It is certainly something that I have encountered over 3 countries now, both in real life and online. It isn't the same as as English headset, but picking up a gentle contact, the releasing when he sets his head right is a constant. As a western rider I want a horse to hold himself together, so I still drive the back end and contain the front, but instead of holding him together as an English horse, I let him find his own headset. He finds it because I keep setting it and rewarding success.
I made the comment regarding headset being a more commonly heard western term based mostly on what I hear here! I hear it far more often from western riders than I do from english/dressage riders. They think they are all after the same thing; a horse that is soft and responsive to the rein. But, the focus and the approach to achieving that are a bit different.
We debate this whole thing of headset and contact all the time. One thing that I heard that really resonated with me, and it might have been a "Buck-ism", was that a horse that is soft on the rein is "available" to you. He is there if you want to ask him to do something, becuase he hasn't made up his mind and body to fight the bit/hand.
But, in either western or english, the rider that bops the horse's mouth repeatedly (either snapping, or see-sawing) to get him to give, and thinks that is the goal, is just shortening the front of the horse and making him fear and retreat from the bit. It is not the same thing as asking the horse to be soft to the bit and available in his body.
I wrote this a few years ago. It might help with the discussion
ENGLISH to WESTERN
The pretty equine which occupies my stable is a 15H2, 7 yo, Irish Draught X Connemara Mare. DiDi is dapple gray, with a broad back and a powerful rump. She’s not that tall in the modern fashion but she is up to weight, and would make an ideal hunter: that is a chaser of foxes over uneven terrain. Trouble is she is Irish and as intelligent, strong minded and as crafty as they come. When up on her back, just think of what you are about to do and she has done it. She is light, sensitive and intuitive. And that quiet friendly demeanour in the stable yard is just a front - she knows what she wants out of this life and she makes sure that she gets it from her humans. The way to her heart is with food - she is always ready to eat. - just in case the grass stops growing. Don’t raise your voice to her and never use a whip on her.
When up on her back the slightest movement of the hand, the leg or the seat will provoke a response in her. Turn your head to the right, drop your shoulder, twitch that under muscle of the right thigh and she’ll turn. Squeeze the leg just a fraction, hesitate a second and she’ll stop. Trouble is, if she wants to be, she’s skittish then she’ll come off all four feet and hop sideways by a yard before the rider even sees the hazard. If the wind blows, a dog barks, a car revs up then her ears will go up and the rider must be ready for a shy. If you tense up in anticipation, then she’ll sense the tension and start to worry about why the rider is concerned. If she does shy, it will be a sharp vicious, powerful whirl off her hind quarters around to the left. Oh, and I forgot, she hates flies. She’ll shake her head, bend her neck and vibrate her skin whenever a flies hums past but she won’t allow you to spray her with fly killer, she doesn’t like the smell.
So just what would I get from buying her a Western saddle. Well for a start I’d have to be careful with the fit - DiDi is close coupled.
I wouldn’t need a horn because I can’t work a lariat, anyway there are no steers to round up.
I don’t carry any gear when riding, so there is no purpose for any of the traditional laces or rings.
A regular levered Western bit would too fierce for DiDi so I’d probably use a simple European snaffle affixed to a one eared bridle.
I could use Western reins but would prefer to use English with a buckle.
I always use a Western training halter, so there would be no change there.
A Stetson does not provide enough protection for the head especially when riding in woodland, so, it would have to be a typical English lightweight riding hat.
English johds are cut especially for riding with pads for the inside of the knee but I suppose one could wear jeans.
I’d still wear under the shirt a broad elasticised belt to give a little protection to the lower spine and to support the lower back I’d always chose a padded, lightweight but waterproof riding jacket Western boots are fine but I never wear spurs of any pattern for any horse.
Mounting up would be easy. There would be no reason for a third party to hold the stirrup iron and I would not have to worry about tightening the girth.
I would have to sort out the length of the stirrup leathers so as to ride longer legged than I would normally choose to do with English stirrup irons
I‘d take up the reins with one hand and hold them high on a long loosely looped rein. There would be less contact with the mouth than I am used to and I’d only be using one hand to hold the two reins. The horse could stretch its head down long and low but she would have a little more freedom in the neck to move than I would normally allow
She might wonder where my hands were because she is used to feeling them sensitively working the bit. She steadies herself off the bit even when not being ridden “rounded and on the bit“.
She would expect my weight to be distributed evenly in the saddle and more forward towards her centre of gravity but the Western saddle might disperse my weight differently - perhaps further back.
English stirrup irons are there to keep the feet still, Western stirrups are there to carry some of the rider’s weight.
It would be interesting to see how much of my thigh muscles she can feel through a blanket and a heavy saddle. Would I have to prod her more with my heels ?
She can feel the weight of the reins, but will she neck rein without some tuition?
How much back pressure on the reins will it take to slow her? Would she like being allowed off the bit? What would happen if I sit back in the saddle and lean back, will she shoot forwards as the broad skirt of the saddle digs into her back.
We would have to re-establish a system of weight shift communication. It is all about subtlety really.
I like riding DiDi English because she is so sensitive to my body language. Would I lose that close contact by riding Western?
When mounted English, I can feel her soul through my thighs and legs. By watching her ears and the position of her head, I can read her mind. Will I have lost a element of communication with her by riding Western?
She hasn’t been taught to do emergency stops though and if she were to get moving then stopping her might prove to be tricky. It is not good practice to let this mare think she is in charge.
For her part, she might appreciate my 225lbs of body weight being spread more evenly over her back. She would certainly like the additional freedom given by the long loose reins which would allow her to move her head and she might take advantage.
I might be able to sit into her slow jog but whether she will slow canter steadily without tending to speed up is another question. Anyway the canter is not a pace for tarmac surfaces. Normally to move at the speed of a slow canter, she would be working in extended trot on the tarmac lanes hereabouts. I wonder which pace we would come to use when riding the lanes and up and down the hills. The Trot is a very useful pace for roadwork.
Even to think about the concept has proved to be an interesting exercise. I think maybe I should try out one of the treeless saddles which are mostly cut to a Western pattern.
You never know the trial might fool my Girl and give me the upper hand for a change.
Well, outside of HF, I've never heard a western rider say "headset". And when western riders say, "collection", I've never heard one use the same meaning the FEI does - sustained collection as a gait. That is why western riders will talk about getting a 3 year old horse to "collect" - because western riders use the term with a different meaning than other riders.
In the dressage training scale, collection comes at the end of serious years of training. Western riders use the word for something they do in a few rides on a three year old. By the western definition, Mia collects just fine. By the dressage definition, she has never been collected for more than a couple of strides, and never will.
"I personally, would not let my horse run around with his head in the sky. High headedness is frowned upon around here..."
Well, it is frowned upon here in southern Arizona, too - but that does NOT mean we put the horses 'on the bit', ride with contact, spend time working on a headset, or teach genuine collection (think FEI). Heck, if you have a western saddle that fits, and you don't sit like a lump of coal, then it is pretty easy to have a horse with a relaxed, free moving back.
When taking lessons, the instructor DID talk about having the horse's poll and neck RELAXED, or SOFT, but she never talked about headset - and someone pulling on the snaffle bits to get a headset would have been pulled off the horse. See-sawing on the horse's mouth, which is sometimes taught by western riders, would have also resulted in your being pulled off the horse.
The goal in western riding is a responsive horse, but I have yet to meet a western rider who rides with their horse's head just in front of the vertical as a normal position. Horses need to MOVE their heads, both for balance and for good vision, and I've never met a western rider who doesn't appreciate that fact - but then, I don't hang around arenas and talk to people riding in shows.
I make no apologies for reading books, or for taking riding seriously enough to think and apply logic to my riding. I make no apologies for reading scientific papers that discuss the impact of different things, and how horses actually move.
People talk about a "rounded back", for example, but I've been unable to find any science that says a horse's back EVER rounds up.
"When I had the chance to talk with Dr. Hilary Clayton in January 2009 and asked her about how a horse's back shape changes under weight, her answer was a very quick and sure "It sags". So the idea of a horse "rounding up under the saddle" doesn't even seem to be a question in the minds of people who actually study biomechanics. They know it doesn't actually happen...
...What happens under weight? Horse’s backs sag, despite their trying to compensate with leg movement changes.
How much? A measureable amount, but not massive.
What about when asked to collect? We really don’t know, but that isn’t a constant state for very many horses for very long time periods."
If anyone has any research that indicates a horse's back actually rounds UP when ridden collected, I'd love to see it. Every report I've been able to access off the Internet indicates the back sags, and the only question is how much. However, to a rider, a back that sags less may well FEEL rounded...but feeling and fact are not always the same.
If reading and thinking about things like that is wrong, then so be it.
What I find astonishing is that people do not want to read, or that they reject the science because their instructor told them XYZ, or because some website tells then the power of the horse's hind legs cannot travel through the neck if the neck isn't bent at the poll!
"And I was always told, if you don't teach your horse collection, and a nice headset then they are more at risk for swayback later in life"
You were told wrong. Collection is not defined as "not let my horse run around with his head in the sky". Nor do you need to teach a headset to prevent a horse from running around with their head in the sky! No horse LIKES to do that. They only do that due to improper use of bits, bad fitting saddles, or terrible riding.
You do not need to teach a horse where to put its head for normal riding, because the horse already knows how to use its head for balance and for optimum vision. Ride the back, not the head! If your horse has a free moving and relaxed back, then the head will be fine.
There are exceptions for specific sports such as dressage, but dressage is not western riding. And most of the dressage riders writing on HF seem to support the idea that you seek a specific movement from the horse, and the head follows - that you do NOT "collect the head"! I also gather people riding in shows may need the horse's head in some position to get points, but that has more to do with bad judging and bad horsemanship than anything else.
In this old picture of Mia & I, Mia is NOT collected. She is doing a good western jog, which is one of her favorite paces. Her back is relaxed. I remember when the picture was taken, and I was enjoying just how relaxed she was and how content. She isn't gazing at the sky, and she is free to move her head. That is the normal western riding I see on the trails around me. That is the normal western riding I saw when I was taking lessons, or at least the goal - a relaxed, free-moving, self-balanced, contented horse covering some ground efficiently. Not a "headset", or a "frame".
...we debate this whole thing of headset and contact all the time. One thing that I heard that really resonated with me, and it might have been a "Buck-ism", was that a horse that is soft on the rein is "available" to you. He is there if you want to ask him to do something, becuase he hasn't made up his mind and body to fight the bit/hand...
This describes the goal of western riding that I was taught, and what I see the western riders I know wanting - a responsive horse who is ready to do what you want.
There are several ways of getting that. Western riding is no more the end all of riding than any other style. You can have that with a bridle horse, a Texas-style western horse, a dressage horse or a jumper. Or you can ride in any of those styles, and NOT have it. You can mix, and ride an English saddle with Texas style reins, or a western saddle with a dressage approach. It depends on the horse's training and the rider's responsiveness to the horse, not the tack or riding style. The horse's I've met who were not responsive were lesson horses who had been numbed by riders who didn't listen to their horse - so the horse shut down mentally.
The horse in nature uses its neck to balance itself at the canter and gallop therefore to leave the horse on a loose rein allows the horse to better carry itself
And its rider.
But the counter argument is that by leaving the horse with control of its neck and head, the rider loses control over the animal. In other words, the horse must be in harmony with the rider before it is allowed too much rein.
The one big problem for the dressage rider is that the horse must have developed the muscles of the topline and have minimal development of the under neck muscles, otherwise the horse will quickly become distressed if the nose is forced down into the ramener position (nose to the ground) by strapping.
Native bred breeds, born with short necks cannot readily adopt the head carriage sought by dressage riders hence the predominance of the German breeds in dressage competition.
The argument that the horse's spine should curve upwards so better to carry the weight of the rider invokes discussion. Perhaps it is better for the heavy rider to choose to ride a bigger horse.
There are many points for discussion in this topic. But in my humble opinion, it all comes down to 'horses for courses'. Race horses, polo ponies, eventers and show jumpers do not need to adopt the ramener posture in order to perform as is expected of them. Neither does a short Dales pony (a breed bred to carry lead}, need help to carry even the heavier rider.
If I were thinking of rounding up steers or hacking out in the wide open ranges, then without a doubt I'd choose to let the horse have its head. However when negotiating the dangers of the community in Britain, I'd choose to keep the horse's head/mouth in light contact. You never know when you'll need the brakes.
Amazing, aren't I! 5 years of riding, and I already figured out that "The norm in western riding is to drop the idea of 'contact' and headset. Ride with slack in the reins, and let the horse choose its head position."
What is even more amazing is that folks can ride for many more years and NOT notice what everyone around them is doing...
Oh, and GH...yes, I read books. It is amazing, but a fellow can actually LEARN from reading. You learn faster if you listen from others, including those who wrote books. It is a good habit.
But coming on a forum and quoting huge passages from books does not make you the expert, your verbosity does not always further the argument in a meaningful way.
YES you can learn a lot from reading, but you simply cannot learn 'feel' from a book, you cannot learn timing from a book, same as you cannot learn it from this forum or any other.
Getting your backside in a saddle, making mistakes, putting it right, finding out what doesn't work, and what does, these things are important. I find your vehement defence of your book learned opinions, and usual insistence of having the last word interesting.
People who are reading the thread with the hope of learning, those who wish to convert to western riding from English, DO IT, have a go, but find REAL people with REAL experience to help you get the best out of the experience. Take what you read on line with a pinch of salt, you know nothing of anyones experience, or the value they can add.
Collection done correctly does affect the back. It feels as if it raises. That is becuase the abdominal muscles contract. (by abdominal, I mean around the belly and those that cause the lift of hind leg and the "tuck" of the pelvis. I don't know the names of those muscles). The neck will also raise up, but from the base of the neck, because the muscles around the chest and shoulders engage, not because the neck is pulled up.
It's akin to the way a dancer engages her core to achieve a better alignment, thus flattening her back , and angages the muscls around the shoulders and collarbone to lift the top of her head, making her taller and keeping her head in alignment over her spine.
Obviously, the analogy isnt' perfect, since we are bi-pedal upright and they are not. But, the same idea that by working the muscles to carry the skeletal frame, we are better balanced, and we reduce the wear and tear on the skeleton than happens when we do not have good musclular support, such as the person who slouches, or runs without good strong muscles around the knees.
So, all that is to say that when people say it's beneficial for the horse they are not saying that the spine really rounds, so much as it is more supported by muscle engagement, and thus counteracts the increased force of gravity from the rider's weight.
It takes more work from the horse to do this, more muscles work, in order for the bones to take less strain. The horse that is just jogging along with out engaging any of these muscles is taking the path of least resistance, as horses prefer to do. (actually, I do too!). It's cool. But, for example, if I allow Z to trot out as fast as he wants, without asking him to soften a bit in front , carry his own head up a bit, step under a bit more from behind, slow down and step a bit more softely, the ride that we experience is really jolting. You can hear the difference between him trotting out as he pleases, super heavy on the forehand and stiff in the back, and him tucking his hind under a little and absorbing some of the shock with his muscles, not just pounding into the ground without any support and rebound.
The difference is very obvious to the rider. For a horse as heavy as he is, carrying a rider as heavy as I am, I think it's important that he work harder to carry himself with this kind of "collection" and muscular engagement. Though he'd rather not.
But coming on a forum and quoting huge passages from books does not make you the expert, your verbosity does not always further the argument in a meaningful way...
...Getting your backside in a saddle, making mistakes, putting it right, finding out what doesn't work, and what does, these things are important. I find your vehement defence of your book learned opinions, and usual insistence of having the last word interesting...
I quote authors to support what I have experienced. When I write about balance, it IS what I have experienced. And when I write that the western riders I know do NOT discuss headset, I am being factual. My opinions are not "book learned opinions". They are my experience, backed up by experts who write about THEIR experience.
When I say shifting your feet forward does certain things, and shifting them back does others, I am describing what I have done and how it affects me and my horses. That is in contrast to someone who parrots a 'shoulder-hip-heel' approach without ever trying any other approach.
When I describe the difference between how my horse responds to an English saddle vs a western one, I am making a comparison based on swapping out saddles in mid-ride, and seeing how the same thing on the same day affects things differently. Not a lot of people do that...
When I say a horse moves its head for balance, I am writing about what I've seen, backed by everyone who has ever studied it. When I say a horse's vision is affected by head position, I am stating what we have learned - a horse has a narrow area of binocular vision, and also a small section of the eye that has the right structure for fine resolution. Many people do not know this, although it explains a lot of things:
"The horse also has a "visual streak", or an area within the retina, linear in shape, with a high concentration of ganglion cells (up to 6100 cells/sq mm in the visual streak compared to the 150 and 200 cells/sq mm in the peripheral area. Horses have better acuity when the objects they are looking at fall in this region. They therefore will tilt or raise their heads, to help place the objects within the area of the visual streak."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equine_vision, based on: Harman AM, Moore S, Hoskins R, Keller P. Horse vision and the explanation of visual behaviour originally explained by the ‘ramp retina’. Equine Vet J 1999; 31(5):384–390.
These are worthwhile things to know about, and I do not apologize for quoting articles or books when discussing what I have also seen in my horses. It is not wrong to quote George Morris, or VS Littauer, or Harry Chamberlin on riding - and those are the only writers I have quoted at length in my annoying posts.
In a discussion of headset, some folks might want to read "The effect of the head and neck position on the equine athlete" - over 100 pages of information on it:
"The head and neck positions were defined as follows: HNP1-Unrestrained (control), HNP2-Neck raised, bridge of nose around the vertical. HNP4-Neck lowered and considerably flexed, bridge of nose pointing towards the chest. HNP5-Neck raised and considerably extended, bridge of nose in front of the vertical. HNP7-Neck lowered and flexed, bridge of nose pointing towards the carpus. Seven base level trained dressage horses were accustomed to the different positions for at least 3 weeks, before the start of the study....Behavioural observations, blood and saliva cortisol concentrations and heart rate variability were measured as indicators of stress, which demonstrated more conflict behaviour in the extended positions (HNP2 and HNP5). This thesis significantly contributes to the understanding of the effect of different head and neck positions on the equine athlete."