Head Lowering or Calm-Down Cue
TEACHING THE CALM-DOWN CUE, by John Lyons
There is nothing more dangerous (or harder to handle) than an excited, out-of-control equine. Yet most riders' bag of training techniques doesn't inclue a fast, easy way to relax a hyped-up horse. Many trainers recommend circling, but it is not a universally successful method, and it leaves plenty of time to get hurt. There is only one calming method I know that works consistently-the cue for your horse to lower his head. When a horse is excited, his head and neck come up and his muscles get tense. But when his head is down by his knees, he can't jig or rear and his whole body relaxes; it's a physiological response. When you teach your horse to put his head down on cue, he learns that the world looks better from that vantage point. This makes such an impact that some horses actually learn to calm themselves by lowering their own heads when they feel excitied or nervous.
To teach the basic calm-down cue, you'll need a mild snaffle bit and a controlled environment (such as a round pen) in which to practice. Start on horseback, with your horse relaxed and standing still, and then follow these steps:
1. APPLY PRESSURE AND RELEASE
Take up one rein only, applying light pressure on the bit. Expect your horse to raise his head (a natural response), but maintain your light contact when he does. Seeking release from the pressure, he'll soon drop his head. When he does, even if it's just by a half-inch, reward him by releasing the rein pressure and patting him.
2. REPREAT THE REQUEST
When you release the rein pressure, expect your horse to raise his head again. That's OK. At this stage, you just want him to drop his head in response to pressure. To teach him to do this consistently, repeat Step 1 until your horse responds immediately to your lifted rein by lowering his head that first half-inch.
3. KEEP HIS HEAD DOWN
Once your horse has mastered the initial drop, teach him to keep his head down. Start by asking him to lower his head. But this time, when he brings it up, immediately apply pressure on the rein, releasing it only when he lowers his head again. Repeat this step until he learns to leave his head in the dropped position, even after you release the pressure.
4. TAKE HIS HEAD LOWER
Now you can teach your horse to drop his head to progressively lower levels. Starting from his original dropped position, apply rein pressure, asking him to drop his head another half-inch or so. Repeat until he consistenly drops his head to the new, lower level. Then start again, asking him to lower his head another notch. Continue this step, working in approximately one-half inch increments until his nose is near the ground. (Note: The last six inches are the hardest.)
5. PERFECT THE MOVE
Practice at the halt until your horse drops his head to the ground as soon as you lift a rein. When you feel him actively pull his head down those last few inches, you'll know that you've changed his mind-set. He now thinks that he wants his head down, not up, when you put pressure on the bit.
6. TEACH THE OPPOSITE REIN
Once your horse has learned the cue with one rein, start the process over again with the opposite rein, until he responds readily to your command, regardless of which rein you lift.
Once your horse is responsive to the calm-down cue from either rein, raise the distraction level. Teach him to respond to the cue at the walk, the jog, and, ultimately, the lope. Get him excited (which you can do by adding speed to any gait), and then calm him down, using this cue. By practicing at home, in a controlled environment, you can safely prepare for the raised adrenaline and distraction levels you and your horse will fact on the trail, in the showring, or in any other high-stress situation.
MORE CALM-DOWN APPLICATIONS
The calm-down cue has uses beyond its safety-valve function. For example, you can adjust your horse's headset by putting the process in reverse - teaching him to bring his head back up when you apply pressure. With his head lowered, just pick up your rein and hold it. Your horse will put his head down farther, looking for the release, but when there is no release, he'll bring his head up. That's when you give him his reward and release the pressure. Although it might sound confusing to us, it makes sense to the horse. He learns to go toward the release- and you can change the direction of that release in seconds. By controlling headset, you can better control your horse's balance and frame as well.
You can also improve your horse's ground manners by teaching him to respond to the calm-down cue from the ground, using either reins or a lead rope and following the steps above. The only difference is that you apply downward pressure to the reins or leadline while you're standing. This is a very important technique for training your horse not to rear, or teaching him how to stand tied. It's also helpful in teaching your horse to put his head down for bridling, clipping or bathing.
I just thought I'd share some interesting ramifications of teaching 'head
down' that I've encountered. Like the rest of you I've taught it from a
rein cue on the ground and under saddle. I also started clicking for 'head
down' on the longe in walk, trot, and canter. I've since put it on the cue
of "relax." What an EXCELLENT tool!
Sometimes Tulsa just can't seem to get herself out of a brace on her own. A
couple of examples come to mind. One was recently I had Tulsa canter on the
longe (well, rope halter and 15' lead) and asked for a downward transition
to trot. She was carrying some tension in her neck and apparently couldn't
bring herself into trot. I tried pressing her into a bit more forward
canter then asking again for trot, however, that didn't get us anywhere. I
decided the problem was the tension, so while she was cantering I said
"relax". She lowered her neck (which means she can't be tense) and then I
asked for trot. Voila! Trot. I did it that way a couple more times and
then asked for canter, then trot without prompting her for the relax. By
then she figured out, OH duh if I relax it is easier to move... (oh
Second example, was the other day I decided to do our longe work on a spot
in the field that was on a slight incline. That meant there was a slight
uphill and downhill portion to each circle. Of course she got a little
bracey and rushy for the downhill. Once again, I pulled out the suggestion
that she RELAX!!! Sure enough, when she lowered her neck she relaxed and
she was able to trot and canter the downhill portion without loosing her
balance and rushing. Another Tulsa "duh" moment?? I hope so!!
Anyway, there is simply NO END to the value of teaching head down. From the
saddle, it also gave me access to a measure of straightness that I'd never
experienced before. Because Tulsa understood that the "clickable" behavior
was neck coming straight out of the withers that is what she offered when I
asked for head down in rising trot. One rein, touch... head down... and
more straight in her body then I'd ever felt before. Majorly WAY COOL. (G)
Sharon and Tulsa