Saturday, October 11, 2008

Lowering the Horse's Head

I was just watching a show on RFD-TV in which Julie Goodnight taught a rider how to help her horse be calm instead of spooking. The show began with a typical trail ride in which the horse was leaping to the side each time it perceived something to be threatening. I saw how violent it was on the rider's back, knowing that is exactly what I go through with my gelding Bombay. This was probably the first half-hour horse show I've been able to sit through and pay attention to in months, and I am happy to have viewed it since it covered a topic so close to home and dear to my whip-lashed heart.

The first lesson that Julie Goodnight taught was an approach and retreat exercise that was very much like what I was doing with my plastic bags tied to a long whip. However, the way in which she taught it made more sense to me than what I was doing. The point of the exercise is not to get your horse used to strange objects, but to teach your horse a safer reaction to scary things. I think my own plastic bag training wasn't as successful as it could have been, because I didn't quite comprehend at what point I was "teaching" the horse a proper reaction. I praised the horse when he moved toward the bag, but there is much more than that behind this type of training.

You don't have to terrify the horse by trying to touch it with the bag before it is ready. You simply approach the horse with a scary object and hold it in the location where the horse first starts to tense up. You keep it there until the horse either shows signs of interest in the object or relaxes his muscles and lowers his head. In that very instant, you move the object away. The horse then learns that it can make scary things go away by facing them in a relaxed manner.

Your timing has to be exact, because if you move the object away when the horse tenses up, you teach him that he can make scary things go away by being scared, which defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

The next lesson she taught was lowering the horse's head from the ground. In the past, I have always practiced lowering the horse's head by placing my hand on the poll and applying steady pressure until the horse lowers its head, and then removing my hand. Julie Goodnight taught the same technique, but by placing a steady pressure on the lead rope right underneath where it connects to the halter. Once the head lowers to any degree, remove your hand from the lead rope and pet the horse.

You do not want to pull the horse's head down. Lowering the head has to be the horse's decision. However, you do have to apply enough pressure so that the horse feels it and knows that you are waiting for a response.

The final step was to teach the horse to lower its head from the saddle. You place pressure on one rein and loosen the opposite rein. Once the horse lowers its head, you release the pressure on the rein. You practice this and then when you feel your horse tensing up while out on the trail, you can give him the head-lowering cue by placing steady pressure on one rein, and he will instantly relax. Goodnight said that the horse will enjoy lowering its head, because it feels good to be relaxed.

This whole idea of lowering the horse's head is right in line with a reader's comment that has been rolling around in my head for several weeks now. Ann L. said, "A horse raises it's head when alerting on something. That position alone can causes the horse to hold tension. A head down, neck stretched out position releases tension and helps the horse stay relaxed and calm."

This comment was in response to an argument that I made in which I felt it was perfectly appropriate to let your horse raise its head to look at things on a trail ride. Ann's comment, along with some things my equitation trainer has been teaching me, made me realize how important it is to be able to control that head. The timing of this TV show was perfect, clearing up some questions I've had about cuing your horse to relax. Now I just have to go try it and let you know how well it works with Bombay.


lytha said...

what a pretty picture of your horse yard. mine is in mud now and his frogs are starting to show that, *sigh*

i don't know if you read my post a while back about head lowering, but i do think it's important that horses know this. i have never applied it mounted, and i don't think i would really be successful at applying it in a very stressful situation. my horse, who drops his head at every request, would probably say "screw you, there's danger here now!"

oh, i wish i had that tv station you guys always talk about. *whine*

~lytha in germany

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Hi Lytha - My horse yard looks so nice in that picture, because the picture was taken from early summer. I take a ton of snapshots all year round and then look for one that works with whatever subject I'm writing about. I tend to write at night, which isn't a good time for taking pictures. Only when I know what my subject will be can I take pictures during the day to prepare.

Anyway, I may have read your post about head dropping, but will have to go back and refresh. I have an extremely poor memory, which is actually why I wrote this post. I wanted to write down what I learned from the show, and put my thoughts in a place where I can't lose them.

Vaquerogirl said...

Good post! Have you seen the opening picture on Brown Eyed Cowgirls blog. Her horses heads are up and HIGH- Looking at somethng undoubtably scary. Always better to get those heads low-

Jenn said...

Training is all about the timing. You can inadvertently teach the wrong response because your timing was off by a mere second.

I spend a lot of time just watching my horses out in the pasture and how they react to each other. You can learn a lot about timing and reactions just by watching them being horses.

Physically, when a horse's head goes up, the neck muscles and ligaments shorten, which in turn shorten and tighten the back. All of that causes tension through the entire body. It's the same as if you or I walked around with our shoulders tight and the back of our necks rigid. It doesn't feel good and it has a domino effect on every other part of our body.

We can't teach our horses NOT to be afraid of something. We can teach them how to react in a calm, appropriate manner to the scary thing. That's the goal: Changing the reaction.

I've been working with my husband's mare about how to react appropriately and I saw how far she's come when my husband rode her on our trail ride yesterday. In the past if she was scared she'd teleport sideways and leave the rider wondering what the heck happened. Yesterday, she "spooked" at something scary by stopping dead in her tracks, lowering her head to look at it and breathing at it rather than exploding away from it.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Hey NM,

Did Julie talk about horses that keep their head too low?
I know WP encourages this, but sometimes my horse's nose is almost rubbing the tall grass...and my mare seems to think this is a great opportunity to snatch a mouthful of it.

Also, I love that she is so calm and relaxed while out riding, but with her head so low I find that I have to keep a closer control on the reins because she could more easily snatch them out of my hands.

I know all situations are different, and that horses can surprise us on what they will get upset about, but I fell really grateful that my horse seems to be taught in the ways of not over reacting.

Not much upsets her, and if she is concerned about something in her sight, she snorts or blows at it, and usually just tries to calmly skirt by it or ignore it.

We were out the other day and with our winds returning, a huge 10'x10' blue tarp had blown into the field I was riding her in. I was cautious, not sure what her reaction might be, since it was moving, wiggling and so large, but we walked right up to it and she stuck her nose on it, snorted and then walked calmly away.

My mare EATS tarps for lunch! lol!

Of course, this almost true. One of the reasons I don't think she is bothered by tarps is because we use an IKEA bag that is made out of blue tarp, to carry her hay in every day.

So, she probably equates tarps as the bearer of good things. :)


Nuzzling Muzzles said...

vaquerogirl - Thanks. Yes, I know that photo on BEC's blog.

Jenn - "Teleporting sideways" is a good way of putting it.

Lisa - Julie did not talk about what to do when a horse gets its head too low.

Black Jack's Carol said...

HI there..

I came to your blog via dp's "food for founder" one. My experience with horses dates back to about a billion years ago, but I still find myself drawn to them, and hoping when retirement comes, to find a way of being close to that world again. Your thoughts on training are interesting, in that they can be applied to just about any life situation. Kids at school, horses, my dog - very similar principles, I think.

Andrea said...

Oh, I love to have control of my horse's head! I like to be able to put it where I want it when I want it. I can tap my heels to my horses side and he will drop his neck and head. I am a bit obsessed with head control! LOL!! Great post and I am glad you learned something new.

I learned to put horeses heads down with holding the lead rope and releasing when they give to the pressure. It's how I have gotten my horese to do showmanship. Also the head down cue helps relax the horse. Great post!! :)

BrownEyed Cowgirls said...

The leadrope move is something I use on all of my horses, but I have mostly applied it as a tool to teach horses not to pull back or when they like to raise their heads away from haltering/bridling-funny I never associated it as the first step in teaching a horse how to "spook in place". I certainly can see how it is beneficial as a training step in teaching a horse to break at the poll from his back.

Ewww, yuck...SNOW already? So not ready, so not ready!!

Viv said...

You are partly right about a horse raising it's head to look at things. The way that a horse focuses on objects at a distance is to raise and lower its head - this helps to engage the binocular focal area of the horse's eye. However, this is subtley different from high alert - SNORT!.

Head down<>relax is indeed a physiological calming response. However, a second more important reason for teaching head down (Not pulled down) is to enable the nuchal ligament to engage the back ^up\back swinging mode of locomotion.

Callie said...

This is a geat post and what you learned makes perfect sense! Thanks for sharing! I have to watch RFD more often!

KD said...

I haven't seen any of Julie Goodnight's shows. I'm so over watching starting colts over and over- I'd like to see a new show. Her method for head down sounds just like John Lyons' right down to using one rein from the saddle.

Rising Rainbow said...

Teaching a horse to lower its head is really a helpful tool. When you are first starting, it will help the horse figure out what you are asking if you release your pressure before the horse actually lowers its head at all. Instead you look for a change of expression in the horse, like he's thinking about what he should do. A quick release of pressure followed by a reapplication of that pressure helps the horse "get" what you are asking.

Shirley said...

Sounds like Julie Goodnight and John Lyons are on the same page. I like John's training methods because anyone can follow them and every step is a building block for something else. The head down cue is one of the first he teaches and its used for "spook in place".