A Confidence booster and relaxation technique
The horses head position is an indicator of his emotional state.
His head rises high, he’s tense- he’s prepared for flight!
His head is lowered, he’s relaxed and at ease.
When the horses head is in a ‘grazing similar position’ – his spinous processes are slightly more open which allows endorphins to flow. Endorphins have a calming effect on the body.
When he now suddenly lifts his head to look at something or try to hear or smell something- he hollows his back. His spinous processes pinch – adrenaline begins to circulate through his system.
NOW he’s ready to Fight, flight or freeze.
Teaching the Drop-Head Cue
What do you need?
A halter or cavesson and a lead rope
How do you teach it?
Either through pressure + release (negative reinforcement) or Clicker training (positive reinforcement)
The following technique is based on using pressure & release.
💡 Note: You can also teach the cue at liberty through positive reinforcement by having your horse follow a target with his nose, by luring him into the head low position, by capturing a behavior etc.
1| Put the halter/ cavesson on your horse
2| Position yourself next to him at shoulder height- close your hand around the lead rope – let your arm hand down- which creates a subtle downward pressure.
3| Hold the subtle pressure for 4-5 seconds.
At this point some horses already follow the pressure – directly release & praise
No reaction yet? Repeat step 1!
If you still don’t get a response of your horse – go on with the next step.
4| Close your hand tightly around the lead rope- now move your closed hand slowly from side to side without letting go of the pressure.
Hold it for 4-5 seconds
The movement causes the back muscles to relax- which the allies the head to go down.
Practice this exercise in short sessions. Eventually your horse will lower his head by the slightest downwards ‘pressure’ (I’m talking about ‘super light’ pressure- basically just you touching the lead rope with the idea in mind to lower the head position) on the lead rope.
Note! As always – there are two sides of the coin- and there are different opinions about this technique.
Some behavioral researchers label the head down cue as a trained helplessness technique – rather than a relaxation method. They reason it with the statement that a predator will pull the horse into a head low position – to then kill them.
As of right now- there’s not enough research done to back up this theory scientifically.
I personally made the experience that the head low cue can be a very powerful relaxation technique – but it also doesn’t work for every type of horse and for every stage of training.