Question: My 6-year-old horse sometimes lowers his head while jumping (sometimes in between lines, and sometimes after a jump). How can I fix this?
Answer: Your horse is probably lowering his head in between jumps for one of two reasons: First, he might be feeling a little fresh and playful. In this case, he may sometimes add a small buck or bronc-like canter stride. The second possibility is that he’s traveling too much on his forehand and is leaning on your hands for balance. When this happens, he might also speed up and/or become quite heavy in the contact.
In either case, you do want to fix the problem as soon as possible. Playful head-dropping could get worse over time and potentially lead to more substantial bucking. To solve this problem, begin by taking preventive measures. On days when you suspect he might be a little fresh, do some light longeing to get rid of his excess energy before you mount. Whenever you jump him, be ready to correct him the moment he starts to lower his head. Bring his head up with both hands and drive him forward with your legs. He won’t be able to buck very well with his head up. Be careful when doing this immediately after a jump, though. Wait for him to finish his jump before you apply rein pressure so you don’t risk interfering with his jumping form.
If this playfulness occurs in a line of seven strides or more, make a circle. Be sure to turn onto the circle several strides before you arrive at the jump out of the line, so your horse doesn’t learn to run out. (For this same reason, don’t circle in lines shorter than seven strides.) Bring his head up and drive him forward while you ride the circle, then return to the line where you left it. (Note: Understand that if you do this in competition, you will be penalized.) Another option is to jump into the line more slowly than you normally would and then add a stride. This will keep your horse a little quieter and in better balance. Once he’s settled down, you can approach the line with more pace to get the desired number of strides.
If the cause of his problem is a lack of balance, this isn’t a good road to continue going down, either. Although you can’t expect a young horse like this, who is still learning and developing, to jump around courses with the reliable balance of a 10-year-old, it is important to start teaching him to carry himself. This requires commitment on your part as Bill Steinkraus describes in Reflections on Riding and Jumping: “Never rest your hands on the horse’s mouth. You make a contract with it: ‘You carry your head and I’ll carry my hands.’”
To hold up your end of this bargain, first be sure that you are in balance. Form equals function! Ask your trainer or another experienced horseperson to check that your position is correct. Once that’s confirmed, work to shift your horse’s balance from his front end to his hind end by practicing lots of downward transitions on the flat. Start with easy ones like trot to walk, walk to halt and canter to trot. Then add in harder ones: trot to halt, canter to walk and canter to halt. Also make plenty of transitions within the gait—lengthening and shortening the stride in the trot and canter.
For each downward transition, first step down in your heels. Second, sit in the saddle. Third, stretch your spine. Lastly, slow or stop your horse by closing your fingers around the reins and lifting your hands upward toward your belly button. Try to keep his poll the highest point in his body while working on the flat, especially during downward transitions.
When these transitions are going well on the flat, incorporate them into your jump schools. Trot or canter to a fence and then, about three strides after landing, give your horse the aids to come down to a halt. Once he understands this exercise, try doing it in the middle of a line: After he lands from the first jump, bring him to a halt. Then pick up the trot and jump out over the second fence. Be sure the line is at least six or seven strides so you have enough time to perform this comfortably.
Building off these earlier exercises, start using half-halts whenever your horse lowers his head in between fences while on course. Go through the same steps I described earlier—heels, seat, spine, hands—only this time ask your horse to stay in the canter. (You can do this in either a full seat or in a half seat.) Hold the increased rein pressure, resisting his mouth for no longer than four seconds, then immediately soften your hands without throwing away the contact. If he gets low again, make another half-halt. Do this as often as necessary until you feel him start to carry himself.
If you’re a more experienced rider with independent hands and arms—you use the reins when you want to but not when you don’t (for example, you don’t use them for balance when you fall behind the motion over a jump)—it might also be worth experimenting with a gag or two- or three-ring bit when you jump. Stronger than a typical snaffle, these bits help to elevate the horse’s poll and lighten the rider’s contact with his mouth.
Teaching a horse to travel in a better balance is a slow process that requires a great deal of repetition. Be patient and give your horse time to mend his ways.
Hunter, jumper and equitation trainer Scott Lico rode with Jim Hagman as a Junior, then trained with Karen Healey, ranking in the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association’s top 10 for Amateur Jumpers in three consecutive years before making his debut at the grand prix level. He began his professional career working for Mark Cassar at the Southern California Riding Club and serving as assistant trainer for Misti Cassar at Soprano Farms. In 2016, he relocated his business to Middle Ranch in Lake View Terrace, California. A USHJA-certified trainer, he teaches riders of all levels and ages, instilling the theories of many masters.
This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.