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Teaching a Horse to Relax While Leading
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [August 9, 2000]


Training Question:

I have a 2 year old Appaloosa gelding. My problem is that whenever I am leading him around the farm, he holds his head up very high. This is usually to check out his surroundings and to search and call to other horses. How can I teach him to walk relaxed and normal with his head lower?
From: Julie



Trainer's Response:

The solution to your question is very simple. You need to teach your horse to lower his head on cue. When a horse is relaxed, his head is low. When a horse is afraid or anxious, his head and neck are high and erect. When the horse lowers his head, his spine becomes loose and relaxed, all the way down to the dock of his tail.

If we ask a horse to lower his head when he is frightened or anxious, it will be an automatic "relaxer" for him. When you begin teaching your horse to do this, start in a calm environment without distractions. Once he has mastered this cue in a calm environment, you can then begin introducing a few small distractions while you are asking for him to lower his head.

I haved seen many horses who acted the same way as your horse. Calm and relaxed in their stall and barn aisle, but the instant they're led outside of the barn. Reacting by holding their heads straight up in the air, and enlarging their eyes to examine everything in their path. This became quite annoying, so I taught them to lower their head on cue. The instant I ask for a lower head, the spine loosens and muscles relax. Within seconds of lowering the head, the horse's attitude changes from frightened and anxious to relaxed and trusting.

Once he can follow your cues when there are a few small distractions, you can begin to increase the distractions after that, making sure that he responds 100% consistently to your requests before moving on to the next level of distraction.

For example, if your horse is usually very calm and relaxed in his stall, start the lessons there. Once he has mastered them in a calm, quiet stall, add commotion outside of the stall by asking people to walk past with their horses, etc. Once he can work well with those small distractions, work on teaching him to lower his head on cue in the barn aisle when there is little distractions, and then when there are slightly more distractions. Work your way up until he will respond to your request to lower his head while you are in the indoor arena, outside the barn, walking past strange surroundings, etc.


Teaching a Horse to Lower his Head on Cue:

To teach your horse to lower his head on cue, you will need only a halter and lead-rope (no chains please!). A rope halter is recommended, but any standard nylon or leather halter will do.

Stand at your horse's side and place your hand about 2 inches from the snap on the lead-rope. Apply about 1 pound of pressure downwards. Make sure that the pressure you apply is applied straight down towards the ground. If your pressure is not applied straight down, the horse may think you are asking him to walk forward or back up.

The most important part of teaching this cue is to hold the same amount of pressure on the lead rope downwards until the horse responds correctly by lowering his head. If he lowers his head 1/8th of an inch, it is good enough for a release (reward).

The instant your horse shows any effort to lower his head, reward him by releasing the pressure on the rope and petting him softly on the neck. Do not pat your horse! Instead, stroke his neck gently to show him that he gave you the correct answer.

If your horse raises his head while you have placed pressure downwards on the lead-rope, do not release the pressure! Keep holding the same amount of pressure on the lead rope until he lowers his head slightly.

Wait about 5 seconds, then ask him to lower his head again. Repeat this exercise until he lowers his head within 1 second of you requesting him to. Once he responds quickly 100% of the time, repeat it 50 times more. You want to really drill this into him and make it almost instinct for him to lower his head when he feels pressure on his halter.


Then, introduce a small distraction while you are working with him, such as other horses walking by you, or barn animals walking past, loud kids walking down the barn aisle, etc. When you introduce a new distraction, and increase the level of excitement, you can expect him to forget that he even learned the cue in the first place. Start from scratch and ask him to lower his head as if you have never taught the cue to him before.

With each new level of excitement and distraction, your horse will be going through a new emotional battle. This is one battle that he needs to go through in order to learn to listen to you 100% of the time and in every situation you present him with. Each time a new level of distraction is introduced to your horse, his performance will initially decrease for several minutes, and then increase back to normal. You will know when he has learned the cue 100% consistently when you can walk anywhere around the farm and past any distraction you wish with his head lowered.

If your horse only lowers his head 1/2 an inch each time you ask him to lower his head, give him a small release after each 1/2 inch that he lowers his head, then immediately ask for him to lower his head again until his head is at a desirable height.

One thing to keep in mind is: DON'T try to hold your horse's head down! By trying to muscle your horse's head down, you will only be teaching him the opposite of what he should be learning from this lesson. You should never put more than 1 pound of pressure on the lead rope at any time while teaching this cue. The reason you should keep the pressure light, is because you want your horse to respond to light cues. You do not want to have to muscle your horse into doing anything...as this is very tiring for you, and neither you, nor the horse enjoys it.

Lowering the horse's head comes in handy in many situations other than leading. For example, have you ever tried to trim your horse's bridle-path while he is holding his head up high? This cue is perfect for asking him to keep his head at a level where you don't have to stand on your tippy toes (or on a ladder)! Once you have taught this cue to your horse, he will be a wonderful leading companion, and will have much more obedience than before!



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This article was published on: August 9, 2000. Last updated on: August 9, 2000.