Knowing where the horses head is and knowing where the horses head is, are two completely different things. As similar as they may read, one refers to the mental head and the other refers to the physical one. Despite our plethora of knowledge and vast array of studies which have led us to believe that the physical head position should not be as important as the rest of the body, we still have a fixation on the head position of horses. We struggle with the vision of a U—necked, head in the cloud’s creature. As riders we desperately want to ride that proud, powerful, submissive beast that we see on tv, in magazines, and at the very top levels of each discipline.
If we cared as much about the mental whereabouts of our horse’s head as we do the physical whereabouts, there would be happier horses and happier riders everywhere. The correct placement of the horse’s physical head, where it is using its back, is at a lower position than horses naturally would like to carry themselves. It is not necessary or even useful to put the horses head that low until it is a relaxed and thinking horse.
If the rider wants to do a correct leg yield with rhythm and relaxation, the horse must engage his back and to engage his back he must lower his head. This is where riders make the mistake of riding horses for head position instead of correct performance. I believe we often save the lateral work for more developed horses when we should be using it to develop the horse all along. Lateral work forces the rider to learn how to ride off their seat and legs instead of their hands. We all admire the bridle-less horse that carries out the rider’s commands by mere telepathy or so it seems. This is what we should be striving for when we train our horses. When I am working with my horses, I often ask myself “if I had to ride without a bridle, could I do it?” This helps take the focus off the position of the horse’s physical head and place the focus on the position of the horse’s mental head. More than that, it brings attention to his rideability through leg and seat.
Without a bridle the rider must forget the horses head position and communicate using the other 90% of our body that is not our hands. This is when we have control of the horse’s body. Control of the body then translates to control of the head, both mentally and physically.
One of the great mistakes I see riders make is during that frightful moment that the horse sees something scary and is contemplating whether to turn and run or to investigate. At that moment the rider knows they are out of control and may soon take a quick trip to the ground. Out of fear, riders want to get control of the head. We want to force the head down so the horse won’t see the scary thing. This is counterproductive because it just makes the horse more terrified and reactive. In order to gain relaxation and understanding, the horse needs to be able to see what is scaring him.
If I have a horse that is afraid of, let’s say a plastic bag rolling along the ground, I won’t take his eyes away, I will wait to deal with his reaction. If they are facing the object and attempting to understand it, then I am happy. If I happen to have a treat in hand, I will offer that to them. Anything I can do to make the horse realize the object is not evil, I will do. I want to build my horses confidence rather than tear it down. I want him to be curious and go against his nature by asking questions first and running…never.
Challenge yourself to not worry so much about the position of the horse’s physical head. Worry more about his mental status. Is he relaxed? Is she light in the hand and listening? Are you able to ask for leg yields, and shoulder ins, and haunches in? Is the horse moving freely forward with rhythm? These are the important focus factors. The relaxed, confident horse will easily become your proud, powerful partner.