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Keeping Your Horse's Head Down

A student asked me the other day about keeping the horse’s head down after he has successfully lowered the horse’s head. I often see students get the horse to lower his head, but then it pops right back up. It’s like watching a little kid dunk apples in water — the fruit just keeps bobbing up to the surface.

This is a very common question I get asked quite often. The easiest solution to this situation is to continue to ask the horse to keep his head down (instructions at end of this article). Repetition is the key. A horse will pop its head up anytime it takes a step forward, even from a stop to a walk or anytime he changes gait. He’ll also raise his head anytime he becomes confused or frightened.

You can’t hold the horse’s head down. That’s just not possible. By continually asking the horse to lower his head every time he raises it will eventually condition the horse to leave his head in that lowered position.

By asking the horse to keep his head down, maintain flexion in his neck and poll area, and keep his head closer to his chest (but not behind the vertical), this posture will give you more lightness and responsiveness from the horse.

Everything with the horse, and I mean everything, starts with Basic Control. When you’re working with Basic Control, you’re focusing on Go and Stop. The more you work on these cues and really refine them, the better the horse will become — with everything. These basic elements ultimately lead to Connection, where all your training weaves together in a fluid response from the horse.

The ‘Head Down’ cue is a very important element of that fluid response. It’s a way to tell the horse that you want him to relax and become compliant with whatever is asked of him. ‘Head Down’ is one of the first things I teach a horse at my farm, the National Equine Behavior Center in Troy, Missouri. One of the main problems I see with all the horses that come here for training and rehabilitation is that they all want to carry their heads high. After continually asking them to put their heads down, their typical reaction is, ‘Okay, I guess that’s where I’m supposed to carry my head.’ And it works! They relax, can think more clearly, and aren’t resistant to further cues and requests.

So in achieving the goal of keeping the horse’s head down, remember to be clear, concise, consistent and constant. Repetition, in this case, will lead to success. The amount of repetition really depends upon the horse. If it takes 100 times, then it takes 100 times. What I like to do is five to seven repetitions. Those are correct repetitions — in other words, if you ask the horse to put his head down and he does it incorrectly by sticking his nose in the air, for instance, then I count that as ‘zero.’ When he puts his head down correctly, I start counting that as ‘one,’ and when he does five or six correctly, then I’ll go to the other side (changing rein signals).

The way I came up with the head down cue was with a horse that came in for training years ago. He was shown at Western Pleasure, and the lady who owned him wanted to find a way to cue the horse to lower his head without the judges being able to see it. I was trying various cues with this horse, and found that by adding a little pressure upward with one rein, and a little pressure toward the hip with the other rein, it would cause the horse to put his head down. I’ve refined it since then, but it works.

Here’s what I now have found to be effective in my training program when asking the horse to put his head down.

The key to the “head down” cue is that one hand holds the rein higher than the other hand. The inside hand raises up and the outside hand moves back, causing the horse to drop his head.

For the “head down” cue, move the inside rein up toward the midline of your body, below your chest but above your bellybutton. At the same time, move the outside rein straight backward toward your hip.

As soon as the horse begins to drop his head, immediately release the pressure on both reins.

When cueing for a “head down,” make sure that the horse does not slow his feet, but instead simply drops his nose. For that to happen, the pressure on the horse’s mouth must differ from the pressure applied when asking for a stop. Consistently apply clear and concise rein cues for ‘head down’ — up on one side, and back on the other — until the horse understands that when he feels this particular pressure on his mouth he should drop his head but keep his feet moving. Because the head down cue is different from the slowing down/whoa cue (which is a 1-2-3 pattern with the left rein, right rein, left rein), the horse should lower his head and keep his feet moving. The head down cue is a different pressure in the horse mouth and the bit affects him differently, so he’ll be able to differentiate this cue from the slow down/whoa cue.

The faster the horse’s feet move, the more the flight instinct engages in his brain. So before you move the horse up in a gait (walk to trot, trot to canter, etc.) make sure the horse knows the head down cue in order to consistently put his head down when you ask him. If the horse doesn’t already understand that cue as you move up in the gait, the horse’s head will continually raise higher and higher and you’ll lose his head down response.

Tags training communication natural horsemanship behavior


Horse Training: The Head-Down Cue

Teach your horse a head-down cue with this exercise from top clinician John Lyons.

By John Lyons

You're ready to clip your horse's ears. Speaking in soothing tones, you gently tug on the lead rope to coax his head down. Instead, he raises his head out of your reach--and with it your frustration level. Your voice becomes loud and sharp. Your gentle tugs turn into hard pulls.

Stop right there! Here I'll tell you how to avoid this kind of tug-of-war by patiently teaching your horse to lower his head in response to poll pressure. By doing so, he'll also relax his neck muscles, which will help him relax overall, thus becoming a more willing parner.

Exercise: You'll gradually teach your horse to lower his head in response to downward lead-rope pressure.

Goal: To teach your horse to give in response to poll pressure, rather than fight it.

What you'll do: You'll apply gentle downward pressure on the lead rope, instantly rewarding any downward movement. Then you'll incrementally ask him to lower his head to the ground--and leave it there.

You'll need: A well-fitting leather or nylon halter; soft, cotton lead rope; round pen or similar small enclosure. (Note: Although I'm working in a grassy area, I suggest you work your horse on non-grassy footing, so you know he's not simply lowering his head to eat.)Advertisement

Before you begin: Your horse should be halter trained. Outfit him in a halter and lead rope, and lead him to your work area.

1. Apply Pressure. Stand facing your horse's left shoulder. Hold the lead rope just under the snap with your right hand, and the coiled remainder in your left one. With your right hand, exert gentle downward pressure.

(Troubleshooting tip: If your horse raises his head, avoid jerking on the rope, which would confuse him. Also avoid releasing all pressure, which would reward him for the wrong behavior. Instead, keep your pressure steady and light, be patient, and reward any> downward movement, as described below.)

2. Reward. The moment your horse begins to drop his head, even a fraction of an inch, reward him by releasing your pressure cue, giving his neck a rub, and speaking kind words.

3. Go lower. A few seconds later, ask your horse to lower his head a bit more using the same pressure cue you applied in Step 1. Add lowered body language. Reward any downward movement. Encourage him to leave his head in the lowered position by rewarding him with a short break and extra rubs. Conversely, if you sense he's going to raise his head, exert light downward pressure on the lead rope to give him a "stay down" message. Continue in this manner until he lowers his head to the ground and keeps it there.


Lowering Your Horse’s Head, by Clinton Anderson

Horse ownership should be fun for both you and your horse. A big part of what makes the time you spend with your horse fun is having a horse that is easy to handle. For many owners, clipping their horse’s ears, bridling or doing anything that involves the horse’s head is anything but enjoyable because the horse throws his head in the air, making it difficult for you to reach him. Whenever you do anything with your horse’s head, he should lower his head to the ground making it easy for you. Most horses won’t naturally lower their heads for you, but you can teach them a cue to bring their heads down. Once your horse knows the cue, and if you are consistent in asking him to lower his head every time you do anything with his head, then it will soon become a habit and he will do it without you having to ask him.

Heads Up – There are two reasons that a horse throws his head in the air: He is disrespectful of you, or he’s scared and doesn’t trust you. Both issues can be resolved by doing groundwork and then desensitizing the horse to movement around his head. Groundwork exercises such as Backing Up and Lunging for Respect, Stage I and II, are effective because they establish your role as the horse’s leader. Pressure on the Poll – When your horse is both respectful and trusting of you, then you can teach him the cues to lower his head. The first cue asks the horse to lower his head to pressure on the poll from your thumb and index finger. Using this exercise you can teach your horse to lower his head all the way to the ground whenever you press him in between his ears. Once he has lowered his head, he should keep it lowered until you give him a cue to raise it again.

Stand on the left side of your horse facing his head with your belly button. Hold the cheek piece of the halter with your left hand. Put your right hand between the horse’s ears and gently touch his poll with your thumb and index finger; your fingers should be on either side of his forelock just behind the hard lump between his ears. Gradually increase the pressure by pressing with your fingers, then pushing harder and finally digging your fingers in until he responds by lowering his head. The instant he drops his head even slightly, immediately release the pressure and rub his poll.

Initially your horse may dislike the pressure and will react by throwing his head up. If he does, you should keep your hand on his poll as you maintain the pressure until he finds the answer by dropping his head. The key to this exercise is to reward the slightest try. If he drops his head even slightly then you should reward him by releasing the pressure and rubbing his poll with the palm of your hand.

Through repetition, your horse will gradually drop his head lower and lower until it eventually touches the ground. Rubbing your horse after he has dropped his head is very important because it will stop him from becoming defensive about you touching his poll. Rub him for a few seconds or until he raises his head again and then repeat the exercise.

After your horse becomes relaxed with having his head lowered, teach him to keep it there until you ask him to raise it by putting your hand under his chin and lifting his head up.

Halter Pressure – You should also teach your horse to lower his head to steady pressure on the halter. To do this, you’ll take a hold of the lead rope and pull down with steady pressure until the horse drops his head. Again you are looking for small increments of improvement, and you should release the pressure initially even if the horse drops his head a half-inch. This exercise is particularly useful if you are in a situation where you cannot touch, or it is not safe for you to touch the horse’s poll e.g. in a horse trailer.

Ensure that you teach your horse to lower his head to both cues when you are standing on either side of him. When you change sides you will have to re-teach the entire lesson as though you are dealing with an entirely different horse. Safety Factors – Always make sure that you are standing to the side of your horse and are not bent over the top of him when you are asking him to lower his head or when he has his head lowered. If you are bent over the horse and he throws his head up, you will get whacked on the chin or head.

Author’s note: A native Australian, Clinton Anderson began his quest to become the best horseman he could be by apprenticing under nationally acclaimed Australian trainers Gordon McKinlay and Ian Francis. In 1996 Clinton moved to America to continue training horses and apprenticed under Al Dunning, winner of multiple AQHA World Championships, before beginning to train under his own name. Clinton loves training reiners and cow horses and has been successful in both competitive arenas. Clinton is the host of Downunder Horsemanship TV. To find out more about Clinton and how you can transform your horse into the partner you’ve always wanted, log onto

Published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 3, Issue 4.

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