The horse’s head and neck are arguably the most beautiful part of this wondrous creature. They’re also vital to the horse’s perceptions, reactions, and balance. Some people really mess with their horses’ heads-in all senses of the word. But, for the moment, let’s just talk about physical placement of your horse’s head as you ride.
Gadgets, Fads & Shortcuts
It’s past time to take a clear look at some of the odd and incorrect “tools” that are touted for improving the position of your horse’s head and his responsiveness to the bit. Remember that you improve your horse’s performance by using a specific formula: What’s real? How far? How little? How fast? All of these tools require an objective outlook.
In his natural state, a horse knows exactly what to do with his head and neck. When we climb on top of him, he has to learn how to carry our weight and respond to our cues in a new state of balance. And he tries. We, however-interfering creatures that we are-keep putting that important head and neck in places and positions they shouldn’t be. Some of those places and positions aren’t particularly safe for either of us.
Training fads in the horse industry can be tricky things. The show ring regularly creates really bizarre postures that bring blue ribbons-until the fashion changes. For the rest of us, maybe we don’t want to ride with our horse’s ear in our mouth or his chin dragging on the ground. Gadgets and shortcuts can be really tempting, especially if someone famous pushes them.
Unfortunately, gadgets don’t work. There aren’t any “shortcuts” in horse training. It’s easy to go too far and lose sight of what we really want to accomplish. And it’s really simple to inadvertently teach our horses things we really don’t want them to learn. This is what has happened to many people over the last decade in regard to bending the horse’s head.
It has become quite the fad to “soften” or “supple” the horse’s neck and “make him responsive to the bit” by bending his head all the way to the rider’s knee while the horse stands perfectly still. But having the horse stand while his head is pulled around very clearly says to him, “Let me bend your head to my knee, but don’t change what you’re doing with your feet.” This is not at all the message we want him to remember as we ask him to respond to a bit cue at a walk, trot, canter, or especially a dead run while heading for the highway or a cliff.
If we need a panic stop, some people tell us to bend the horse’s head around until he’s so unbalanced that he stops moving his feet. Then we release the rein as the “Yes, that’s what I want” cue. It’s okay to release the rein when the horse stops moving his feet, but the extreme overbending repeats that “Let me haul your head far to the side, but don’t move your feet in response to the rein” message mentioned earlier.
Bending the horse’s neck for any reason while his feet are stationary makes no sense because what we need is the exact opposite. We want our horse to change what he’s doing with his feet whenever we even reach for the rein. That contact with the rein is his signal to do something different in speed or direction. This is definitely not a tool we want to make dull!
Sometimes what we’re teaching is correct, but we stay with the lesson too long. This has happened to many people in regard to bending or positioning their horse’s head for a particular movement, such as softening the shoulder to move the horse diagonally. It’s useful for a time, but can be and often is done too much and for too long.
This sort of thing happens when you don’t have a checkpoint to let you know when you and your horse have succeeded. Or maybe you find that you’ve been struggling for what seems like forever with no progress. In this case, you may find that there’s a more productive way to reach your goals and get back on track with what you want to teach.
With all that said, what is your goal for your horse’s head position? First, what’s good for your horse’s balance is going to be best for both of you. You’ll be safer and more comfortable. He’ll be happier and more balanced.
To really balance himself, your horse has to be bent in the direction he’s moving. If you’re going in a straight line, his body should be straight. If you’re riding a circle or turn to the left, his body should be bent slightly to the left. If you’re moving your horse on a diagonal to the left, you want his nose slightly to the left, not to the right. The trouble is that it’s so normal and easy to bend his nose to the right and move his hindquarters to the left. It’s normal for us and it’s normal for him.
It’s not, however, the way he’s going to be in his best balance when he has a rider on his back.
As perceptive readers, you’re now going to start paging back through this and previous issues thinking, “Wait a minute. Every exercise we’ve practiced so far in these “hips over” exercises has had us pick up the right rein to move the hindquarters to the left!”
Yes. That’s the way we start. But now it’s time to progress to the next level in head positioning. You should only spend a short time on an exercise with your horse that allows him to bend his head too far and to the incorrect side. You should be pretty much done with that now. Think of it this way: Letting your horse bend his head as far as he wanted to on the right side when he was moving his hips to the left was first grade. But you only want to stay in first grade with your horse for a little while-not for a year or more, much less forever.
Your goal is to have your horse’s nose slightly to the left when he’s moving his hindquarters to the left. For these lessons, we’ll consider this position to be 100%. Right now, he almost undoubtedly has his nose to the right when he’s moving his hip to the left. We’ll call this 0%. This is okay for a starting point, but not for the ending point.
Remember that taking inventory of where your horse is in his training helps you to know when to go to the next step. Before you begin to focus on advancing your horse’s head off that 0% position, you should be able to accomplish the following:
• Using less than 6 ounces of pressure on the rein, you should be able to move your horse’s hindquarters away from the rein, even to the point of doing a turn on the forehand.
• You should see a gradual lessening of the bend of your horse’s head to the side when you want the hindquarters to move. It’s important that you, as the rider, are not on automatic pilot when picking up the reins and are not inadvertently pulling his head exactly the same distance to the side to move his hip over.
Let’s say you’re asking your horse to move his hips over to the left. You’re putting 6 ounces of pressure on the rein. Your horse is bending his head to the right at about 2 o’clock or less. He’s completely stopping his front feet as he continues to move his hindquarters to the left, making a nice pivot. You are now ready to go on to the next step.
Bend Toward Movement
Up to this point, you’ve probably spent two or three days working with your horse’s hindquarter control. It could have been a bit less; it could have been a bit more. Your plan now is to get this slight bend to the left as he moves his hips to the left during one lesson. It should take you 30 minutes to an hour.
Your goal is to get your horse’s head to that 100% mark, which is about 4 inches to the left of the left front concho on your saddle instead of to the right, while he does exactly what you’ve been asking him to do with his front feet and hindquarters. You won’t ask for perfection right away. The first step is just to limit by a few degrees how far he bends his head to the right.
The aid or tool that you’ll use to keep your horse from bending too much is the outside rein. Yes, the left one. You’ve let that left rein be slack up to this point whenever you asked him to move his hindquarters to the left. Now you’re going to use it to limit how far his head can go to the right when he responds to that right rein asking him to move his hindquarters to the left.
That’s a lot of lefts and rights, so re-read it a few times! Think about it slowly as you close your eyes and hold imaginary reins in your hands. Right hand asks for the movement. Left hand keeps the head from moving too far over.
A big factor in making all this come together as planned is your leg cue that keeps the horse moving. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the first time he feels pressure from both reins he’s going to want to stop moving. Do not under any circumstances pull harder on the right rein to try to get his feet moving again.
When (not if) he stops, keep your hands the same. Brace them in the same position, then begin asking with both legs evenly for the horse to move his feet. When he starts moving again, he’ll probably go forward rather than move his hips over. As he does this, with each step he takes forward, continue adding just a little more pressure evenly to both reins. Do not pull more on the right rein than you do on the left rein. This would cause him to bend his head more to one side, which is what we’re trying to get rid of.
If your horse just doesn’t understand that you still want him to move his hindquarters to the left when there is any pressure on that left rein, then you may have to increase the pressure on the right rein for just a time or two. Keep a little left pressure, but go ahead and bend your horse’s head another inch to the right until he gets the idea to move just his hindquarters. The next time you make the same request, try to bend his head a little less to the side.
If this happens, don’t view this as a failure for either of you. You’re trying to explain to your horse what you’re thinking. He doesn’t automatically know what he’s supposed to do. Any hint you can give him is a good thing. It only makes the learning process easier on both of you.
Try again. Keep light contact with the left rein while you cue for the “hips over” turn with the right rein. Your horse will probably again continue forward for two or three or four steps and then stop all movement again. Use your leg cues to get the feet moving again. He should then move his hindquarters a step or two to the side. At that moment, instantly release both reins.
You’ve now accomplished an improvement of about 5% less bend to the right! Repeat the same exercise until your horse is doing it consistently with less bend in his neck. Then work on consistently using less and less pressure until he’s doing the maneuver on a slack rein.
When you’ve both achieved this, you’re ready for another 5% increase toward your goal. Each subsequent increase should take about the same amount of time. Sometimes it may be a little more, sometimes a little less. As you become more proficient at teaching the lesson, any horse you are working with will generally take less and less time.
When you have reached your 100% goal, your horse’s head will be to the left, at the line of your left stirrup and the flat part of his shoulder. When you begin to pick up the right rein, asking his tail (right hip bone, our right hip pocket) to move to the left, the slack doesn’t come out of either rein. The horse begins to slow his forward motion and begins to move his tail (right hip, your right hip pocket) to the left.
You win. Your horse wins. He didn’t want to bend his head to the right anyway. You’ll also have to practice this move to the right, of course. Depending on your time availability, you can do that now or wait for your next ride.
What makes this lesson go very smoothly and quickly is the time and effort you put in to teaching the “hips over” and tail control with the one rein.
When you can move the hips over while keeping the horse’s head on the same side as the direction his hips are moving, don’t practice letting the horse bring his head to the other side at any time unless you’re doing a very short review for advancing to another performance maneuver. An example of this would be when we begin to teach a haunches or hips in and collection. But we’ll get to that later…