The Head Down Lesson. Have you ever had your horse do the perfect imitation of a kite on a lead, or have you had to try to bridle that convincing giraffe impersonation? If so, stick around because in this step-by-step guide, you can learn how to train your horse to lower his/her head – from the ground and under saddle – as well as train him/her to accept the bridle.
As is often the case, the obvious reasons for teaching the horse to lower its head, are just that – obvious.
We need to be able to put the bridle on, administer worming paste, brush around their ears and check our horse’s teeth. However, the hidden benefits to this lesson are probably even greater…
Most handling begins with the head – be it approaching, catching, bridling or grooming. This is our chance to make a good first impression and it is the thing the horse will remember the next time we approach.
It also sets the stage for the remainder of the session – it can be a gentle teaching session where the horse has found answers in movement or a struggle that has left you both a little too emotional.
At its most basic, this lesson teaches the horse (and the handler) to understand pressure-release (negative reinforcement).
We hear the term pressure-release a lot, but sometimes, we forget the aim is to reduce the pressure required. The way to do that is to time the release perfectly. This simple lesson will help you clarify those two important elements.
The overriding benefits of this lesson are about attention, focus, safety, communication and control. It’s about getting your horse into the engagement zone – where your horse is relaxed and in your bubble of communication.
‘HEAD DOWN’ FROM THE GROUND
Define what we want to move and how we are going to move it –
- Spot: The spot on the horse we are going to move – the tip of the left ear.
- Direction: The direction is down.
- Motivator: Pressure from the lead rope or hand on the poll.
- Reward: Release of pressure and praise.
Design the pattern we want to use –
- Place hand on the poll (or use the lead rope if your horse raises his head very high).
- Apply small amount of downwards pressure.
- Watch the tip of ear for any downward movement.
- Release and praise when ear moves downward.
Getting started –
Place your hand on your horse’s poll.
Simply holding your hand there may be enough to encourage movement, so don’t apply any pressure to start with.
The horse has six directions to move – left, right, back, forward, up and down. Allow the horse to experiment with each direction, watching the tip of the ear and releasing immediately when you see the tip of the ear move downwards – even if it is just a small amount.
If your horse has a very high head to start with and you are unable to reach the poll comfortably, simply apply a small amount of pressure to the lead rope attached to the halter, wait for the ear to lower and then release.
How much pressure do you need?
You need enough to motivate the horse to lower their head. Now is the time to pay particular attention to the amount of pressure you are using. Your aim is to reduce that with each repetition.
In Step 2, we set up a good pattern. If you allow your horse time to respond before you apply any pressure, you will find quite quickly your horse will lower its head even before your hand reaches the poll.
In order to bridle the horse, we need three things – the horse must put its head down, open its mouth and be able to have its ears handled. Before you start with the bridle, this can all be accomplished in the head collar with a soft lead rope.
Lowering the head –
Repeat your pattern for head lowering until your horse is in a comfortable position for you to begin the bridling lesson.
Opening the mouth –
Place the palm of your left hand below the horse’s chin and gently insert your thumb between the lips. Do not scratch the horse or put pressure on the bars of the mouth.
Your horse will probably open its mouth when they feel your thumb between their lips but, if not, simply tickle the tongue a bit with your thumb. This will encourage the horse to move the tongue and open their mouth.
Remember, you are setting up another pattern, and your horse will begin to anticipate the tongue tickle and respond by moving the tongue, and opening their mouth even before your thumb enters their mouth. Great! This is what you want.
Ear handling –
Begin with ensuring that you can stroke your hand over the ears and then, with your right hand between the ears, hold the lead rope and move over the ears as if it was the head piece of the bridle.
Instead of starting with the bit, we are going to use the soft lead rope. Cradle the lead rope in your left hand, holding the long end in your right hand between the horse’s ears. Open the mouth with your thumb and allow the horse to pick up the rope.
Putting it all together –
Using the lead rope as a bridle, go through your pattern of bridling the horse.
Now that you have established a good pattern and the horse is relaxed, put the bridle on the horse.
With your right had between the ears, ask the horse to lower their head. Slip the right ear out first and, again, ask the horse to lower their head, if necessary. Wait until the horse is relaxed before moving the head piece over the left ear.
Keep your forearm between the ears and gently lower the bridle, allowing the horse to drop the bit. This should simply be the opposite movement of the bridle going on – with the weight of the bit being the only force moving it out of the horse’s mouth.
It is even more important to make sure the horse remains relaxed with a lowered head during unbridling because if the head goes up, the bit is likely to hit the incisors, encouraging the horse to throw its head higher and possibly run backwards – potentially ending in injury.
‘HEAD DOWN’ UNDER SADDLE:
Having a head down cue when riding is very useful. In the arena, after a period of work, ask your horse to walk and cool off with their head down; thereby, stretching out all of those topline muscles.
On the trail, when you want the horse relaxed, but remaining engaged and in your bubble of communication, train the horse to walk with the poll below their withers on a long rein.
Do you want top marks for your walk in a dressage test? Teach this cue, practice transitions within walk, and make the judge smile as your horse marches across the diagonal in a long and relaxed stretch.
Decide on the new cue –
Now that we are under saddle, we’ll need a new cue. It doesn’t really matter what your cue is – mine is raising my right hand and applying a little pressure to the bit – as long as you release as soon as you see the ear drop, even a small amount.
Teach the new cue –
Simply walking around the arena, not worrying too much about direction, the first thing to do is teach the horse the new cue. Lift your right hand and apply some pressure to the bit. The horse has six directions to move (back, forward, left, right, up and down) and might try the other five first. Don’t worry, simply watch that ear tip and release as soon as it lowers.
Repeat this enough times sothe horse is anticipating the pressure and responding before it. I know, we hate it when the horse anticipates, but it simply means they have learned the pattern really well – if you have a good pattern in place then you’ll learn to love this!
Set up a new pattern –
Now it’s time to set up another pattern for the horse. I use the dressage pattern of walking the short side of the arena in a soft frame and walking the diagonal in a long, relaxed marching stretch.
Each time you come around the corner, establish your line on the diagonal, and ask the horse to lower their head and stretch out.
This is a great exercise for your dressage horse. Not only does it teach great free walks across the diagonal and transitions, but it also stops your horse from breaking the walk by anticipating the trot or canter.
Of course, you have to remember you are teaching patterns and your horse is a master pattern learner. If you practice the dressage test, even just a few times, your horse may well learn you trot at C and helpfully trot well before that. If, on the other hand, you never ask for trot at C (until you are actually in front of a judge) and instead circle in walk at C and ask for trot somewhere on that circle, then you will not have established a pattern and should get a winning transition when you ask for one.
The benefits of teaching the ‘head down’ cue, both on the ground and under saddle, are far reaching. From the trail to the dressage arena, bridling and ear handling, the ‘head down’ cue will be useful on a practical level, as well as helping you to keep your horse in the engagement zone.
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