Encouraging Lower Head carriage / muscle building? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 9 Old 03-25-2020, 09:27 PM Thread Starter
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Encouraging Lower Head carriage / muscle building?

I've got a gelding who likes to stick his head high in the air when moving around but this creates a hollow back and he needs to build up some muscle. I know you cat get side reins or such to get them to hold their head lower while lunged, but I don't want anything that's going to keep his head stuck low.

So what's a more elastic type of thing could I use to encourage him to carry his head lower, but won't force it? I've heard of something like this before in a video but I've lost track of which video it was or what these things were called.

I don't really have anything in the way of hills (only one is a single lane road so it's too dangerous to use that and the other is still under snow and ice) but am working on walk/trot transitions and some basic pole work to build up muscle, but I know having him carry himself better will also really help.


Also! What do you guys do to ask them to lower their head while you're riding? My guy does know the cue, but I don't quite. When I try to figure out what it is, it usually results in him slowing or stopping cause that's what he thinks I'm asking.



Pic of the boy who needs to build muscle.

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post #2 of 9 Old 03-25-2020, 11:02 PM
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Proper contact will come with relaxation, straightness and rhythm. In other words, if you set your horse's body up correctly, then he will be inclined to naturally drop his poll. Any other means will cause him to carry a false frame. I'll start first with some things to help with relaxation and if you are interested, I've also added how to work with this issue in dressage.

First thing is your own position, specifically seat and hands. Where you are sitting in the saddle does a lot to influence your leg position and upper body to hands. For example, if you are sitting too far back, then you'll have a harder time not only controlling rhythm, but also keeping a forgiving contact. Here is a website that goes over some different exercises to help find your seat https://www.balancedrider.com/exhorse.htm. Then, your hand, arm and shoulder position also have a big influence on your horse's relaxation. If you are tense in your arm and shoulder, then you'll be tense in your contact too. Your horse will feel that and will not want to relax. You want your elbow to be relaxed down at your side or very slightly in front. If you have the elbow too far back or too far forward, then your shoulders and arm will become tense. For your hands, they should be closely together, above the wither, and even, with thumbs on top. By the time your looking to have your horse accept contact, they should be able to be steered mostly by seat and leg, so that they can relax into your hand. A good test of this which also happens to help correct uneven hands is putting a crop horizontally under your thumbs. This makes you steer with your seat and leg and makes it so that you cannot use the reins for anything but mabye stopping.

Secondly, is maintaining a good feel of the mouth and allowing give when necessary. Contact is not exactly fixed and we do give forward our hand or rather elbow at certain times to allow the horse to relax down. When I first start horses out in working on contact, I also like to rub the top of the neck (where the trapezius muscle is) with the inside rein to reinforce relaxation. Which puts me at my next point, that the outside rein carries contact, while the inside rein does have more flexibility to give or take when needed, usually in flexion or to reinforce bend.

The other thing you could do without getting too much into dressage training is stretches and massages to help him relax on the ground.



For training, I'd start first with rhythm. You can use rhythm beads, change in your pocket during riding etc for awareness of when he is speeding up and slowing down. Straightness and suppleness are a bit more difficult as they require a feel for the horse's position. For straightness, I find it easiest to work off the rail as it becomes more apparent when they are crooked or drifting to a side. You can do lots of transitions and changes of direction to keep him thinking. A easy exercise is 4 "20 meter" circles: one at A, one at B or E and one at C. As you move from one circle to the other, you straighten the horse. For relaxation, work on suppleness - bending and moving laterally off your inside and outside leg. Also, make sure to keep consistent, but elastic contact with his mouth.

Now for the stargazing, there is a method to deal with this, but it does take time to develop a feeling for it. First, you do not want to punish him by pulling his head down or back, as that WILL cause tension and a negative attitude towards the bit. You do want to maintain contact though, as stargazing is still a way to avoid contact. There are two ways you could go about this: the first is you could keep your hands where they are and wait for him to relax and the second is to raise your hands in line with the bit without pulling and without giving away contact (harder than it sounds). This keeps the bit from acting on the bars of the horse's mouth and instead acts on the corners of the mouth, like it would in a lowered head position. As soon as the horse relaxes (and it is very slight), you start lowering the hands down and forward WITH the horse. This is how you begin to encourage the horse to take the bit down and out. If done correctly, your horse will eventually stretch further down. Timing is essential for the horse to understand and you must keep the horse engaged, but not running at the same time with your leg and seat. Lastly, do this at the walk only until the concept is understood and executed consistently. Then you can slowly start adding the trot. The time you have to do this at walk is often a lot longer than people realize. It can take anywhere from one month onwards not only because the horse is learning it, but also because it takes months to build enough muscle for a horse to carry a proper frame.
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post #3 of 9 Old 03-25-2020, 11:32 PM
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first consider why he is stargazing. It could be due to discomfort from the saddle, or the bit, or your riding itself. That's the first reason horses throw their heads up into the air, and drop their backs. (brace them )


Eventually, such a way of moving become habitual. How long have you had this horse? How long have you been riding yourself? Are you sure about saddle fit? May I ask what kind of bit you are using?


It's very hard to offer specific advice, (although @Jolly101 has done a lovley job) that will truly be helpful without knowing some of these other things, first.


And, what do you do when he does throw his head up? are you reacting by pulling back or downward?
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post #4 of 9 Old Yesterday, 10:25 AM
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There may not be any need to lower his head, apart from any stargazing. Flinging the head way back and up with the nose out (stargazing) can be due to back pain or resisting the bit. If it is done continuously, I'd suspect back pain. If it only happens sometimes, he's probably developed a habit along the way of getting relief from the bit by putting his head where the bit will lie against his molars.

For back pain, check the saddle fit, placement and maybe even how you ride.

For stargazing, this has worked for me:

Quote:
Chamberlin on Stargazing
Riding and Schooling Horses

One rule which is unchanging in regard to the action of the rider's hands, but not in regard to their position, is as follows: Whenever the horse places his head in a position other than the correct one, the hands are moved to where they can increase tension on the bit and make his mouth uncomfortable. In these cases, they must be so placed that the horse cannot possible escape the bit's tension for a fraction of a second, until the rider permits it. When he ultimately seeks to avoid discomfort by putting his head in the correct position - and then only - the hands must soften immediately...In the first instances, it is better to let the reins go slack when rewarding the horse...

...take the case of a stargazer...Most riders attempt to lower the head by carrying their hands low beside the horse's neck and futilely trying to pull the head down. The horse, by tipping the head a little further to the rear, can momentarily escape the tension of the reins...he will, of course, continue throwing his head as long as he succeeds in escaping the annoyance of the bit, even though it be only for a moment. In other words, he is being taught by the momentary reward he receives, that his procedure is correct.

The correct and logical way to lower the head of such a horse, is to hold the reins short enough (and no shorter), so that it is impossible for him, by any means, to escape the bit for a single moment. The hands, instead of being lowered in an attempt to pull the horse's head down, are raised, so that, as usual, the forearm and the rein make a straight line.

The tension on the rein must become greater than the normal feel. The hands are more or less fixed, and vibrations may be simultaneously employed, all of which increases the horse's discomfort. The legs compel him to continue at the gait at which he is moving, while the hands steadily hold the head in its elevated position. Sooner or later, he becomes tired and uncomfortable in this strained position. Also, he soon discovers that the usual throwing of the head permits no escape from the bit; and begins a search for a new way. Finally he will endeavor to lower it to a more comfortable and natural position. Instantly the hand softens to permit the lowering.
Neck position and a hollow back are not related. A horse can have a high neck and head AND a supple, flowing back. Or not. A horse can lower his head and still brace his back. Or not. When Bandit gets like this (looking at a neighbor), his back stiffens:


When Bandit is like this, his back is flowing (and thus fine):




I have no idea why people want horses to lower their heads. How the back feels is a much better guide to how they are using their bodies.

PS: Based on saddle, I'm assuming a western horse.

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post #5 of 9 Old Yesterday, 11:05 AM Thread Starter
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Thanks for the advice guys. Though I'll clarify this a bit better.

He does not toss his head back and stargaze. He simple holds his head a bit high and has a hollow back.
He's also been looked over by a professional chiro and massage person and someone who specializes in a horses soundness and whatnot and he passed totally fine, no back issues or issues anywhere else.

His saddle doesn't fit 100% but that's because he needs to build up muscle, then it'd fit much better so until then, I have extra padding in it to balance it out and there are no issues. All other saddles I've tried are a worse fit, either too big or too small. I've also had help to find a saddle and it's been said that until he builds up muscle, the saddle I'm using now is the best one to use for the time being.

I also do not ride in a bit. I don't jerk back on the reins and like I said, there's no head tossing or anything like that. He just naturally moves with his head high. He's also had time off during the winter since he needed to gain weight which he has and is now being brought back into work.

Now, I'm not the most experienced rider, I'll admit that. But I have been taking riding lessons and getting better. However, when someone gives him the cue when riding to lower his head, he does it and once he figures it out, he does try to do it on his own, just can't hold it for long due to lack of muscle. However, I don't know what cue that is since I haven't really been taught that. He does it do it a bit more when riding at a walk, but it takes a little while before he does it. And I don't necessarily want him to always carry his head low, I just want him to learn to stretch out and help build up those muscles. He has been seen by a vet as well, and they also say he needs to build up that muscle there so that's what I'm looking to do and seeing as I don't have hills, this and pole work at walk and trot are all that I can really do to encourage him to build up that muscle that he needs.

He's been ridden both enlish and western and actually was trained in basic dressage when he was 4 and when someone hops on him that knows dressage, it shows he knows some basics, just is very rusty since he hasn't done it in the last 3 years. I've also only had him since September and like I said, he's had most of the winter off to gain weight so I'm sort of working on restarting him which is going well, and our current main focus is getting him to steer off my seat as well as build up some more top muscle.

To give an idea of how he holds his head, this is roughly what it tends to look like.

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post #6 of 9 Old Yesterday, 11:14 AM
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You can use side reins for lunging (never for riding) without the risk of the horse ending up too low. The bungee type things that run between the horses legs pose the biggest potential for that problem

Use the type that have an elasticated insert and attach to the girth, not the saddle.
People make the mistake of starting out with them too tight and the horse then either won't go forward, sucks behind the bit or braces its neck.

When you're riding in an arena, use small circles and frequent changes of direction to encourage the horse to drop its head rather than fiddling around with its mouth while riding in a straight line or a large circle.

Ride the horse forward into a light hand and avoid trying to hold or pull into an outline.
The star gazing is usually a result of someone with heavy hands or rough hands that are constantly hitting on the horses mouth, often combined with a harsh bit. They raise their heads up to avoid the contact on the bars and it becomes a habit as their neck and back muscles adapt to that way of going.
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post #7 of 9 Old Yesterday, 11:19 AM
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That head height will not interfere with a flowing, supple, well-used back. Stretching the head lower does not build back muscle, nor does it raise the back. That is a false training concept.

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post #8 of 9 Old Yesterday, 04:54 PM
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We have had this discussion about the horse's back, and the words used to describe the different ways of going, such as 'raise the back', and whether or not it is true, or pertinent.


the thing that you really are looking for is for the horse to build up his muscles in the abdomen and underside, in order for him to stop bracing his back. The tightening and holding hard of the back muscles can cause it to 'fall', so to speak because the underside muscles are not developed to counter that.


Just like you, the horse's core muscles are needed when he carries a load on his back. these are the muscles that help him to reach well forward and under himself with his hind legs, and to lift his spine upward, through the shoulderblades, instead of 'slouching' .


I think that the advice to do lots of changes of direction, changes of speed, stepping over cavaletti, backing up, and starting into a trot from a dead stand still are all things that help build a horse's underside muscles along with general increase in muscle and balance.
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post #9 of 9 Old Yesterday, 06:26 PM
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Quote:
Now, I'm not the most experienced rider, I'll admit that. But I have been taking riding lessons and getting better. However, when someone gives him the cue when riding to lower his head, he does it and once he figures it out, he does try to do it on his own, just can't hold it for long due to lack of muscle. However, I don't know what cue that is since I haven't really been taught that. He does it do it a bit more when riding at a walk, but it takes a little while before he does it. And I don't necessarily want him to always carry his head low, I just want him to learn to stretch out and help build up those muscles. He has been seen by a vet as well, and they also say he needs to build up that muscle there so that's what I'm looking to do and seeing as I don't have hills, this and pole work at walk and trot are all that I can really do to encourage him to build up that muscle that he needs.
It's not really a cue per s but rather aligning the horse's body in such as way that facilitates relaxation. That requires some knowledge on what a proper bend feels like, as well as being aware of when a horse in pushing a shoulder in/ out so. To be able to keep him supple, straight, and forward at the same time is a learned feeling that your instructor could help you with. Once you have that feeling, you'll be able to replicate it quicker.

For now, I would work on your position as your balance in the saddle really can influence how quickly he will move to the bit.

I'd also work through lots of transitions, as tinyliny has suggested which will not only help strengthen the necessary muscles, but will also have him thinking about his hind end. Furthermore, as you improve in these exercises, I'd try and do them off the rail on the centerline, quarterline etc to truly test whether your horse is balancing himself.
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