It’s a common problem in Western pleasure horses: So much emphasis has been placed on the horse’s head carriage that he loses correctness in his body. And now, with the class’ focus on whole-body correctness, a too-low head and heavy forehand don’t equate to success.
This step-by-step tutorial will take your horse from dumped over on his front end with his head too low, to self-carriage with an acceptable headset. Work on this drill with two hands and in the mildest Western bit you have that still elicits a response from your horse. A more severe bit could communicate “punishment” to your horse and make him hide from the bridle and travel behind the vertical. That’s counterproductive to your goal; so instead use a mild bit and soft, quiet hands.
1. Here’s what we’re starting with. Whether your horse carries his head this low naturally or it’s a manufactured position, it’s incorrect by current standards. Furthermore, if your horse travels like this, he’s probably so heavy on his front end that it looks like he could roll over his forehand. Not only is this frame displeasing to look at, it’s also hard to ride and can cause the horse to lose cadence.
2. The first step to correct the horse’s frame is to ask the horse to break at his poll. At a jog (shown here) or a walk, lift your reins about 6 inches above your saddle. By lifting and holding, the horse’s head, neck, and shoulders should follow. If the horse doesn’t respond at this hand height, lift them higher, to about 12 inches above your saddle. Remember that this isn’t a familiar position for your horse’s head, so be patient.
3. With the horse’s head, neck, and shoulders elevated, fan your legs— use a light bumping motion from your knee down to help drive your horse up into the bridle. The fanning leg motion isn’t quick or hard; your legs thump on the horse’s sides in cadence with his stride. This helps drive your horse’s hindquarters underneath and elevates his back. Once your horse is comfortable traveling with his head, neck, and shoulders elevated, you’ll move on to the next step.
4. Turns on the hindquarters and forehand help familiarize you and your horse with body positioning that will come together in Steps 6 and 7. For the hindquarters turn, pick up your left hand slightly higher than your right hand, which helps push the horse’s shoulder to the right. Add left-leg pressure as needed, according to your horse’s response, removing the pressure when he takes a step. This maneuver engages your horse’s back and shoulders, which helps make the horse more comfortable with elevating his front end. Your horse’s left foot should make a long, sweeping motion in front of the right foot when turning to the right, and vice versa to the left. Work on this in both directions before moving to the next component.
5. Next, a turn on the forehand helps your horse engage his hindquarters to drive from behind, which also elevates the horse’s head, neck, and shoulders. Move your horse’s hips to the left by placing your right leg slightly behind the cinch, with similar pressure to what you used in the haunches turn. Keep your left hand elevated above your right hand and slightly over your horse’s withers to block the left shoulder from moving. When properly executed, the horse’s right hind leg will reach under his belly and cross in front of his left hind leg, which encourages the desired reach underneath his body.
6. Now you’ll combine the steps in Photos 4 and 5 to achieve a solid frame while traveling. Work at a gait and in the direction that your horse is most comfortable so that your horse isn’t struggling with direction and gait while trying to understand this essential portion of the exercise. I call this portion “Position—Transition—Reposition.”
In a corner of the arena, begin with a turn on the haunches to the right to engage the horse’s left shoulder; then turn your horse on his forehand to the left to engage his right-hind push leg. Stop and settle to complete the Position phase. This should set your horse up for a proper lope departure—the Transition phase. Once you’re in a lope on your left lead, reposition your horse again as you did for the turn on the hindquarters by lifting his left shoulder up and over slightly, and as you did in the forehand turn by pushing with your right leg slightly behind the cinch to engage his right hind leg.
7. With repetition and patience, your horse will raise his headset and lift in front, which will allow him to reach deeper underneath himself and drive from behind for improved gaits and a better chance at success in Western pleasure.
Mark Stevens trains all-around horses and coaches youth and amateur riders for AQHA competition from his facility just west of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From beginner riders to world champions, Stevens’ goal is the same: To communicate humanely and individually with horsemen and equine partners. Stevens’ associate Stephanie Armellini is shown in these photos. Learn more about Stevens’ program at markstevenshorses.com.