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 of these 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 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 (inside 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. To find out more about Clinton and how you can transform your horse into the partner you’ve always wanted, log onto www.downunderhorsemanship.com.[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 3, Issue 4.]
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