Kentucky Equestrian Articles

News & Information

STOP obsessing over your horse's head !!!

Submitted by: Danielle Aamodt
Date Added: 1/5/2017

STOP obsessing over your horse's head ! I learned to ride the whole horse (& you should too)

Please, I beg you, STOP obsessing over the placement of your horse's head. Just STOP.
The angle of your horse's face does NOT guarantee that they are using their topline or pushing from their hindquarters, so stop using it as a measurement tool.

Before I go any further, let me confess that I also used to pay way too much attention to head placement. Don't feel bad. It's easy to do; their head is the only part of the horse that you can see while riding. And if you're like me, you are also guilty of staring down at that head while you ride. (also a bad idea, as my trainer used to tell me: "will staring at his head make him go on the bit?" Nope.)

It wasn't until recently that I found a trainer who wasn't afraid to tell me what I'm telling you now:
STOP worrying about where their head is. Do NOT pull it into place. Do NOT yank it down. Do NOT try to use aimless finger wiggles to nicely entice them to bring it down. My point is: that's not the goal! If your horse is working correctly over the topline & using their hindquarters, then their head will naturally (& magically) find the correct place. Depending on your discipline, your rein contact might be very light or more connected, but either way-- the rein contact WILL be light in your hand if they are moving in a balanced fashion. Trust me!

It was hard for me to trust that advice at first. I've always been a student of Dressage, and it's sacrilegious to go around with your horse's head up. So we do everything in our power to bring it down or in; it makes us look (& feel) like a better rider. I've even had a Dressage trainer snap at me: "get his head down!". We pull on them, try different bits & change our tack before figuring out what's wrong with the actual training. All of these years, I was doing it wrong.

I had to start over. Learn how to get a balanced, forward walk. Learn how to ride from the SEAT and leg. I'm just barely feeling confident that I can accomplish a well-balanced, correct trot. It's been tough to admit that after years & years of riding horses, taking lessons & training, I am just barely at that level again. But at the same time, after experiencing what a truly balanced horse feels like under saddle, I'll never go back!

The first horse I learned this method with had been out of work for over a year and needed rehab work. Rehabbing was a perfect opportunity to take the time & learn how to train her correctly. She immediately learned how to balance on her hind end, but it tooks weeks (WEEKS) for her to gain the strength to actually walk, then trot, balanced & over her back. So, that entire time we went around with unsteady head carriage. Sometimes her head went up, sometimes it would come down, and her nose was always poking pretty far out. Again, my trainer made me ignore it. I could apply contact to the corners of her mouth, but he did not allow me to force her head down. My rein aids were for straightness & bending only (still connected, mind you). It was a slow process, but it DID feel balanced. For the first time, I felt like I really had control from the seat & leg. I was finding straightness & freedom through her shoulders that I had never felt before in my riding.

Months later, at another barn, I was able to apply these newly learned skills to another horse. I was allowed to ride a gelding who was used in a lesson program & was getting grumpy about it. This thoroughbred would drop his back & fling his head violently in the air to avoid the contact. (sometimes even kick out) The barn manager pulled him from the lesson program and had a Vet & then Chiropractor examine him: he was fine. Their next step was to try more advanced riders, so he wasn't subjected to beginner riders for a while.
When I first got on this horse, he immediately respected leg contact & my seat. When I applied leg, he knew it meant to use his back. He was actually quite lovely off the leg, especially for how big he was. He did try his new trick of flinging his head around & hollowing his back to get out of work. My response: I'm not after your head. Instead, I added leg and asked him to work. And he did. During our first few rides, he used his trick here & there. But I never grabbed his mouth, never yanked on his head, didn't need to change the bit . . . and after 3 rides, he was happily accepting contact & moving forward without argument. Lo & behold: his head came down into place. He had just gotten tired of people pulling on his face & forcing it. (God bless lesson horses!)

This gelding reaffirmed everything I had learned: pulling on their face & placing their head does not necessarily mean a horse is using it's back & hindquarters. BUT, when using their back & hindquarters correctly, a horse's head will find the right place. Don't mix that up. I would go further to say that pulling on their jaw is horribly uncomfortable & causes tension. Try tilting your head down & put pressure on your lower jaw, then tell me how it feels. A smart horse will act out against this feeling, like this gelding did.

As riders, we need to be more conscious of a horse's HIND END rather than their head. Don't be so subconscious about their head placement while you're riding that you skip over the real training. Don't be too proud to ask for help. If it feels like you're trying to pull your horse's head down, then you probably are. And it's wrong. Literature suggests a straight line from your elbow to the horse's mouth because that direct line means you're putting pressure on the corners (lips) of the horse's mouth & not the bars (their lower jaw).Putting pressure on their bars is only asking for tension; you're playing tug of war with their jaw. Ouch!

Trainers, you need to be aware of what goals you are influencing on your students. Even if YOU know the horse's topline and hind end matters, make sure the message is coming across. Don't focus on what the rider can SEE; focus on what the rider can FEEL. For so many years, the things I heard in lessons became sound-bites, but I only recently learned how to apply them: Balance. Straightness. Connection on the bit. A proper seat. Ride from the leg. Half halt.
I'm happy to report that I found a trainer who can explain how to achieve it in a way that makes sense to me. I've connected the right feeling to those terms, which in turn has improved my responding aids & timing.

Do your horse a favor. Do yourself a favor and take my advice. Pay attention to your WHOLE horse when you ride, not just their head.
The answers are in the caboose!

[p.s. don't over analyze the photo... it's a stock pic. Chill out]

Click Image to View Larger