How Low Can They Go?

Is the artificially low-headed fad in the reining pen here to stay? NRHA Futurity champ Bob Avila talks about it.

You may have seen this at a top reining event, or on a YouTube reining highlight video: As a rider guides his horse through a pattern, the horse packs his head pleasure-horse low. Then, after every dynamic turnaround, backup, or stop, the horse’s head drops dramatically lower, his nose nearly hitting the dirt. The crowd goes wild.

The horse’s dropped-head profile is nearly identical to the horse in the iconic 1915 James Earle Fraser “End of the Trail” bronze, featuring a lone American Indian figure and his weary horse. Yet it garners applause. What gives?

You’re seeing a blend of two things, one a trend, and one a fad. The trend? Low-headed horses in the reining pen. The fad? Horses that run, stop, then drop their heads to the dirt. I’ll address both here.

The Low Headed…

Low-headed horses have been in the reining pen for years. I rode one of the first such horses about 15 years ago. By low-headed, I mean a horse whose neck naturally comes out flat from his withers. (I’m not referring to a horse whose head has been artificially yanked down. Read on.)

I like the look of “flat-necked” horses, regardless of event. When you’re loping circles on pattern, these horses give you the look of a bird dog pointing in a field—their topline is beautifully level. And, it’s a case of form meeting function.

How a horse carries his head and neck has a huge impact on his back. And his back has a huge impact on how well he can use his hindquarters, which in turn, has a huge impact on his movement and athletic ability.

Here’s why: When a horse carries his neck and head level (or nearly level) with his withers, his back is elevated. That means his entire topline will be nearly level, with no major peaks or valleys. And that means he’s able to coil up his body, reach deep beneath himself with his hind legs, and propel himself forward in a balanced, athletic—and attractive—frame. That’s key whether you’re riding cutters or hunters, reiners or Western pleasure horses.

A high-headed horse’s back will be hollowed, so he can’t coil up. Rather than being able to reach deep beneath himself, his hind legs will lag out behind him. He’ll lack the power, athleticism, and movement of a level-necked horse.

The Downside…

Just like some really good cutting and pleasure horses, a horse that’s built to hold his head level feels balanced and comfortable that way. It would be work for him to hold his head high. He’s not being forced; he’s doing what comes naturally.

Some naturally low-headed horses have won high-profile reinings. That’s resulted in people trying to imitate the flat-neck look on reiners that aren’t built to do it. And that’s when you run into trouble. It’s like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

I’ve seen trainers try to use big bits and draw reins to force a horse’s head down. But what you end up with is an artificial look…and a head that will pop up shortly after you take off that gear.

Still, some people don’t make the connection between a horse’s conformation and head carriage. In fact, one of the most common questions at my clinics is, “How do you get your horses’ necks so low?”

I don’t get their necks to go low. My horses are naturally level-necked. The photos in this article clearly illustrate why you can’t force something that’s not natural for a horse. That’s why I select and breed for horses that are born with a level topline. I’ve learned over the years that it’s the only way to get the look and performance I desire, and that wins. If you want a flat-necked look (and the resulting performance), you should select for them, too.

…And The Experience

While I appreciate and choose to ride naturally level-necked horses, the over-dramatic, “End of the Trail” neck drop is overdone. It’s artificial. And it’s become a fad. Unfortunately, the reining industry seems to be promoting (and rewarding) it. I’m not dissing horses that bend in the back, drop their necks, and reach out with their noses through a stop—that’s natural. They’re using their heads and necks to balance.

But when a horse dives his nose to the ground after a maneuver? That’s not natural. I hope it stays a fad (and fades away) rather than becoming a trend. In addition to being unattractive, it’s inviting criticism. The pleasure horse industry has been criticized for years for having horses’ heads too low. Reiners are now getting criticized for the same thing because of what’s being taken to an extreme. Extremes attract negative attention.

A level topline isn’t extreme. The overall trend in the show pen in Western performance events is toward flat-necked horses. If you want evidence, look no further than the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show trophies.

My collection includes World Show trophies that are decades old. The “ideal” Quarter Horse depicted on these oldies has a short, stubby neck that’s held fairly high. The contemporary trophies feature a sleeker, more refined horse, with a longer, thinner—and lower—neck.

So how low will we go? Personally, I hope it’s “low” enough to maximize performance, meaning a natural, flat-necked look. But, I hope it’s not so low as to make our performance horses look artificial. As the pleasure industry has shown, that’s not a healthy way to go—or grow.

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