Heads Up! And How to Avoid This
One thing many people have difficulty with is horses sticking their heads up when under saddle. This is undesirable for a number of reasons; it doesn’t look good, it creates a hollow back resulting in soreness and weakness, develops bulging muscles under the neck, makes the horse harder to control and gives the rider a choppy ride. So people want to stop the horse doing it.
The standard methods are running martingales and tie-downs. These are mechanical tools used to control the position of the horses head. They are what I call ‘Band-Aids’, as they appear to fix the problem but all they’re doing is making it less visible, and when the equipment is removed the horse is still sticking the head up. These methods also firmly lay the blame on the horse and don’t look at the role the rider may be playing in creating the problem.
It’s important when working with horses to always look at what you’re doing first. If there is something you can change in the situation that improves it go there first. Often it’s something the human is doing and once they make the corrections, the horse no longer has a problem. This is something I’ve seen many times in my riding lessons with regard to horses sticking their heads up.
The key to a soft relaxed head on a ridden horse is in the riders’ elbows. Many think it’s the hands, and these are important, but the hands are attached to the elbows and if they’re stiff and immobile it matters little what the hands do. There are few activities requiring us to move our elbows in a soft rhythmic way. To do so can be difficult for some people and takes practice and patience. But it’s a riding skill that will change everything about the way your horse moves, and it will lower the head.
The reason a horse lifts the head is to escape pressure. If the horse is in walk the head is bobbing lightly. Watch a horse walk and you’ll see this head movement. The riders’ arms are attached to the horses head. If we hold our arms immobile and the horse is bobbing, then the horse is banging into rein pressure every second step. The pressure is unintentional and has no meaning and the horse lifts the head to try and relieve the pressure.
Now imagine if your arms, via the elbows, were softly following the movement of the horses head. Now the horse can't feel any random pressures, all is still until the rein is actually used for communication. Because the rein aid is coming from a place of stillness, the horse reacts quickly and easily, plus they have no reason now to raise the head, and the soft neck and head position transfers through to the rest of the horses’ body, giving a lovely, soft, supple horse who feels and looks fantastic to ride.
I’ve seen stiff horses with heads stuck up in the air adopt totally different postures when the rider softens through the elbows. It seems to easy to be true but give it a go and you'll be astounded. Habits can take a while to break, both for yourself and your horse, so be patient and you will be rewarded. When riders start riding this way they may forget to maintain open elbows when turning and halting. The horse is walking when turning, if you go stiff again it makes the turns difficult for the horse and they will resist and raise the head. When halting, if the softness leaves the riders elbows the horse halts with the head up in the air. These two skills take longer to master than the general elbow movement while walking along, so master this first then try to keep it going in the turns and halts. Then in the trot it's also soft elbows that enable your hands to remain motionless while the body goes up and down. In the canter the soft elbows gently follow the horses head again.
The direction of the arms is downward toward the horses’ nose and then back towards your belly. Initially you may need to think to get them started, but as soon as possible turn your brain off and let your body follow the horses’ motion. You’ll notice that your seat comes forward as your hands come back, creating the classic feeling of riding the horse from the seat into the hands. The connection you then feel with your horse is breathtakingly beautiful. And of course all of this can be done in a bitless bridle!
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
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