A student asked me the other day about keeping the horse’s head down after he has successfully lowered the horse’s head. I often see students get the horse to lower his head, but then it pops right back up. It’s like watching a little kid dunk apples in water — the fruit just keeps bobbing up to the surface.
This is a very common question I get asked quite often. The easiest solution to this situation is to continue to ask the horse to keep his head down (instructions at end of this article). Repetition is the key. A horse will pop its head up anytime it takes a step forward, even from a stop to a walk or anytime he changes gait. He’ll also raise his head anytime he becomes confused or frightened.
You can’t hold the horse’s head down. That’s just not possible. By continually asking the horse to lower his head every time he raises it will eventually condition the horse to leave his head in that lowered position.
By asking the horse to keep his head down, maintain flexion in his neck and poll area, and keep his head closer to his chest (but not behind the vertical), this posture will give you more lightness and responsiveness from the horse.
Everything with the horse, and I mean everything, starts with Basic Control. When you’re working with Basic Control, you’re focusing on Go and Stop. The more you work on these cues and really refine them, the better the horse will become — with everything. These basic elements ultimately lead to Connection, where all your training weaves together in a fluid response from the horse.
The ‘Head Down’ cue is a very important element of that fluid response. It’s a way to tell the horse that you want him to relax and become compliant with whatever is asked of him. ‘Head Down’ is one of the first things I teach a horse at my farm, the National Equine Behavior Center in Troy, Missouri. One of the main problems I see with all the horses that come here for training and rehabilitation is that they all want to carry their heads high. After continually asking them to put their heads down, their typical reaction is, ‘Okay, I guess that’s where I’m supposed to carry my head.’ And it works! They relax, can think more clearly, and aren’t resistant to further cues and requests.
So in achieving the goal of keeping the horse’s head down, remember to be clear, concise, consistent and constant. Repetition, in this case, will lead to success. The amount of repetition really depends upon the horse. If it takes 100 times, then it takes 100 times. What I like to do is five to seven repetitions. Those are correct repetitions — in other words, if you ask the horse to put his head down and he does it incorrectly by sticking his nose in the air, for instance, then I count that as ‘zero.’ When he puts his head down correctly, I start counting that as ‘one,’ and when he does five or six correctly, then I’ll go to the other side (changing rein signals).
The way I came up with the head down cue was with a horse that came in for training years ago. He was shown at Western Pleasure, and the lady who owned him wanted to find a way to cue the horse to lower his head without the judges being able to see it. I was trying various cues with this horse, and found that by adding a little pressure upward with one rein, and a little pressure toward the hip with the other rein, it would cause the horse to put his head down. I’ve refined it since then, but it works.
Here’s what I now have found to be effective in my training program when asking the horse to put his head down.
The key to the “head down” cue is that one hand holds the rein higher than the other hand. The inside hand raises up and the outside hand moves back, causing the horse to drop his head.
For the “head down” cue, move the inside rein up toward the midline of your body, below your chest but above your bellybutton. At the same time, move the outside rein straight backward toward your hip.
As soon as the horse begins to drop his head, immediately release the pressure on both reins.
When cueing for a “head down,” make sure that the horse does not slow his feet, but instead simply drops his nose. For that to happen, the pressure on the horse’s mouth must differ from the pressure applied when asking for a stop. Consistently apply clear and concise rein cues for ‘head down’ — up on one side, and back on the other — until the horse understands that when he feels this particular pressure on his mouth he should drop his head but keep his feet moving. Because the head down cue is different from the slowing down/whoa cue (which is a 1-2-3 pattern with the left rein, right rein, left rein), the horse should lower his head and keep his feet moving. The head down cue is a different pressure in the horse mouth and the bit affects him differently, so he’ll be able to differentiate this cue from the slow down/whoa cue.
The faster the horse’s feet move, the more the flight instinct engages in his brain. So before you move the horse up in a gait (walk to trot, trot to canter, etc.) make sure the horse knows the head down cue in order to consistently put his head down when you ask him. If the horse doesn’t already understand that cue as you move up in the gait, the horse’s head will continually raise higher and higher and you’ll lose his head down response.