My horse brings his head up when leading – and now riding.

High headed horseQuestion: My horse always has his head up in the air when I lead him. I try to bring it down by giving consistent tugs on the lead but it seems to just make it worse. This has happened within a short period of time, about a month or two, before that he was fine. I have also tried to shank him and put a chain on his nose, but this does not help either. Sometimes he really throws his head up especially now when I try to bridle him. How can I get his head down? It’s beginning to affect his riding also.

Answer from April Reeves: I use the expression all the time: “Everything you do teaches”. This is a perfect example of a horse that has unknowingly (by the owner) been taught to raise his head. The owner has not done it with purpose. Most owners don’t work at making their horses worse. But we fail to realize that every move we make, every thing we do is training.

The other thing that you will see here is that the horse has begun to bring his head up during riding. This is a powerful statement for groundwork. While you may not think that what you do on the ground has any relationship to what you do in the saddle, this is evidence that it does. Groundwork done properly provides leadership in every other thing you do with your horse, especially riding.

Another thing is that you cannot establish leadership with mechanical means, such as lip chains, ropes around the nose, or aggressive movements like shanking a horse (where you give hard ‘snaps’ on the lead rope in consecutive order). Aggressive behavior from a human does not lead to a soft acceptance by the horse. Horses don’t need to be reprimanded or beaten into doing things; that style of behavior from a human only shows the human’s inability to train and work with horses.

How to bring the head lower
I use this simple exercise of pressure and release. I use a rope halter (never a traditional web halter) and soft long lead rope. I stand slightly in front and to the side of the horse and begin to lower my body slightly (intention), and add pressure on the lead. I maintain the pressure and keep it exactly the same, never increasing or decreasing it. The horse will likely throw his head up; move with him, keeping a consistent, even pressure on the rope. If he backs up, go with him, keeping the pressure. The second you get the smallest try from the horse, let the rope go quickly. It is this release that begins to teach. Rub him and ask him to lower again, keeping steady pressure until he gives you a small try again. Release, rub and carry on over and over again, until the release from the horse begins to build and become easier and longer.

Let’s talk about intention. I lower my body slightly at first to bring the intention of the exercise into focus for the horse. It’s one thing to go through the moves mechanically but horses pick up on our thoughts and intentions much better than we humans give them credit for. As I lower my body slightly and think about the horse lowering is head, the horse picks up on this intention and tunes in to the question better. Humans tend to ask horses, and other animals, in the language of the human, as we often fail to learn their language first.

Additional flexion exercises
You may want to add to this above exercise with some lateral flexion work. It’s groundwork that will add to your riding and help you with getting a softer poll and eventually a body. A braced horse at the front end is a braced horse all the way through.

Again, use a rope halter and longer lead line. Stand by his wither facing him, and bring the horse’s head close to you. Keep the head there until the horse gives, then let him go immediately. Reward the smallest try at first, as this will also build like the above exercise, when done enough times for enough days. Stay on one side first until you have the horse soft and giving, then move to the other side and do the same. Two eyes; two horses – train them both. Don’t let the horse try to bite the lead or try to play with you during this exercise. The horse must do this with clear intention and focus.

These are exercises that you will do with the horse for the rest of your time together. Because they are foundation work, you will revisit them almost daily before you ride. There are additional lateral flexion work exercises in the saddle that I suggest you read also, and you will find them in the article “Basic groundwork and saddle work for the herd bound horse.” These exercises work for herd bound horses and any young or older horse who needs to reestablish the basics of softness and suppleness.

So what went wrong?
Here is how the owner ‘taught’ the horse to keep his head up. First, giving constant tugs on the lead serve as pressure and release/reward. Since the horse had his head up, and felt release from the pressure, he assumed this reward meant he was doing something the human wanted. The horse was learning to bring his head up.

Then the chain over the nose really sent this horse into a tailspin, wondering what was being asked of him, since the communication now had nothing to do with horse language. The communication was indirect and misleading from the handler. The horse was experiencing pain for something he thought he was doing well. Now anxiety builds in the horse and the head raising gets higher. This scenario is transferred into the bridling and the saddle work, as “the horse you lead is the horse you ride.” The handler can’t get near the horse’s head for any reason because the handler lost trust.

This horse learned the habit through the repetition of the tugging. Repetition teaches; any form of repetition. Horses learn fast through clear repetition, such as the tugging of the lead, or the constant shanking.

As horsemen, we need to be clear with our questions to the horse, and remember what we are teaching him. While some horses can handle the odd slip from a human, others are sensitive enough to become combative and aggressive when handled inconsistently. As you progress in your horsemanship, try to learn and understand all there is to know about what you are trying to do.

4 responses to “My horse brings his head up when leading – and now riding.

  1. I am a 53 year old woman. I’ve had a love of horses all my life. I had a horse for 5 months when I was 15 but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing, in fact just the opposite I don’t. I recently found an abdondened year old colt. Every day twice a day I go out to his very large pasture and call him by the name he’s used to. He usually always comes running to see me. I’ve only been doing this for 6 days now and I have to admit I’m nervious becuase he’s never been handled by any one before and I’m new at all this and he’s new at all this too. I take out apples, carrots , bread and sugar cubes. He wants to eat and eat and I’m not sure but I think he just looks at me like the one that brings him good food but it’s working,, I think. If I run along the fence he runs next to me, if I stop he stops, If I turn back he turns back with me. Once he ran ahead and couldn’t see me and came to find me. I’ve been getting into the pasture with him but again I’m really nervious but determined to make friends. He’s nervious to because he throws his head up a lot and makes this sound with his mouth like he’s tired. Today he paws the ground once and I got back in the pasture with him. He puts his ears back some times but then brings them forward too. Yesterday I was able to get a halter on him and I was so excited. It took three try’s but I stood to his one side and I got it on. I went out and it’s still on. I don’t know what I’m doing to be honest but I’m hoping what I’m doing is the right things. I can’t walk through the pasture because I live in South Florida and we have a LOT of poisionious snakes and his pasture is really over grownb with high grass and shrubs and it’s not safe for me to walk through that. I stand inside the gate how ever and in that very small space is where we have bonded or I hope we’ve bonded some what. I spend 2 hours talking to him and getting in and out of thr pasture by climbing over the gate. It used to spook him but because I’m doing it so much he’s getting used to it. He’s trying to bully me for food though and maybe this is why I feel uneasy. He knows when I come I have food and he likes that. what can I do that can stop him from raising his head way over mine when I don’t give him the food and what does this mean when he’s doing this? he backs away from me too and I walk after him facing his face.. If I turn around and walk away he’ll follow me though. I have gotten to pet him a lot and he almost fell asleep on me today scratching his ears. I don’t want to make mistakes that will get me kicked or him not trusting me any more. Any suggestions would be appericated. It has to be me doing some thing to make him raise his head way over mine and I’m short. If I bend down to pull grass, he’ll lower his head like he’s helping me. I don’t know if I’m reading this right either but he stretches out his neck as far as he can get it some times for food like he doesn’t want to come in close but I won’t give him a treat like that I make him come to me. He also wants to bit at my hand like he’s associating my hand for food. am I making a mistake?

    • Chrissy, I will be posting the answer to your question soon on the front of the blog. If you are a subscriber, you will get the full post the second I finish it. Thank you for writing in with your story; I hope my reply benefits you two!

      • Hi April,

        I have some good and bad news. The good news 1st. I had the man who I found actually owned the colt and he gave him to me. He came with his trailor and we moved him from the 2 mile pasture to this man’s house where I am boarding my horse. All went better then I had hoped. Now for the bad news. While unloading a large bail of hay for my horse, the man has 8 other horses and one is a very large stallion. I went over to pet the horse as he was in his stall and I gently petted him down his neck, the horse layed his head on my shoulder which my horse does that to me to say he’s relaxed and at ease with me so I didn’t think any more about it. All of a sudden his horse bit into my chest right above my breast tissue, I lundged backaward . My ankle either went into a hole or into a tractor groove but I broke my ankle in three places, my tibia is fractured extremely bad, my fibulia is completely broken away from my ankle bone which is called the metacarple. I go into for surgery tomorrow morning as I need a few plates and screws to put my bones back together. The man said he has a pasture he’ll turn my horse out in so I don’t have to worry about that which is a load off my mind. The only thing I can think is I was over with my stallion petrting him , feeding him and his scent was all over my top and hands. I was thinking maybe the horse smelt my horse and thought I was a threat to his territory. what are your thoughts? I’ve never been biten by a horse before but damn does it hurt.

  2. sorry about the typos. That last part was bite at my hand or so that’s how it seems. it’s like he twists his head to the side and turns his lip up and seems bitie at my hand or arm. If I have my back turned he doesn’t do this or hasn’t yet. If I have food he’ll bully me or again so it seems to get to the food at all costs even though he has a lot of pasture to graze in. Again any suggestions would be greatly appericated. Were both so new at this I just don’t want to blow it. I guess he can pick up I’m some what nervious too becuase he’s never been handled by humans before. I think he’s nervious too. We both have a lot of learning to do but I want to do it the right way.

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