High Headed Pony

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I want my pony to carry her head in a low position. . . .

Dear Julie,
My pony keeps her head up when I’m attempting to ride her in a collected frame. When I first got her she was so nervous about the bit in her mouth and what the rider might do. We outfitted her in a loose-ring snaffle, which has helped her put her head down somewhat. However, she still keeps her head up more then I’d like it to be. She has a wide back, but we worked hard to find a saddle that fits well. I’m pretty certain her head carriage isn’t due to saddle discomfort. I also ride her bareback and she carries her head high even then. What can I do to lower her head?
High Headed
Dear High Headed,
Horses usually keep their heads up to avoid too much pressure from the bits on their tongues. When a horse puts her head up in the air, it allows the bit to slide to the back of her tongue as the pressure shifts to her lips and relieves the tongue.
You can feel how bad tongue pressure might feel to your horse by pressing your finger into your own tongue. Most horses that evade the bit are trying to find a release to this awkward tongue pressure.
Depending on the design of your pony’s bit, she might be feeling an unbearable amount of pressure. Look for a bit that offers some tongue relief—you’ll want a bit with a port (a convex-shaped bridge in the middle of the bit that allows the tongue relief). A ported bit might look like something that will cause your horse to feel more pressure, but in reality, the design allows the tongue to relax. I’ve used Myler Bits for years and have found that they’re designed to relieve tongue pressure and allow your horse to feel as relaxed as possible. Only when a horse is relaxed can she pay attention to your cues instead of her own discomfort.
Even when they are comfortable, horses must first be trained to respond properly to the bit; responding to the tool that you put into their mouths isn’t something they do naturally. You have to teach them how to find release from the bit’s pressure and how to “give” to the bit both laterally (to the side) and vertically (up and down). I have a new DVD that teaches you how to teach your horse to respond to lateral and vertical bit pressure so that you can use a bit as a kind communication tool (Bit Basics: Accepting and Responding to Bit Pressure). The DVD addresses how to train a young horse that’s never had a bit in her mouth and how to re-train the older confused horse.
I teach young and “rehab” horses to respond to pressure and find the proper release by applying light pressure to the bit through the reins (whatever amount of pressure it takes to make the horse notice and start looking for a way out of the pressure). I then watch the horse’s head closely. At the first instance her head drops—even a fraction of an inch— I release the rein pressure and rub the horse on the neck. Soon she will learn that when she drops her head, the pressure goes away. It’s best to use one rein when applying this constant pressure—ride with two hands, but only ask your horse to respond to the pressure on one side at a time. If you pull on two reins simultaneously you risk her locking her jaw or stiffening her neck. You’ll find an article, “Why one Rein is Better than Two” in my online Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php)
Once your pony knows how to give to pressure on the bit, it’s your job to make sure she finds a small release every time she does the right thing and lowers her head. Most people make the mistake of continuing to put pressure on a horse’s mouth once she’s done the right thing. That’s when a horse continues to look for a release of pressure and ends up raising instead of lowering her head—to evade the bit and find a release in her own way. With soft hands and a bit with tongue relief, you can show your horse that there’s a release when she has her head in the proper position. She must have an incentive to drop her head and her incentive and reward is the release of pressure. Good luck with your pony!

Issues From The Saddle: Good On Trail, Bad In The Arena

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I recently purchased my second horse, a twelve-year-old gelding. He has impeccable ground manners and is a pleasure to ride on trails but as soon as you get him in an arena it’s a disaster. He is unmanageable beyond a walk for a period of time. By unmanageable I mean that he leans on my hands so much that I can’t slow him down at all and we end up full gallop at a cavaletti or around and around the arena. I have tried many thing such as “sponge hands” to collect him and keep him from leaning on me, circling smaller and smaller, pulling back on one rein and pulling his nose to my knee with no luck. Selling him is not an option as I am rather attached and wouldn’t sell him even if I couldn’t ride him. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated. All of his tack has been checked and fits, his teeth do not need floated, and he isn’t lame. I consider myself a competent rider and he is using a kimberwicke jointed bit. Thanks a lot.


Answer: Heidi,

It sounds to me like you have a horse that is untrained. He knows what to do out on a trail because that is pretty obvious and not too complicated. There are many excellent trail horses that do not know what to do in the arena and visa versa. He has probably never been asked to collect or circle or stay on the rail and he is out of his element. Sounds like you need to embark on a campaign to train him for the arena. You could take him to a trainer for 30-60 days or do it yourself, if you have the time and the capability.

The first thing I would do is put him in a Myler snaffle or the Myler 3-ring Combination and teach him to give to the bit. My DVD on Bit Basics demonstrates the traning and bitting process for a young untrained horse and also for an older horse with bit “issues”. You’ll work the horse in the round pen until he learns to give to the bit, both laterally and vertically. He will eventually learn that when he drops his head down and in, the pressure on his mouth goes away. Then he has to learn to give laterally to the bit: when you pick up the right rein, he should bend his neck right and visa versa. He also has to learn to stop with your weight and maintain a steady speed when asked and to steer.

It may seem odd to think about, but a trail horse doesn’t really have to know these things. They just follow along the trail or follow other horses at whatever speed is asked. Horses do this quite naturally; it does not require much training. On the other hand, going around in circles in the arena makes little or no sense to a horse. It is quite possible that whatever work your horse has had in the arena, gave him a bad taste for arena work and he shuts down and becomes resistant when you ride in there because he views it as a confusing and frightening place. Lots of horses work better out of the arena, because of the training baggage that surfaces when they are in the arena. Horses are very keen to associate a place with a memory or emotion.

I think you need to start over with this horse in the arena as if he was never ridden before. Do not assume he knows anything. As well mannered as he is on the ground and on the trail, he would act that way in the arena too if he knew how. Be patient and break everything down into the smallest components and spend whatever time it takes; do not rush him. I suspect he will progress pretty quickly since he is so cooperative in every other way.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Julie Goodnight

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