Thursday, March 8, 2012

Back To Basics III: The "Head Down" Cue

When I first got Sam, he was essentially a fire-breathing dragon in a horse's body. Somewhere down the line, my 17hh giant learned to lift his head to avoid being handled when he'd really rather be left alone. Haltering him was tricky, bridling more-than-troublesome, and deworming? Damn near impossible. He had a penchant for flinging his head up and flying backwards as quickly as his long legs would carry him without regard for the helpless human dangling from his face. Yikes!

Needless to say, that sort of behavior just doesn't fly. Seeing as I'm barely 5'4" on a good day, I knew that the key to a good working relationship with Sam was going to begin with teaching him the "head down" cue.

The "head down" cue isn't just useful for for shorties like me who work with gigantic horses. In fact, I teach the cue to every horse I work with, even ponies. The "head down" cue has several uses, from bridling to clipping bridle paths and cleaning ears, but is especially effective for teaching the horse to give to pressure, relax his neck muscles, and calm down when his instincts dictate otherwise. A horse that knows the "head down" cue is more likely to remain calm if he steps on his lead rope or reins, or to avoid the negative pressure that comes with pulling back against the lead rope when he's standing tied.

There are a number of methods for teaching the "head down" cue, and each of them can be used to encourage the horse to give to pressure at his poll in a variety of situations. When I describe these methods, I am operating under the assumption that you've got a reasonably friendly horse that will at least allow you to approach and handle him to some degree. If you're not currently able to come into contact with your horse, please consult an professional with experience in gentling and handling untouched, skittish, or spoiled horses for assistance.

Teaching the "Head Down" Cue in the Field or Stall (No Headgear)
  •  Standing at your horse's side, place your fingertips over his poll and exert a steady, gentle pressure there. You are not trying to shove the horse's head down, just applying pressure. (Some people like to give the verbal cue, "head down," when they apply the pressure. I don't, but you should do whatever feels comfortable and natural to you.)

  • If your horse resists the pressure by lifting his head or ducking off to the side, remain calm and don't be tempted to increase the amount of pressure you're placing on his poll. Be patient and stick with him, no matter how wiggly he tries to be. (If your horse is very wiggly, you may want to move into a smaller enclosure or try one of the other methods to teach this cue first.)

  • When your horse shows the slightest inclination to drop his head, release the pressure from your fingertips and reward him by stroking his neck or face. Moving your hand to these other areas ensures that you have completely removed the pressure from the poll and is a reward in itself.

  • Wait a few seconds, then repeat.

  • Once your horse seems to be catching on, you can begin to ask him to leave his head low for an extended period of time. To do this, simply time it so that your hand is exerting pressure on your horse's poll when he begins to lift his head. When he drops his head again, release the pressure and praise him. Soon, he'll begin to understand that leaving his head in a lower position means that he won't encounter pressure.

Teaching the "Head Down" Cue with a Halter
  •  Teaching a horse to lower his head while wearing a halter is very similar to teaching him to lower his head without any headgear, except that the pressure on his poll will be applied using the crown piece of his halter through a downward pull on the lead. 

  • Holding the lead near the snap, exert a one or two pounds of pressure on your horse's head by using a steady downward pull on the rope. Resist the temptation to yank on the lead or release pressure if your horse lifts his head at first; you don't want to start a fight you can't win, nor do you want to reward him for displaying the wrong behavior.

  • Release the pressure when your horse makes any effort to drop his head into a lower position and praise him for trying. Keep at it until you can move your horse's head to the desired height and get him to leave it there, as described above.

Teaching the "Head Down" Cue with a Bridle 
  • Teaching the "head down" cue to a horse wearing a bridle is very similar to the above methods, but you must be extremely careful about applying pressure to the mouth in this lesson. This is especially true if your horse is wearing a harsh bit or one with a great deal of leverage. Ideally, your horse would be outfitted in a plain snaffle for this lesson, but I realize that isn't always feasible for everyone.  
  • Practice applying pressure on the poll by pulling downward on the left rein, then repeat with the right. Once your horse responds to the cue correctly from the individual reins, you can gradually transition to exerting pressure on both reins at the same time to ask him to lower his head.
Expanding on the "Head Down" Cue

 If you have taught the "head down" cue correctly and your horse is responding consistently by dropping his head when pressure is applied to his poll, you can begin expanding upon that lesson by teaching your horse to remain calm when he steps on his lead rope.

I actually allowed Sam to teach himself how to respond to stepping on his lead rope, using the "head down" cue that I had already installed to help him figure out what to do. Early on in our "relationship," Sam suffered a deep laceration to his left front pastern and required stall rest and hand walking daily. One day, while I was allowing him to graze in the barn yard, I decided to drop the lead rope. I knew that Sam would eventually move on to another patch of clover and it was just a matter of time before he stepped on his lead rope, just as I had planned.

At first, Sam reacted with great surprise at the sudden pressure on his poll and yanked his head straight up in alarm, looked around, and went back to grazing. Eventually, after stepping on his lead rope several more times in the course of his grazing session, Sam's response to the pressure on his head lessened in intensity. He had figured out on his own that he could avoid the pressure all together if he remained calm, lowered his head, and moved a little. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he figured out that the pressure would stop all together if he'd just back up or step to the side a little, and then he could free himself and go on about his business.

Remember to practice this exercise (preferably, all three methods) in a variety of situations until your horse can respond consistently, even with distractions around. A horse that responds to pressure without panicking is one that is much safer to handle and more pleasurable to ride.

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