scared, possibly for the rest of his life. Be understanding and patient and try to make his training as drastically different as you can, using as little in the way of artificial aids as possible. Consider some of these ideas and they may help you make even more dramatic progress with your horse. Good luck and let me know how it goes!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Teach Your Horse To Lower His Head

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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

Dear Julie,
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

Dear Hope,
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.
The correction:
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.
The outcome:
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
www.juliegoodnight.com