Lowering your horse’s head is a great way to help your horse relax, give to pressure, and focus on you. It is one of the most basic elements of horsemanship that anyone can learn, but many people have never been taught. I use this exercise any time I am first meeting a horse to get to know the horse and also get an idea of what state the horse may be in. I often encourage people to perform this exercise every time they halter a horse as a simple way to start each session off in a positive manner. It helps the horse begin each session relaxed and willing while also making sure that the handler is focused and taking his or her time.
The Basic Steps
To lower your horse’s head start be haltering your horse and moving to a quiet area where you can work uninterrupted. Once you have the basic principles down you can perform this skill anywhere, but it is easier for both you and the horse to learn in a space free of distractions.
Stand on the left side of your horse (this exercise can be done from either side, but for the purposes of explaining we will assume you are on the left side) holding your lead rope in your right hand. Gently place your left hand on your horse’s poll and apply a small amount of pressure. If your horse does not react to the pressure on his poll at all, you can increase the pressure slowly until you get a response. You can also try gently squeezing the nuchal ligament located over the poll or using your right hand to apply pressure on the horse’s nose or halter. Only use enough pressure to get a response.
If your horse raises his head, keep the pressure steady and wait for him to give. If he lowers his head even a barely perceptible amount, release.
Continue asking and releasing until your horse drops his head all the way to the ground. Make sure to reward your horse for progress by giving him space and time to think about the exercise. When you see a significant improvement, stop working on this exercise and do something else so that your horse does not become frustrated.
Over the course of the next couple of days, weeks, or months, keep repeating this exercise until your horse lowers his head easily and willingly with just the weight of your hand. Make sure to always release at the slightest sign of the horse giving and to end sessions as soon as the horse has made progress. For some horses, the first session might just be getting the horse to stop trying to throw your hand off his poll. Until he can accept that, you won’t be able to lower his head.
Once your horse has gotten good at this exercise, you can build on it by asking the horse to drop his head and then wait there in a relaxed state. Horses in general get worried when they are unsure what to do. That is one of the reasons a lot of them dislike standing. They are much more comfortable with constant direction so that they never have to accept the situation they are in. Asking your horse to drop his head and wait in a relaxed manner helps him learn patience as well as relaxation. It also keeps him focused. Many horses will throw their heads up as soon as they hear a noise or see something move. Asking your horse to gently lower his head again helps him learn to pay more attention to you than his surroundings.
To do this, ask you horse to lower his head and then wait for your horse to raise his head. When he starts to come up, gently ask him to lower his head again. As soon as his head moves downward again release even if his head is feet above where it started. Often when a horse starts to bring his head up and he feels your hand on his poll he will throw his head all the way up in surprise and worry. Simply keep a steady pressure and wait for him to think about it and drop his head slightly. Repeat this exercise until your horse can stay with you with his head dropped.
You can also build on this exercise by asking your horse to look to the side once he has dropped his head to reinforce that you want your horse supple and paying attention. Sometimes horses will learn to “hide” with their heads down if they begin to associate putting their head down with being left alone. If you make sure that the horse is staying relaxed and focused throughout the exercise, you will avoid this.
Although this is a fairly simple exercise, it can make a huge difference in every aspect of your work with your horse. Go try it out and let me know how it goes for you! Feel free to leave comments or questions below.