Have you ever noticed that the first thing a horse does when he is nervous or scared is to raise his head? This is part of the instinctive "flight or fight" reaction that prepares the horse to either run or fight. Some horses habitually carry their heads high and, as a result, tend to be nervous, tense and unpredictable, often over reacting to ordinary things. Thankfully, this habitual behavior can be changed! Teaching horses to lower their heads is one of the most important TTEAM tools for keeping horses calm and thus able to listen and learn.
By teaching your horse to lower his head to just above wither height, first from the ground, then from the saddle, not only will your horse be calmer, but you will also improve his way of going under saddle. When a horse's head is up, his back is down and he cannot engage his hindquarters. This makes it difficult for him to balance himself correctly, move athletically and respond easily to his rider. It can also make him prone to back soreness. Once your horse develops a habit of carrying his head down, his back will be up, he will move more fluidly, be better balanced, calmer and better able to learn.
To begin this, and many other TTEAM exercises, we use two important pieces of equipment. They are; 1.) a nylon lead shank with either a 30" chain or a soft narrow rope in place of the chain and 2.) a stiff, white, 4' dressage whip called a "wand." We may use the chain or rope over the horse's nose, which gives a clearer signal than a lead attached to the bottom ring of the halter, or we may attach the lead to the side of the halter. THESE TOOLS ARE NEVER TO BE USED HARSHLY. The wand is used to stroke the horse. We introduce it to the horse by slowly stroking it over his entire body.
Attach the lead over the horse's nose as follows: beginning on the left side, and going towards the horse's nose, slide the snap through the lower side ring, cross it over the noseband and out the opposite side ring going away from the horse. Then clip it to the top side ring with the knob of the snap facing out. You can also run the snap through the bottom left side ring and clip it to the top ring on the same side. Some horses respond better to the lead over the nose and some to the lead attached to the side of the halter.
To ask your horse to lower his head, use a downward "take and release" signal on the lead using just your thumb and forefinger. Some horses will respond easily to this signal. If your horse does not, don't worry, just place your other hand on his crest and put a little downward pressure on both. Then, with your hand on the lead, grasp his halter and gently turn his head from side to side. Some horses have difficulty figuring out how to release their muscles so they can lower their heads at your insistence. This is a simple way of explaining what you want. Under no circumstances should you try to force the head down.
You can also squat in front of and slightly off to the side of your horse's head. Then use the wand to stroke down his neck, chest and legs, while giving the downward take and release signal on the lead. Once he lowers his head, place your hand on the nose band of his halter and slowly stand up. Your horse should keep his head down as you rise. If he does not, encourage him by pressing down gently on the nose band and turning his head from side to side.
Your goal is to have your horse respond to just a slight downward pressure whenever you ask him. If your horse loses his balance and steps forward while lowering his head, just reposition him and try again. He will soon learn how to keep his balance. Once your horse responds well on the ground, with a little practice he should also respond under saddle. Just reach forward with one hand and press or gently rock his crest until he lowers his head. (And you thought you needed a "gadget" to keep your horse's head down!)
Normally we combine lowering the horse's head with TTouch work on the body. The two work so well together that it is not unusual to make a dramatic difference in the way a horse habitually carries himself and behaves in just one session. I once talked to a woman a few days after working with her horse. She said she almost didn't recognize him when she saw him in the pasture. The session I did with him made a permanent change in his entire posture from high headed and dropped in his back to a much more level profile with a lower head. He looked like a different horse!
In the beginning, reinforce your horse's new habit as often as possible. This simple skill of lowering the head can dramatically change your horse's behavior. He will become calmer, learn more easily and move more athletically. And isn't that what you really want?