The Judge Wants My Horse's Head.Where?

By Michelle Labriola

You are getting your horse ready to show this year and head placement can make the difference between winning or not winning. Sure, you could use a martingale, but some judges frown upon it. For those that aren't interested in appearance, think for a moment, where is the horse's head when he's acting up? Is it equal to his withers, held high, or hung low? Let's put it this way - no matter how the story ends, the moment your horse begins to take control over any situation the first thing that happens is he raises his head up.

So isn't that the part of the horse's anatomy you'd have to get back in control of first? Whether it's for the judge or for control, head placement is very important. It means the difference between a head-shy horse from the ground and winning in the show ring. The martingale or tie-down is traditionally used to forcibly lower the head because it gives the horse pressure in his poll area when he attempts to hold his head too high, so as soon as he lowers his head the pressure is relieved. But this only limits how high the head can go and does not teach the horse to put his head where you want it. Or in your mind picture an English rider going down the road trying to get her horse on the bit. Through contact on his mouth she attempts to put his head where she wants it to be by alternately jiggling the reins until the head lowers then only partially releasing the reins with an opening of the pinkies. And then when the horse's head gets too low, what do we do? We pull or jerk it back up.

Break the whole thing down and realize the conversation you are having with your horse. It's made up of don'ts.don't put your head there, no.don't raise it, don't root, etc. We create unwanted behavior with our horses. Using restraints and or pain/pressure will only work on some horses some of the time. It doesn't teach them by asking and receiving; it constantly corrects them. Forcing the horse's head where you want it, or holding and checking it into place to keep it there, can never be the same as asking the horse to place his head in a particular position with a cue so that he willingly does so because he understands that he'll be rewarded when does. It's all based on a reward system. It keeps you, the trainer, safe and happy and your horses responding and becoming cooperative, bringing each horse to his full potential.

Just try to imagine something different from the way you've probably been taught by your instructors. Gently take the slack out of the left rein using a full cheek snaffle to spread the pressure on his right jaw. Be careful not to pull your horse's head to the left; we want him to become a willing dance partner, not someone we're dragging on the dance floor. The horse can move any body part (right now we're focusing on the jaw bone) in the six different directions:

1.        Out or forward

2.        In towards his chest

3.        Up

4.        Down

5.        Right, trying to pull your hand forward (so hold it still, braced against the saddle)

6.        Left, towards the pressure, hence "Giving To The Bit"

When he brings his nose to the left where you can see his eye, he has put slack in the rein (not the rider extending her hand to create slack). You'll feel it in your bicep. You then release the rein completely, letting the reins hang on his neck and letting him walk a couple of strides free of encumbrance. Ask him again, gently taking the slack out of the left rein, and the instant he gives, release completely again. Now this has become a cue and a response rather than the horse being pulled or forced into position. Within a very short period of time the horse will realize that when he "gives to the bit" he receives a reward - release of pressure on his jaw. He gets to enjoy your company without annoyance.

Once you've taught the left side with the left rein, teach the right side using the right rein. What will eventually begin to happen is as you reach for the rein the horse will give faster and faster until one day he'll give before you even take the slack out of the rein. This is very important. This means your horse is thinking about your request as you pick up the rein. He knows what is coming next - taking the slack out of the rein and putting pressure in his mouth, so he 's responding readily in advance. He's not going forward thinking as the driver; he's going forward thinking about what YOU the driver are going to request next. This is an effortless cue. It feels like a true dance partner allowing you to lead him in the dance, without force or pressure.

When you have the horse giving on both sides, you can teach him to give up or down. First teach him to lower his head. Gently pick up both the reins (because eventually you will be using both reins) and take the slack out. When the horse starts giving to both sides he'll either raise his head or break at the poll and start to lower his head. If he raises it, keep the slack out of both reins until he lowers his head even a fraction and completely release the reins. Repeat and teach him to put his head down further and further until it will touch the ground.

Next, teach him to raise it by the same method, releasing when he raises it a little. Soon he'll respond by asking "do you want it here?" by moving it up or down, and then you can say, "yes" with your release or "no" with keeping the slack out. When he gets the right answer, which is giving you the desired movement or placement of his head, he is rewarded with the release. He will then place his head where you ask by lowering or raising it on request. You'll be able to place his head in a Western Pleasure head set or Dressage head carriage. It's easy and it's not something for which you'll need to train forever to accomplish. The lesson is the same, and the horse responds because of the motivator - feeling the wonderful reward of No Pressure when you release the reins, putting slack in the reins.

Head placement is important for showing, from halter class to Dressage, Hunter, Western Pleasure and even speed events. But for me, I like that it keeps me in control of my dance partner. The neck is a gauge - from high up (out of control) to yawning on the ground, it indicates and controls emotions. You don't see the whites of his eyes when he's walking in a circle looking to lie down, do you? Lowering his head will calm him down.

Release of pressure is why he willingly will put his head in any desired position. In teaching, make sure you begin in a safe environment at a standstill or walk and literally throw those reins on his mane and let him understand the reward system - complete release of pressure. Giving to the bit is the training secret that unlocks many doors.

About the author:

Michelle Labriola is a resident of Long Island certified by world-renowned horseman John Lyons. Michelle rides English, Western and Dressage. She is available for private teaching as well as clinics and demonstrations anywhere in the country. For information about Michelle teaching at your facility, contact her at 914-362-6442 or 631-218-2241 or write:

ML Renaissance Equestrian Center

1152 Haverstraw Road, Rt. 202

Suffern, New York 10901



239 Blake Ave.

Bohemia, N.Y. 11716-3419

(631) 218-2241

Michelle Labriola

1998 John Lyons Certified Instructor

"Teacher of Horses and Their People"

I am a recent graduate of John Lyons Certification Program held in his hometown of Parachute, Colorado. Over the years since the First Certification Class John has improved his lesson plans in teaching people to work with horses. I consider him a Master Teacher. Choosing to become certified has changed my life forever. I've had the opportunity to learn so much from John and his son Josh, and the pleasure of making lifetime friends, as well as learning about myself and enriching my relationship with my own horses.

Working with horses is extremely fun and fulfilling. To take an animal that may have been mistreated and get it to try to work with a human again is a rewarding experience. Teaching people is a whole other story. People don't do so well when they fail often. A lot of the time when trying to teach your horse to do something that it hasn't done before, that's the feeling you're left with... failure. The secret is: right over the next mountain can be success and if you can survive the valleys and understand that it's all part of the learning process, you can learn to train your own horse. That's what I intend to do with my knowledge - teach others. You should never feel as though you know enough because that is when you close your mind to learning something new - something that could possibly keep you from getting hurt, save a horse's life or simply win that blue ribbon.

I am offering to hold demonstrations as well as riding clinics at select facilities to share what I have learned in the past seven years about Natural Horsemanship. I plan to conduct a 12- week apprenticeship program for those individuals who are serious about learning all the ground work - from starting an 'unbroke' horse to all the upper level riding skills.  I am also available to teach individuals in a private setting but one must keep in mind that I do not train horses, unless too dangerous or difficult for the handler to start. I teach people to teach their own horses. I will offer you the tools and show you the way but you must have the attitude that you will be taking over the training as soon as possible to work with your own horse. I have found that when I work a horse for someone without the owner's interest the horse will regress in no time at all. In teaching the owners/handlers the horse will continue to improve to the upper level performance and the whole relationship between my clients and their horses will progress.

"With every new horse we can learn better, safer, more effective ways to communicate with the next. It's not the people who are whisperers - it's the horses... we just have to be quiet enough to hear what they're saying."