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

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.

Riding Skills: How Do I Get A Secure Seat To Ride Out Spooks? Logo

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Dear Julie,

Last night I watched your TV show on introducing the horse to the surf. It was very informative but the thing that impressed me the most was how you maintained your wonderful, balanced seat and body position while the horse was jumping sideways! Unfortunately, when my horse spooks and jumps like that, I look and feel like “Whiplash” the little monkey they strap on to the Border Collie’s back at the rodeo. Needless to say, this scares my horse even more. I have some pretty big confidence issues due to past experiences/injuries and know that having a secure seat during a spook would help my confidence tremendously.

I have read your article on rider position and feel like I have this pretty good under normal riding circumstances. My ankles and back are soft and my seat is following and mobile. Everything falls apart if he spooks. I’ll usually know that he’s distracted or tense before it happens (I’ve been practicing your calm down/lower your head cue, and your 3 step circling exercise), then a deer or invisible something causes him to blow up. I only ride him in my pasture and arena because he is hyper alert. I hope to get past all of this someday with a lot of desensitizing exercises.
Do you have any suggestions for me on how to develop the kind of secure, safe seat and following upper body that I saw on your show? My body whips so badly that I feel every muscle in my core working to keep me from flying off. I’m 50 years old and do yoga almost every day. I know the change won’t happen overnight and I’m willing to work hard to keep safe.

Thank you very much for any advice you can give me. I love your show and all the articles and information available on your website.

Lori, Malta, MT

Answer: Lori,

Thank you for watching the show. We have certainly gotten a lot of comments on the beach episode! It was called “Wave Runner” and aired on January 7th and will run again the week of February 18th. It was really fun to shoot and I can tell you, it was a really wild ride, but we did eventually make it into the waves, belly deep in the ocean!

Being able to stay in the middle of your horse even when he is moving radically is simply a matter of being relaxed. I know, easier said than done! Any time you tense a muscle, it causes you to lock a corresponding joint. Since your joints act as shock absorbers, a locked joint leads to bouncing and if it is your ankles, knees or hips that are locked, it is like hitting the ejector button.

It is important to learn where you have a tendency to tense and to always focus on seeking out the source of your tension as you ride. Most of us tend toward the same bad habits. So if you can determine what those are, you can constantly remind yourself not to do that. For instance, if you have a tendency to look down or lean forward and close your hips, you should be constantly checking yourself for those errors.

It sounds like you already know and understand the principles of good balance and position in the saddle (there’s lots of information on that in my Training Library and in my video series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding), but now you need to be able to relax when your horse spooks or moves unexpectedly. For the most part, this will come naturally as you gain confidence but it will help if you can learn to focus on deep abdominal breathing, keeping your eyes up and active and continuing to ride through the problem instead of freezing up.

There is one suggestion I can make to help you learn to move with your horse when he jumps to the side. If you can find a cutting horse trainer in your area, perhaps you could take some lessons on a well-trained cutter on a mechanical cutting machine. At first, you may only be able to stay with the horse on one or two turns, but gradually you’ll learn to stay soft and relaxed in your joints as he makes the big moves from side to side. In addition to improving your seat and building your confidence, it will sure be a lot of fun!

Enjoy the ride!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Slowing Down A Fast Horse Logo



Just wondering if you could give me some advice. My horse, a six year old mustang had been trained for about ten months. He stops, turns fine, but I cannot get him to slow down. Of course then I get nervous and then he gets nervous and we end up a mess. Any advice? I would love to work it out with him, but cannot figure him out.




Sounds like you’ve got yourself a pretty forward Mustang and I have trained a few Mustangs myself that fall into this category. There are basically two types of horses: one with too much go and one with too much whoa. I just finished a Q&A to someone that has a great Western Pleasure horse, but now she wants to ride English and is frustrated over trying to make the horse move forward. Your horse has the opposite problem and although both are frustrating (for both you and the horse) in my opinion the forward horse is a little more challenging to deal with.

We get a lot of forward horses in training, because they are more challenging, so I’ll share with you some of the techniques that we use to get the horses slowed down a little and to get them steady in their gaits. You’ll never make a Western Pleasure horse out of him, but you should be able to get him to hold a steady pace and slow down and relax.

First let me tell you what definitely will NOT work. It will not work to use a harsher bit or to constantly pull back on the reins to slow the horse down. Any pressure on a horse’s mouth makes him more anxious. Forward horses tend to be more anxious to begin with and they also tend to be very sensitive. More pressure on their mouths almost always makes them faster. The classic scenario with a forward horse is that the rider is constantly pulling on both reins and the horse is getting more and more tense and starts to jig and speed up.

What we want to do with a forward horse is anything that will make him relax, put his head down and slow down. We want him to learn to make an association between relaxing and getting a loose rein, which is what all horses want. Since we cannot slow him down by pulling back on the reins (because the increase of pressure just makes him more anxious), the best option is to work on changing directions. Often people talk about using the circle to slow a horse down, but I find reverses to be much more effective.

For one thing, often when people use a circle to slow a horse down, they pull the horse into a sharp sudden fast circle, which tends to excite and irritate the horse, throwing him onto his forehand and unbalancing him, rather than slow him down. Every time the horse changes direction, he has to slow down as he turns back the other way.

For changes of direction, ride two-handed in a Myler Comfort snaffle or the Myler 3-ring Combination bit, with both hands well in front of the pommel and with a reasonably loose rein. In slow motion, move both hands to the side (in the direction you want to turn) so that the inside rein is a leading rein and the outside rein is a neck rein (see the Q&A about rein-aids). Move your hands as a unit like they are connected; there is NO BACKWARD PULL ON THE REINS.

Do not pull back on the reins and do not try to slow the horse down. Just turn to the left for a moment, and then slowly and gently change your turn to the right, then left, then right, etc. It is critical that you are moving your hands in slow motion and that you are not pulling back on the reins as you do. Your turns should be totally random, half turn, quarter turn, full turn, etc.; don’t let yourself fall into a pattern. You should flex your horses’s neck to about a 45 degree angle as you turn.

Gradually (it may take minutes, hours or days) your horse will begin to slow his trot every time he changes direction. Once this starts happening, let him go straight between turns and then slowly and gently bring him into a turn when you feel him first begin to speed up. Ultimately, you should be going straight between every turn, and then you will let the horse stay straight as long as he is relaxed and slow until he is maintaining a steady relaxed trot without turning.

Make sure your hands are moving together and there is very little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth. Whenever you need to correct the horse’s nose to bring it into the turn, pick up (not back or down) slowly on the inside rein, with a gentle bumping motion and immediately release it when the horse gives his nose. Eventually, you should be able to make these turns and straightness with just the slow movement of your hands on a totally loose rein and without actual contact on the horse’s mouth.

Another thing it would be very useful for your horse to learn is a drop-your-head cue. With nervous horses, this is a very important step. A horse’s head comes up as he tenses and it drops as he relaxes. If you can cue your horse to drop his head, you have succeeded in teaching him a cue to relax, since it is not physically possible for him to drop his head and stay tense.

Start from the ground with a rope halter and training lead. Apply gentle steady pressure down on the halter by pulling on the lead and watch the horse VERY carefully for his head dropping. At the very first fraction of an inch, release the halter and praise the horse. Then ask again, watching very closely for any movement in the right direction, then release and apply copious praise. It is better to err on the side of the release being sooner rather than later. Timing is everything in horse training. The optimal timing for a release is half a second after the desired response. The first few inches down will be a challenge, but the next foot is easy. Once the horse figures it out he will gladly drop his head all the way to the ground every time you ask.

Once he can do this reliably from the ground, it is time to teach the same cue from the saddle. Standing still, you will use one rein, shorten it up to apply light pressure to the horse’s mouth and wait until the head drops the smallest fraction of an inch then drop the rein entirely and give copious praise. Don’t worry if the horse begins to move about, just focus on the head dropping and release whenever it does. In the same process the horse will gradually figure out that when you apply pressure with one rein and he drops his head, the pressure will go away. Again, the first few inches are very hard to get and will require a great deal of patience and concentration on your part, but the next couple feet to the ground will come much more quickly.

What ever you do, don’t succumb to applying more pressure if the horse does not respond. Apply just enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of the pressure. He will guess what to do to find the release. At first, he may put his head up, to the side, etc., but eventually he will try moving his head down and that is the instant he must find the release so that he makes an association between the cue and the right answer. This is a general concept in training that applies to almost anything that you do. More pressure is not usually the answer; you just need enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of it.

Oddly enough, sometimes a very nervous horse can actually become addicted to lowering his heads and relaxing. He doesn’t really want to be nervous and frightened all the time and when he finds the peace by putting his head down, he comes to like it. This can actually become a little bit of a problem in some horses (they want to put their head way down all the time) but that is not very common and it is a far better problem to have than the original one.

I would not expect your horse to become a Western Pleasure horse, but he is capable of slowing down, relaxing and getting steady. Try these exercises, be patient, always move your hands in slow motion and give the exercises considerable time to work. Good luck and let me know how it goes.