A very good friend asked me a question recently and I thought it would make a good tip…
She asked, “Brandi, how do I get my horse to lower her head when she is really excited? I took her sorting and she threw her head up and would not go into the cows. She would back up and not turn and I could not get her head down at all. I finally lost my temper and was starting to jerk on her mouth and I know that is not right. When I have her head down she is so much easier to ride, so can you please tell me how to get her head down?!”
We all want our horses to keep their heads down and be calm and easy to control, and we think that if we can get it in one circumstance that they will be the same everywhere. However, when horses get emotional, sometimes some or even all of the training goes out the window. And when this happens, we can lose control and suddenly we are focusing on the wrong thing. So my friend focused on the head set, thinking that if the head was down she could control her horse – but the reality is she did not have control of the horses feet.
See, we as an industry focus on:
- The emotional horse
- Throwing the head
…when we really should be focused on the horses feet! If we cannot get the feet to go where we want and at the speed we want them to, we will not be able to gain the horses attention, they will not respect us, we will not feel loved by them, and we start to not love them because we become afraid, they get spooky and emotional, and problems such as bucking, rearing and tossing of their head start happening. We then focus on all the things that are the symptoms of the problem and never the problem.
So now that we know what the problem is – controlling the feet – we have to go back and fix what is broken…in this case it is not the headset, it is the fact that when her horse got emotional or anxious the rider could not get her to go into the cows, so the horse backed up and at times would not turn. Now with horses, as you start gaining good control of the horse’s feet then the elevation and softness of the head will all come into place, so for right now, let’s not worry about the head. First things first!
Okay, let me begin by saying we all know that it is better to “train” your horse instead of finding yourself in a bad situation that you suddenly have to handle, however the reality is not all of us can spend the countless hours that it takes in the arena to make a nice trail horse, or the countless hours of arena work and adding emotions for horses to become non-emotional. So if you do find yourself in a situation like my friend did where you need an emergency fix, then this is how I would handle it.
First, always think about the biggest problem that you are having and start there. In this situation she could not get the horse to go in the direction she wanted. So the body part that helps the best with directional control are the hips or back feet. This is hard to explain so bear with me – if your horse will not go in the direction you want, reach down, pick up the rein on the side that you want to go towards, take the slack out of the rein, and begin to add pressure until you feel the front feet stop and the hind end swings around the front end. (Note: It is important to make sure the front feet are stopped… you do not want to pull into a small circle, meaning the front feet and back feet are turning in a small circle…nothing will come from that). If you want to go forward and the horse is stopped or going backwards, pick up the rein on any side and keep switching sides until the horse goes forward. You need to release the pressure as soon as you feel him swing his hind end around. The reason is when they “disengage their hind end” they lower their head…so while you are working on telling the horse to follow his nose and go in the direction that you asked you are also working on telling the horse to lower his head and calm down. It’s kind of a 2fer… you are gaining control of the feet while teaching them that you want them calm and their head down, but you are focusing on the most important part: control. You can use the same technique if your horse is going too fast…just reach down, do the same thing, and by changing directions they will start to control their speed without increasing it, and finally go the speed you want.
This then, is how I would have handled my friend’s emotional horse in the sorting pen. I would have worked her like this in the cows, and then when I was waiting for my turn out in the arena I would have done this exercise which I call the UP-DOWN EXERCISE. We are bringing the emotions up and when we disengage we are bringing the emotions down, we are using the Disengaging Exercise in this Exercise. We raise speed up and then bring down which causes the horses to wait for us to tell them to speed up. I would ask my horse to trot or lope off and then reached down and disengaged the hips, changed direction, then trotted or loped off the other way, and I would keep doing this till I felt my horse calm down and stay going the direction I wanted without leaking or raising any speed. Then when I went back into the cows, if we continued to have problems, I would keep doing the UP-DOWN Exercise in my “waiting for my turn” time until I felt my horse stay under control in the sorting pen.
Remember, this also works for straight lines or if your horse is excited on the trail and you are having concerns about control or emotions. However, you need to make sure that if you are going to work the Disengage Exercise or the Up-Down Exercise, make sure you are at the front of the trail and all your friends are behind you, because if they are in front and keep walking then when your hips disengage your horse will lose sight of the horse in front of them and that will increase anxiety –which would be bad! ;).
I hope that helps – if you have questions email me or call me, or come and audit a clinic and I can demonstrate it for you. Better yet come ride with me in a clinic and I can walk you through the exercises telling you when you are doing it right and when you are mixing signals!
Remember to always have fun with your horse. They want to know what you want from them, but they just get a bit confused, emotional and scared at times, so be patient with them. And be patient with yourself too!