Help me get my horses head up!
One of the questions I received in my “free book” competition was how to fix a horse’s low head carriage. I deemed this the winning question because they’re definitely out there in the show pen.
Thanks and congratulations to the winner of “From Go to Whoa” for sending in your great question.
This is a topic I would really like to write about.
Head carriage is for some reason misunderstood at times and goes against the A.Q.H.A. rule book.
Working on fixing a low head carriage
This is in my opinion the hardest problem to correct. Correcting a horse with a high head carriage is easier.
Once you have ruled out any pain that may be making your horse carry their head low, high or even on an angle, looking at the bit you use in your horses mouth, their teeth may be overdue for an appointment with your equine dentist; even a horse that has pulled back when tied up any time in the past may have issues with old injuries to their upper vertebrae. It could even be muscle memory, even though there is no pain the horse has learned to carry himself in a certain way from when he was in pain – he has to be re-programmed that he is not longer in any pain and it’s ok to alter his way of carrying himself. It pays to be able to rule these issues out.
It takes a long time and a lot of patience working on bringing a horses head back up to level topline when a horse has been taught to carry their heads in this low position for quite some time.
Most times this is man made, perhaps by well meaning trainers or owners that assume using very tight rings, draw reins or tie downs on a daily basis is what you do to get your horse low and slow. I use all three but never on a daily basis and only as a tool, all three look much better hanging on the wall for long periods than hanging off the horses face for long periods.
You can train a horse to carry it’s head high or low, you can train them to turn left with right cues and vise versa, you can train them to back with forward cues, it doesn’t make it right but you can train a horse in any way you want with enough repetition doing the same thing day after day whether it’s correct or incorrect you can teach your horse to do anything. Once they learn what you teach them, when you try to undo that training you have a job on your hands.
When training a horse that has too low a head carriage which also means it will usually be on the forehand, before I reach for my tools in the toolbox, I like to analyse what I am working with. I don’t like to start with training tools unless I know I definitely need a certain bit or any other training gear, the horse in question may be able to be shown how to hold a level top-line with some basic exercises without the need to up the ante.
Working with a plain snaffle and hand to mouth exercises
- The Serpentine exercise – Serpentine exercises will keep your horse focussed, balanced they discourage bad habits forming due to fatigue from riding in a same direction circle for too long, causing your horse to learn that it is easier to drop the lead shoulder than to stay upright. Serpentines will take the “predictable” out of the equation, you can keep your horse in the dark so to speak as to which direction he will be going next and when. Not only will serpentines help you lower your horse’s head if he typically travels with a high head carriage, they are just as good for getting your horse ‘s head-set level! Among a myriad of other reasons for riding in serpentines. For those of you who have purchased my book “From Go to Whoa” Training your own horse, you will know how important serpentining your horse is, no matter what age your horse is it should be kept away from too many straight lines when training, keep your straight lines for checking how your training session went, put your horse on the rail and practice what you have just preached to your horse before finishing off your training day with them.
- lifting with an alternate, rhythmic hand “see-sawing” action. To be effective, this method must become a consistent routine until you recondition your horse’s response. In the end, you will teach your horse that if he gives to your hands by flexing at the poll when you pick up on the reins, especially using one rein at a time and in a rhythmic action from left to right rein in short, gentle see-sawing bumps in an upward motion while at the same time bumping his sides with your lower legs to encourage forward motion. You should never be working with your hand to mouth contact unless your legs are bumping your horses sides. Bringing your horses head up to just above level top-line each time. Giving back to your horse by softening on the reins as his reward for coming up to where you would like him. Coming above top line level is important because if you stop your see-sawing at top line level the horse will automatically seek his low position so bringing him higher than where you want a correct head set will give you some space to have him drop his head, when he does drop to just below top line level begin your see-sawing hand to mouth action again lifting him in the poll and his shoulders. The distance between the two positions is very little but it gives you a bit of time to bring him back up to above the top line position so that you can release the exercise and begin teaching him when he is left alone (around about top line position) that is his reward. Don’t forget – timing is very important in this exercise so that your horse understands he is being rewarded. Repetition is key, this needs to be done daily and every time your horse drops it’s head down to that low carriage he is so used to.
You may get frustrated with trying to bring your horses head up continually, try not to let it get to you. Remember, it takes a long time to train a horse let alone re-train them. You have to stay with it.
These are the two exercises for the foundation of fixing a horses head carriage. I would continue these two exercises daily, every time I am on their backs, they will be serpentining at the walk, jog and lope and any time they want to place their head-set back to the low position they are used to I will use my hand to mouth see-sawing motion breaking him at the poll and lifting in the wither to teach him three things:
1. level top line;
2. exchange his weight to his hind end;
3. learn to lift in the wither which should be automatic when he learns to transfer his weight and drive to his hind end.
Need some help from the “tool box”
I will continue training the horse in the same way for however long it takes and that can be months of daily repetition, they all need daily reminding and naturally, they want to take the easier way out and that is travelling on the forehand especially if they have to travel with a low head carriage!
My next go to if these two exercises aren’t sinking in is to use what I call an absolute savior for correcting this hard to fix habit, that is a Gag bit.
If you google gag bit you will be inundated with photos of lots of bits listed as gag bits. This is where you have to be super switched on as there are gags that will also assist you in getting a horses head down, that’s another article. In this article we want a Gag bit that has a head lifting action. It creates this by increasing pressure on the corners of the lips, asking for the horse to raise his head. In very simple terms, a running gag is accentuating the action of a snaffle.
The severity of this bit is governed by the nature of the rider’s hands. Ideally, the cheek pieces should have a stopper fitted to limit the upwards action of the bit, and a second rein used on the bit rings so as to employ the gag action only when necessary.
They are not permitted at any level of showing in the western industry or dressage, since dressage riders are trying to get the horse to come down onto the bit, and want to encourage the horse to accept contact. Additionally, the horse is supposed to be completely submissive, and a gag bit gives the impression that it is not. Gags are also never seen in the hunter classes, again because riders wish to portray that the horse is an easy ride, and because the ideal is a long, relaxed frame with the neck stretched out. However, if used sparingly and correctly the gag bit is excellent at achieving that relaxed frame. Go overboard with it and you may well have a horse travelling with a high neck frame.
When using a gag, the cheek pieces of the bridle run through holes in the bit rings directly onto the reins. When rein pressure is applied, the bit runs along these cheek pieces so as to draw the mouthpiece upwards in the horse’s mouth. The gag bit works on the corner of the horse’s mouth and poll simultaneously. The pressure on the mouth tends to make the horse raise its head, which is useful for a horse that tends to lean on the bit or carries his head too low. They can also be used to help elevate a horse that is heavy on its front end. Gag bits are used mainly for horses that are strong pullers or for horses that need retraining. The gag bit is a bit that I couldn’t go without for re-training a low head carriage horse, the gag and the gag bridle is an excellent tool to use on these horses.
The English style gag bit can be used with two sets of reins; one on the bit ring that does not apply gag leverage, and the other on the small ring attached to the cord or rolled leather strap of the gag bridle cheek piece. This allows for the bit to be used as a normal snaffle, with gag action used only when needed. I’m not really a fan of this technique. You have to be switched on for when to raise your horses head getting it done as soon as. When you have two sets of reins going it can be a bit confusing for some (me) trying to grab onto the set of reins that is going to assist in getting the horses head up and not grabbing the reins that are used normally. I ride with quite long western reins and don’t fancy tying a knot in one set to keep them from falling away from the horse’s neck whilst not in use AND I can’t stand short buckled, english type reins while using a set of long, split, western reins.
Give the gag bit and bridle combo a try if you feel your horse is not getting it with the hand to mouth snaffle training.
Each time your horse begins to travel with a low head carriage lift your reins, this will make the bit raise up onto the corners of his mouth, he will also feel pressure on his poll from the bridle or running headstall. This action will encourage him to lift out more from his shoulders and balance out in his poll. I wouldn’t encourage see-sawing on the gag bridle, simply lift the reins, let the reins to the work for you on the bit and poll.
Once your horse feels the pressure from both the bit and the bridle on his poll he should break at the poll and shoulders, this is what you want. A horse that is balanced in the poll and shoulder (or wither) cannot travel with a low head carriage. So technically speaking, you are working on lifting that shoulder and getting your horse breaking at the poll. Balancing your horse.
How often should you use a gag bit?
I recommend using a gag sparingly. Use it for a few weeks, see how your horse feels in it. If you are getting a good response from the gag hang it back up for a while and go back to hand to mouth snaffle, see-sawing training as above. You can always go back to the gag at any time for extra help but don’t rely on training gear and use it as a crutch.
You will probably find that your horse will always try and revert back to travelling with a low head carriage, once they are trained to carry themselves with a low head and all their weight on their front end they know it’s easier. Be vigilant with your see-saw training, continue working on breaking at the poll, breaking at the wither, never give up on it, this will eventually help with changing your horse’s muscle memory, it will begin conditioning the correct muscles to enable your horse to carry himself naturally level and lifted.
If you have any questions on getting your horse’s top line level you can contact me about this article.
Book – FROM GO TO WHOA
Training Your Own Horse