Our training notes often show schooling at the farm but may also
include cross country schoolings and trail rides away from the
farm. Go back through our notes to see how we train our off-the-track
Thoroughbreds and prepare them for new careers as sport horses.
Notice the rider's feet are too far forward and the rider is leaning
forward and hanging on the horse's mouth to keep her balance.
Training Notes - Lowering Your Horse's Head
Have you ever felt the frustration of not being able to get your
horse to lower his head? An anxious horse is a horse with his head
in the air. Other things can also cause your horse to be tossing
his head in the air. It could be rider error.
Let's discuss both situations.
An Anxious Horse
When horses are worried, scared or anxious, they will raise their
head and hollow their back. When this happens the horse's back
end is restricted and the movement of the rear legs will become
shorter and choppier.
Experience this feeling yourself. Raise your
head and look at the ceiling. Feel your lower back hollow and
the muscles get tense. This is what is happening with your
If your Thoroughbred came off-the-track with a
sore back (and
most of them do) this will only aggravate the
back and cause pain and possibly lead to bucking or kicking out.
The answer is get your horse to relax and get him to
lower his head so that his back rounds up.
chin to your chest and look down to the ground. Feel how your
back rounds out. When a horse lowers his head properly from the
shoulder, his back will round upward and his back legs will be
able to track up over the foot print of the front foot.
Notice that now the rider is on a longer
rein and she is not balancing on the horse's mouth because her
position is more correct. Also notice the difference in the horse's
stride now that his head is lower and his back is relaxed. Compare
the top photo to this one to see the difference. The horse is happier
and more relaxed and the rider is more secure.
But how do you get an anxious horse to relax?
First the rider must relax. If you are nervous,
your energy will transmit to the horse and he will become nervous
and anxious. Next, ride on a long rein and sponge the reins. By
this I mean, open and close your fists as if squeezing a sponge.
Alternate from one hand to the other. Gently please. You are not
washing laundry! The horse will start to reach down into the contact.
Keep your elbows bent and relaxed and follow the movement of the
horse's head. Let him reach down - do not snatch him in the mouth
or yank on the reins. Encourage him to move forward at a business
like walk by keeping your lower back relaxed (head up - eyes up)
and alternating the pressure from one leg to the other as your
hips move with the motion of the horse. If his head drops too low,
encourage him with your seat and legs. Push his back end under
him and encourage him to carry his own weight by being balanced.
- Remain relaxed
- Ride on a long rein
- Remain soft in
the hands (sponge the reins)
- Keep elbows following the
movement of his head
- Keep your back relaxed and your head and eyes up
Work to achieve this relaxation at a walk and then a trot and
finally a canter. It may take many sessions to get your horse totally
relaxed at the canter but remember . . . it starts with a relaxed
rider. If you cannot relax on the horse you are riding, then ride
another horse to gain your confidence. A sensitive Thoroughbred
is not a good combination for a rider that is too emotional or
tense. Thoroughbreds make excellent teachers - ride
them correctly and you are instantly rewarded. When you
are tense, they will be too with their head in the air.
It Might Be YOUR Fault - Rider Error
We have already discussed the rider being anxious but maybe you
are totally relaxed and your horse still has his nose in the air.
The problem might be, "What does NOT give?" - YOUR hands!
A beginner may use his hands to balance
against the horse's mouth because his seat is not secure.
let us put a cold piece of metal across their gums and then tolerate
us using their mouth to keep our balance while banging the bit
against their teeth. Some horses are less forgiving than others
- Thoroughbreds fall into this category. We owe it to them to be
kind and to say thank you to them when they give to the pressure
of the bit and bend.
How do we say "Thank you"? We leave them alone!
What Thoroughbreds want more than anything is to please us. We
in turn just pull on the bit to turn or to pull ourselves up
out of the saddle because our legs are in the wrong position and
we don't lighten the pressure when they give to it - we just hang
on harder to keep our balance.
Hanging onto a horse's mouth is a common problem with beginners
or riders who do not have a good seat. You must have YOUR balance
in order to help the horse gain HIS balance. This can only be achieved
by riding in the classical correct seat. Your feet need to be under
your hips and in line with your shoulders. If you are sitting as
if in a chair, feet in front of your hips, knees too far forward,
there is no way you can post without pulling on the horse's mouth.
Try riding without stirrups to get your feet and legs where they
Riding without stirrups quickly puts your
legs in a better position. Notice that both the horse and the rider
are happy and enjoying the ride. Even a beginner can get instant
results and ride like a pro when the seat and hands are used properly.
Thoroughbreds make great teachers.
Try these exercises while on the ground. Squat down. Notice that
you heels are under your hips and your shoulders are over your
hips. You are very solid and secure in this position. Now, stand
on the ground and have someone face you and hold your hands. Try
to put your feet in front of you and squat down. You will be lucky
not to pull your assistant on top of you. This is what happens
while mounted if you do not have your legs and feet in the correct
position. Every time you try to rise while posting, you are pulling
on the horse's mouth to get yourself out of the saddle.
Squat down properly and then try to put your feet behind your
hips. Have your assistant ready to catch you before you face plant
into the ground. You cannot remain balanced if your feet are behind
you. When this happens and you are on your horse, your knees pinch
to stop you from falling forward and usually your toe point towards
the ground and you loose your stirrup.
OK. So now you know the importance of your legs being in the correct
position, but how does this relate to the horse's head being in
If your seat is not secure, your hands will tug on the horse's
mouth to keep YOUR balance. Your horse will raise his head trying
to get a release from the pressure. When he does not get the release,
he will start tossing his head to snatch the reins from your hands
to get the release. You most likely will foolishly attempt to snatch
them back leading to a classical game of tug-of-war. For those
of you who are not familiar with this game I will tell you who
wins . . . the one with the weight advantage!
Stop. Admit defeat in this game and play another.
You need to
set your hands to be quiet and put them in a position that does
not allow YOU to snatch the reins when the horse does what you
ask of him. If your seat is not as secure as it could be, and
your hands are not quick enough to release the pressure when the
horse gives to it, then you need to try some other way to let the
horse realize that he did the correct thing when he gives to the
pressure and bends his head down and rounds on the bit.
Side reins are a good tool if you know how to use them. They are
useful on a lunge line if you do not use them too tightly. They
should be set to only apply pressure if the horse's head is raised.
Lowering the head releases their pressure - instantly! The horse
figures this out and keeps his head down so there is no pressure
on the bit. Now how can you achieve the same thing while riding
and not using side reins?
Get yourself into a two point seat. Weight on your legs and down
into your heels (heels under your hips), knees and lower legs making
contact (but not a death grip please) and your butt just slightly
out of the saddle, head up and shoulders back. Take your reins
and "bridge" them.
To bridge your reins, hold them as you normally would but
lay one rein over the other so you are holding both reins in both
hands. Rest your knuckles on the horse's shoulders and use the "bridge"
as a brace to hold yourself in position. This will give you greater
security and consistent contact. Have just enough contact with
the horse's mouth to feel pressure when the horse is standing.
At first your horse may resist the contact.
Ask your horse to move off at the walk. Do not move your hands.
The horse may resist the contact - there should be enough contact
to feel the horse's head move as he walks - but push him forward
with your seat and legs. DO NOT move your hands from the bridge
position on his shoulders.
As the horse is irritated by the contact
and the unmoving hand, he will raise his head. DO NOT move your
hands. Stay quiet and push him into a business-like walk.
As the horse keeps his head down, ask for a trot.
some point the horse will try to release the contact by dropping
his head. DO NOT move your hands. BINGO! He gets the release
because you are not using your hands to balance on his mouth and
you are not taking up the slack in the rein to maintain YOUR balance.
The horse's head may go up again. This increases the pressure
on the bit. Soon he will try tucking his head down from the shoulder
and he will get the release he is looking for! You just do NOTHING.
He is learning to give to pressure. Your mission is to learn
to be balanced in the saddle and stop using his mouth to balance
yourself. Move into a trot and do not change a thing. Soon your
horse will set his head where it is most comfortable and he
has release from your hands. He will be very happy to keep it there
because you are not fussing at him. Happy horse. Happy rider.
The concept is very simple - stop fussing at the horse. Achieving
results takes skill and correct posture in the saddle. Your
seat and hands should be independent of each other. Go back to
basics and start with your feet. Get them where they belong and
everything else will line up if you keep your head up, back relaxed
and elbows elastic. When the horse gives to the pressure - release
and say THANK YOU!
A well balanced rider with a secure seat
and independent hands, makes for a happy horse.
I wish to say thank you to my star students for demonstrating
both the right way and the wrong way to ride. They found it much
easier to demonstrate the correct way!