My horse won’t put his head down. Should I force him?

Does your horse do giraffe impersonations and refuse to lower their head? Find out why ‘shortcuts’ to solving this problem can easily backfire.

It’s a very common belief that a horse should be ridden with their head down and that this is called going ‘in an outline’. But when knowledgeable horse trainers use the word ‘outline’, they are not simply describing the horse’s head position! (The term ‘outline’ is in itself controversial and a topic for another day…)

In a previous article I touched on one of the key components to getting a horse to lower their head and stretch over the back. I would now like to discuss one of the things you should not do!

Before we talk about horses, let’s think about humans. Specifically, let’s think about going to the gym…

cable pulley machine

If you frequent a gym, you may recognise this piece of equipment. It’s called a cable pulley machine. There are many different designs but they all use the same general principle.

how a pulley works

The way that one of these works is that you pull on a handle attached to a cable which goes over a pulley and is weighed down. By pulling against this, you work specific muscle groups. To work different muscle groups, you can change how you are pulling on the handle.

Here is a video to explain the concept more clearly.

If you have access to one of these machines, you can test out how they work. See if you can feel which muscles are being worked when you change positions. Even if you can’t feel it at the time, you probably will the next day!

So how is this relevant to horses? One way of getting a horse to lower their head is to force the head down. For example you might do this through the use of a specific piece of equipment that restricts the horse’s head movement.

horse with lunging gadget

Having seen how a pulley cable machine works, you may have already guessed why this might not work as well as expected. If you pull on a pulley cable machine, you will strengthen the muscles necessary to perform this action. Over time you’ll be able to pull more and more weight as you build more and more muscle for this job.

Similarly, a horse that consistently pulls against something that is holding their head down will strengthen the muscles in their body that help the horse to raise their head. Over time they will build these muscles up more and more, becoming better and better at pulling up and resisting: the exact opposite of what we want! When trying to get a horse to lower their head, especially a horse that is resistant to doing so, giving them something to pull on can easily backfire!

It is really important to understand your equipment and training methods and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use them. There are times when we can probably agree that specific aids may have some useful purpose. But trying to use restraint or force as a ‘shortcut’ in this situation turns out not to be the straight-forward and easy solution it might at first appear to be!

So if you’d like to get your giraffe-impersonating horse to lower their head, think twice before trying to use force or restraints!

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