Head Set Training

I have a 7 year old paint mare named 'Lacey Calico Doll.' I show her in English and Western Pleasure. BUT she does not really have a good head set! I have trained her so that when I do a see-saw on the reins she puts a head down but then she puts her head back up again! I tried doing it harder and then softer, but it does not work! I sometimes ride with a surcingle on or put her in the arena with it on her. She sometimes bucks too, because she's moody. It's a GIRL thing. (hehe) Can you help me to....

Story originally posted by: Maggie FlowersHorseCity.com Training Director

…get a head set in 6 months
…slow down the canter
…and also I need a opinion…
…her feet curve out and I am thinking of getting a good farrier to shoe her correctly, slowly.

Is that good for her legs or feet?

Please help me so I can place higher!
Anjie Ittner

Hello Anjie,

To properly get a good headset, is the results of a thoroughly training program that addresses the complete individual. A horse correctly schooled in a proven set of basics will gradually develop a headset that is comfortable and natural for her. She should look confident, soft and relaxed, not resistant and forced to hold her head in a particular position. To start this process, you must have instilled a strong basics foundation. She knows her proper pressures and verbal cues by way of ground work and some driving in the round pen. One idea is to have someone else lead her around, in a natural lead, in order for you to visually see where your horse naturally carries her head. If it’s low it will require a different treatment than if she carries high.

I believe that your problem is not that she won’t keep her headset, it’s that you are not allowing her to do so. By you see-sawing the reins you are (1) send too many cues at the same time and she’s confused as to what you want, (2) you are not allowing her R&R (register and react) time absorb the cue and think proper response. Horses think process is slower than that of a dog, so you must allow her time to figure out what you want. Once she figures it out, she will remember if your cues are consistent.

All correction, require a specific maneuver to facilitate the proper headset. If a horse breaks at the poll and drops his shoulder just pick up the inside rein across his neck and as soon as he picks up his inside shoulder, (even a little) and keeps his shoulders square (framing up) release it. To correct a horse who has dropped a shoulder to the inside, pick up the inside rein. As you pick up the inside rein, hold the outside rein steady (at your hip level) and apply pressure with your outside leg to move the horse’s hip to the inside. When the horse corrects herself and lifts the shoulder, and maintains it for a few strides, release the cue.

When you are riding her and you notice that she is beginning to hold her head too high, ask her to carry it higher than normal for several strides, then letting her relax into a lower more comfortable position. Sometimes its necessary to elevate the head and neck, push the horse into the snaffle bit with your legs and picking straight up on the reins, holding her head up for several strides. Then when you release her, she will want to relax and drop her head a little. Remember, all these exercises are done at a walk.

If she wants to be more elevated, school her on lateral flexing, asking her to give her head side to side. This will help her soften and be less resistant, so it is easier to relax her head at the poll.

Do not to use the surcingle while you are riding, this is a lunging/driving training aid and not a piece of riding equipment. The more you use it, the more your horse will depend on it and the less she will naturally relax to a natural headset. Besides, it obvious that it’s not working anyway and it’s not allowed in the show arena.

After you have accomplished to get her to maintain a good headset, you need to find what we trainers call a “reward zone.” For this the best position, according to renown Western Pleasure trainer, Steve Heckaman, is located at the rein-hand position in front of the saddle horn. “The rider’s hands put no pressure on the bit, as if to say to the horse, “You’re correct.” Use this position, it will serve you well. You will also find that by working on the headset and she becomes more responsive to giving to pressure, her canter will slow down too.

Now to address your question on corrective shoeing. Your horse, by your description is what’s known as “splay-footed.” This condition may cause the fetlocks to brush and the elbows to turn tight against the body, this hinders straight action. With corrective shoeing, done by a professional experienced in this kind of shoeing, the process will not correct the skeletal composition of the horse by will enable the horse to travel in a straighter line. This however does put some strain on the fetlocks and the elbows, so when you first have these shoes put on, you must exercise common sense and allow your horse to slow get use to them. Don’t work her hard the first week or two. Good luck!

Maggie Flowers