The exercise head down is a Groundwork exercise. In this exercise, we teach the horse to yield to light physical aids (yielding to pressure) behind the ears (in the neck) or on the nose. The horse learns to yield downwards.
When you work with a rope halter, the horse yields to physical aids behind the ears. When you work with a cavesson, the horse tends to yield to the downward pressure on the nose. Therefore, it is good to train with both tools. This way, your horse learns both (yielding to pressure in the neck + yielding to downward pressure on the nose).
Head down is a relaxation exercise, because a horse that can keep his/her head down long enough calms down. In this posture, a horse produces endorphins. A tense horse brings his/her head up; a relaxed horse brings his/her head down. Hence, if your horse is slightly nervous or tense, you can help him/her by doing this exercise.
What do you need?
A rope halter or cavesson and a lead rope.
What do you do?
You close your hand around the lead rope and let your arm hang down, thus creating a subtle downward pressure. The horse is supposed to learn to follow this pressure, and lower the head consequently.
To what do you pay attention?
That you work in phases
That you use static pressure (so don't go pulling, and make a clear distinction between the various phases)
That you work with feeling
Your own safety. For example, never put your head above the head of your horse. You may get a headbutt if your horse suddenly pushes his/her head back up.
What are the phases?
Phase 1. Very subtle pressure: you close your hand very lightly around the rope and let your arm hang down. The weight of your arm is phase one. You do this for 4 to 5 seconds in the training mode.
Phase 2. A clearer pressure = a hand firmly closed. Again, hold for 4 to 5 sec.
Phase 3. You move your tightly closed hand slowly from side to side without letting go of pressure for 4 to 5 seconds. This causes the head of the horse to move slowly from side to side too. Most horses lower their head, because this movement relaxes the back muscles, causing the head to go down.
Instead of moving from side to side, you can also knead the rope, without fully letting go of the pressure.
Phase 4. If the horse does not yield to phase 3, help the horse by luring him downwards by putting your other hand under the snout. Meanwhile, keep applying phase 3.
The horse can yield (= give) in phase 1, 2, 3 or 4. In whatever stage the horse gives, please give immediately too.
This is a good exercise for
teaching your horse the concept of yielding to physical aids. The more places the horse understands this, the better your horse will yield.
calming down your horse
using as a check exercise: if the horse already knows this, you can check regularly whether the horse responds to your aids; in other words, whether he/she wants to follow the direction and speed of your aids.
preparing the horse for the ‘forward-down’ posture during the work in hand.
How can I make this exercise more difficult?
Your horse understands this exercise if he smoothly yields in phase 1, sometimes phase 2, and if he remains still. The horse keeps his head down for a few seconds before pushing his head up again. If you ask him to low his head again, your horse complies.
If your horse knows the exercise ‘head down,’ you make this exercise last longer, such as 1 minute or even 2 minutes. You can also perform this exercise in more difficult situations, such as in the streets, where more distractions occur.
The following step is that your horse yields to your fingers applying slight physical pressure on the neck, instead of to the rope halter.
Another exercise is that you ask the head down from the partner position when walking. Consequently, you no longer perform the exercise standing still but when moving.