Question: 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.