Horse Training: The Head-Down Cue

Teach your horse a head-down cue with this exercise from top clinician John Lyons.

You’re ready to clip your horse’s ears. Speaking in soothing tones, you gently tug on the lead rope to coax his head down. Instead, he raises his head out of your reach–and with it your frustration level. Your voice becomes loud and sharp. Your gentle tugs turn into hard pulls.

Stop right there! Here I’ll tell you how to avoid this kind of tug-of-war by patiently teaching your horse to lower his head in response to poll pressure. By doing so, he’ll also relax his neck muscles, which will help him relax overall, thus becoming a more willing parner.

Exercise: You’ll gradually teach your horse to lower his head in response to downward lead-rope pressure.

Goal: To teach your horse to give in response to poll pressure, rather than fight it.

What you’ll do: You’ll apply gentle downward pressure on the lead rope, instantly rewarding any downward movement. Then you’ll incrementally ask him to lower his head to the ground–and leave it there.

You’ll need: A well-fitting leather or nylon halter; soft, cotton lead rope; round pen or similar small enclosure. (Note: Although I’m working in a grassy area, I suggest you work your horse on non-grassy footing, so you know he’s not simply lowering his head to eat.)

Before you begin: Your horse should be halter trained. Outfit him in a halter and lead rope, and lead him to your work area.

1. Apply Pressure. Stand facing your horse’s left shoulder. Hold the lead rope just under the snap with your right hand, and the coiled remainder in your left one. With your right hand, exert gentle downward pressure.

(Troubleshooting tip: If your horse raises his head, avoid jerking on the rope, which would confuse him. Also avoid releasing all pressure, which would reward him for the wrong behavior. Instead, keep your pressure steady and light, be patient, and reward any> downward movement, as described below.)

2. Reward. The moment your horse begins to drop his head, even a fraction of an inch, reward him by releasing your pressure cue, giving his neck a rub, and speaking kind words.

3. Go lower. A few seconds later, ask your horse to lower his head a bit more using the same pressure cue you applied in Step 1. Add lowered body language. Reward any downward movement. Encourage him to leave his head in the lowered position by rewarding him with a short break and extra rubs. Conversely, if you sense he’s going to raise his head, exert light downward pressure on the lead rope to give him a “stay down” message. Continue in this manner until he lowers his head to the ground and keeps it there.

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