Horse Headsets 101
Look at more than just head position when training your horse.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm in The American Quarter Horse Journal | May 12, 2017
One of the most common questions I get from show-horse enthusiasts is: How can I achieve a better headset and get my horse to lower his head? Horses’ head positions and headsets seem to be such an emphasis with competitors, trainers and the general public who want to achieve excellence with their horses. Some exhibitors are absolutely obsessed with the headset, and the horse is the one that suffers.
Learning more about the horse and his mechanics and how he will respond is essential in taking the focus away from the head set. A horse operates from the hindquarters, and if you train him to respond from the hind end, the forehand will do what you want in time. If you train only from front to back, you are always shutting down the horse’s hind end.
Where a horse’s head and neck carriage is while performing (high, low or level) tells us about his balance. And his balance will impact the quality of his performance. A horse balances himself from his four legs. The front legs naturally bear more weight because of the head and neck. When a horse is performing, the rider has to encourage the horse to transfer weight from the front to the back end, so the balance is carried more from the hindquarters, and the horse can achieve self-carriage. When a horse has self-carriage, his head and neck relax and lower to his natural position according, to his conformation. The head (poll) and neck will be level, or up slightly, from the withers.
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The bottom line is: When the horse is balanced, the head sets itself up naturally. The rider’s hands receive and guide instead of taking or forcing the head in a specific position. It is a much softer way to ride; the horses love it and usually respond willingly. The balance is achieved by controlling the horse’s body alignment while going straight or curving through the rider’s leg and rein aids.
The Right Emphasis
If your training emphasis is to control the head and neck, the horse will respond from fear or resist because the mouth is the most sensitive part of the horse. If you only train from the mouth, first you toughen up the mouth, and then you will have to use more and more severe bits to get a response.
Second, your horse will lower his head to the point where he will have most of his weight on the forehand, and he will be over-bridled with his nose behind the vertical to escape your way of riding. Third, the horse’s forward motion is blocked, and his natural way of moving is hindered, resulting in gaits with incorrect cadence. When that happens, you stress the horse’s back and overwork the horse’s stifle and hock joints. Ultimately, you end up with lameness and joint problems and shorten the horse’s career.
Training for headset puts the horse in such an unnatural body position and restricts any natural way of moving that it instills resistance and unwillingness. As riders, we should always put our horse’s health and well-being first. It is critical that our horses trust us so that they are happy performing. We must avoid forceful training techniques and always promote understanding and patience. Training horses is about longevity; it is so much more rewarding to enjoy a long-lasting partnership.
Train your horse to respond from your seat and legs and guide him with the reins. Put your horse in a correct body position so it is easy for him to achieve balance and relaxation. His movement will become more free-flowing and his gaits more beautiful.
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