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Head Down: Part 1

With clicker training, we teach head down a bit differently. Head down is taught by lifting up on the lead rope. At first, this seems rather counter intuitive, lifting up to get down.

Why not just ask for head down by putting downward pressure on the lead? Or by pushing down on his neck behind his ears? Actually you want to teach the same behaviour as many ways as possible to make it as solid in an emergency as it can be so definitely feel free to teach it all the ways you can think of but make sure you teach it this way too!

There are some good reasons to teach head down by a lift. Teaching it with a lift is safe. Eventually, if you pull down for head down to get the head all the way to the ground you are bending over or down and putting yourself in an unsafe position especially with a young, untrained horse. When you ask for head down by lifting up on the lead rope you are able to remain in a balanced, safe position.

Teaching head down with a lift of the lead also allows you to use the same already known cue once you are in the saddle. Lift up on the rein to lower the head. It is hard to ask for head down while riding while pulling down on the rein and staying in a balanced safe position.

So, how do we go about teaching head down with the lift of the lead rope?

The first thing to remember is that head lowering is NOT a forward moving exercise. A horse will step forward when his head goes down because it is a natural thing to do. This is what happens when they graze, but we want to use this exercise to help build better balance and start to shift the weight to the hindquarters so for our purposes it is not a forward moving exercise. His feet are not to move forward while his head is going down.

In order to prevent forward movement, we will use our body position and the tai chi wall rope handling skills. Our body position is in front of the shoulder, facing backwards at about 45degrees. This is the position for teaching the exercise. After the head down cue is established the body position can be varied and head down can be asked for from different positions.

Start by standing in the position described above and on the right side of your horse. Your right hand will be closest to the snap on the rope, your left hand further along the rope. With your left hand lift the rope and slide your right hand along the rope as the left hand draws the lead up. Go to a light point of contact and wait. If the horse tries to go forward, tighten the rope between your two hands, forming a tai chi wall to block his forward movement WITHOUT releasing the upward feel on the rope. If you release the upward ‘pressure’ you will have given a release which the horse views as a yes or correct answer to your request.

If he keeps going up with his head just follow without increasing the pressure, which is only enough to maintain point of contact.

As soon as you feel him try to put his head down click and release the rope completely with BOTH hands and feed him his treat.

Repeat by lifting and sliding. Click and release both hands and treat. Be very aware of your hands and do not hold on as he will feel it and not go as low as he might.

Very soon, if you have been consistent with your lift with the left hand your horse will start to drop his head as soon as you start to lift the rope. Make sure to click on the down and work on building duration so he will leave his head down. Also make sure to teach this from both sides remembering to change hand placement.

Until next week keep it positive!

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