When I was working for Jimmy Williams, I noticed that he was forever getting his horses to lower their heads. He would lower a horse’s head to put the bridle on, or to smooth the forelock out under the brow band. He would teach the horse to roll a barrel with its nose. With a squeeze in front of the withers, he’d get the horse to lower its head, and then he would throw a sugar cube on the ground for it. Thinking back, Jimmy spent a lot of time in this endeavor. He must have thought it was important.
Over the years since then, I have learned that the head-lowering exercise is a way to gauge what my connection to the horse is in that moment, and also to help my horse release endorphins, encouraging relaxation and receptivity to the lesson I am teaching.
I ask for the horse to lower its head by feeling for the muscles around the poll and neck to find out whether they are tight or soft. If they are tight, I will adjust my work plan to include slower ground work like flexions, and cavalletti work to bring the horse’s attention back to his feet. If I ask the horse to put his head down and he responds softly to my touch, I will work through a quick review of my last ride and move the lesson forward that day.
When you take time to notice the position the head, you are getting a pretty clear idea of your horse’s emotional state; addressing that state effectively, before getting on, can make a big difference in your training effectiveness.
So we can all take a lesson from Jimmy: use head lowering exercises as a quick diagnostic to see how your training work with a particular horse is going. Is you horse getting emotionally wired? Or is he staying soft and connected? Take the opportunity to know right away how to adjust your training plan to maximize your effectiveness, and your horse’s learning.
Here are some tips to get you started. The photos are actually from a second version of this exercise, where you can combine head lowering with brushing the mane. (So convenient!)
When I ask for head down, I
Feel for where the horse is this day (tight or relaxed).
Move the head and neck toward me and away from me using the clip on the halter.
Move the head and neck toward me and away from me using my fingers on either side of the neck just behind the ears. When that is going well I move on to asking for head down.
I press inward and down on the nerves on either side of the poll just behind the ears.
When the horse makes the slightest try I release my hand quickly.
Each time I repeat I will get the head just a bit lower. It won’t come all at once, but when your horse has practiced and is comfortable.