The Head Drop
Updated: Sep 4
Asking a horse to drop their head with a soft and immediate response is one of the best things you will ever train into your horse. When a horse is stressed and cortisol is running freely, the head will be high and stiff, somewhat like a periscope in some horses! In this state there is little you can do with your horse until the cortisol levels have dropped. Horses do not learn anything at all when they are in a state of stress. Also there are obvious safety concerns for the human when dealing with a horse in this state, so it’s best not to proceed with whatever you’re doing while the horse is stressed.
Now picture a relaxed horse, with the head and neck in a lowered position. If the horse is totally in their ‘happy place’ the head is all the way down and eating grass. This horse has no stress hormones in the system, is safe and fun to be around, plus can learn new things if you are in a training situation.
If a horse feels fear, or has a flight reaction, this sends the head up. The emotion comes first then the physical reaction to it. The really important thing to be aware of is that this also works in the opposite direction. If the head is up and we ask the horse to drop, this brings down the horses emotional state to a place of relaxation. A horse cannot remain highly stressed if the head is down, the two things just don’t go together. Dropping the head flips the horse back to relaxation. This is fantastic news for us, because horses are genetically flight animals and the need to calm them down does arise.
What’s more, we can also use this calming response in our training with huge effectiveness. One example is with a girthy horse. This works best if you have a friend who can help. One person starts tightening/playing with the girth until the horse has the reaction, they continue with what they’re doing while the second person asks for the head drop. The moment the head goes down the person at the girth stops. The horse is being rewarded for dropping the head and relaxing while being girthed. This is repeated until the horse stops raising the head and fussing during girthing.
Another place this can be used is with scary objects. For example, if the horse is scared of a plastic bag, it can be laid against the horses’ body while asking for the head to be lowered. The moment the horse lowers the head remove the bag. Repeat until the horse no longer has a reaction. This principle can be applied in numerous situations, and creates a calmer and more manageable horse in the long run.
To train, apply a squeezy feel directly downwards with the lead rope. Imagine you’re squeezing water out of a sponge and ensure the pressure is vertically towards the ground. The moment you feel a downward response in the horse remove the pressure. Repeat until you feel your horse has made some improvement then stop. It’s important to stop on an improvement, if you continue for too long the horse may go backwards. Repeat often, it can be done in just a minute or two, small amounts frequently works best with horses.
You’ll quickly find you have a horse that drops their head in any situation. Yes I am talking about when the vet comes, the dentist, the wormer, when there’s a monster in the bushes, all manner of things will become easier. Plus you will find your horse starts dropping the head when ridden easily in response to soft rein aids. This one single thing is a gem, I can’t recommend it more highly to everyone who lives with horses.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
Facebook: Happy Horses Bitless Bridles