Head Down / Calm Down / Demand Cue
By Rugh Mason John Lyons Trainer located in Pennsylvania
This is the closest you’re ever going to get to instant gratification from teaching an exercise in horse training!
You should ask yourself this question – What do I do when my horse gets excited and I want him
to calm down now? If your answer to this question is anything other than this cue then you should
learn this and teach it to your horse. The value of teaching this exercise is for the safety of you and
your horse. This cue can also be used by you to set the horses’ head elevation where you desire it
to be. When you want the horse to lower his head and calm down immediately you can use this cue. If your horse decides to get excited and you want to demand that he lowers his head and
calms down, then use this cue. An unexplainable fact is that the horse will calm down when his head is at a level below the withers. The calming effect on the horse could be associated with the
lowered head position when he is grazing or starting to lie down. Although the horse can actually
be calm with his head in any position, the environment and circumstances are going to determine when you need to use this cue.
There are a couple of prerequisites to teach this valuable request and demand cue to your horse. The requirements of
(1) accepting the bridle and bit,
(2) understanding and doing giving to the bit, and
(3) standing still are all that are required.
Additionally, you will begin teaching this exercise from the ground in an area where you have few distractions and complete control of the horse.
The bit of choice is the smooth Full Cheek, D-Ring, or Egg butt Snaffle bit with the correct headstall.
The phrase “giving to the bit” means that the horse must move a body part, (ie: jawbone), with energy, in the direction that you are requesting.
The horse must learn and understand that there is a release of pressure at some time after you take
the slack out of the rein. The release comes only when he moves his head in the direction that you request. Never pull or jerk on the rein! The release is given to the horse only when he
approximates or actually starts to move his head in the direction in which you desire. The horse must voluntarily produce this movement. The release is the complete dropping of the rein, which
sends a clear message to the horse that he did what you were asking him to do. Initially, it helps to
give a single neck “rub” after the correct response to let him know that he is on the right path with
his response. The horse will confirm that the lesson is learned when you teach him this cue and he responds correctly 100% of the time within two seconds after your request. The time required to
teach this cue varies – maybe a couple of hours – the teaching time is meaningless compared to the lifetime of benefits.
This “giving” procedure is done as lightly and as often as you handle your horse. This exercise is
easy for you to learn and teach to your horse. This concept is another complete article in and of
itself. Call if you need more understanding of this topic because it is vitally important to you and your horse, now and in the future. Again, You must ask yourself what you presently do when you
want your horse to calm down. If your answer is anything other than the Calm Down Cue, then you owe it to yourself and your horse to teach this cue. This cue is important to the safety of both
you and your horse!
Now, the Head Down cue is accomplished as follows.
Working on one side at a time, starting on the left. You stand facing the side of the horses’ neck
on the left side. Grasp the rein twelve inches beyond the bit and take the slack out of the rein. A
line of the rein in the direction of the saddle pommel is okay. Hold the rein in that stationary
position until the horse even thinks about dropping his head. He will try different moves, stay with
him, just be patient and focus on his head. The instant his head (choose a coin size part of the
head to focus on – ie: tip of the ear) begins to move in a downward direction, even a fraction of an inch – RELEASE! That’s IT!
Now, wait a few seconds and try it again.
Keep working this until the head is about knee level. Practice this until your horse will respond by lowering his head every time that you ask and within a couple of seconds.
If the head continues to pop back up – simply ask the horse to lower it before the head goes all
the way up. You do this by anticipating that this will happen and request the head down sooner. The rein pressure should remain light when making your request. This key step of requesting
quicker tells the horse that he should keep his head at the lower level. Once the horse begins to
keep his head at the lower level, allow him to maintain that position as an added reward.
When the horses’ poll is at about the three to five foot height above the ground you may need to
actually put a great amount of pressure on the rein, as in neck reining. This will move the horses’ head back in line with his body. Now you can continue to work on lowering the ear height.
You’ll experience the gratification of the horse lowering his head in varying increments until his
head is at a level below the horses’ knees. After the release allow the horse to remain with his head down until he raises it again. Then, quickly ask for him to lower it again.
Yes, you are asking the horse to do what is not natural by having him give to the bit and asking him to calm down and relax when he is scared.
Now in the case of the calm down cue we’re also asking our horse to move his head in the
opposite direction of the pressure. Isn’t it great that our horses are so versatile! Remember, all of
this is being taught in a safe, calm, controlled environment.
You can carry this same technique somewhat further and make it a demand cue. This requires that
an additional amount of pressure be applied to the rein when the nose is at the six inch level above
the ground. Apply steady even increasing pressure until the horse – starts - to put his nose on the
ground - then release. Never jerk on the rein! When you get the horse to lower his head think about guiding his nose toward the outer wall of his front hoof on that side. This side orientation is
preferable instead of having the nose pulling or rooting directly forward. The horse will in fact pull
against the pressure and then put his nose on the ground. This is an advanced cue so take extra time to work through it.
Later the horse will distinguish what you are requesting by the amount of pressure that you apply to the rein. Be aware that the horse may decide to lie down when his nose is on the ground! This
will happen if you are standing beside him or if you are in the saddle. When you are standing beside him let him lie down but be sure to stay away from the legs and hoofs. Don’t startle the
horse while he is lying down. If he wants to get up allow him to do so. If he stays down and you
decide to get him up on his feet, you may have to gently lift his head to encourage him to stand up.
This means always approaching the horse from the direction of the head. Be ready to take hold of
the reins to control your horse when he does get up. When you are in the saddle and the horse
decides to lie down, take your feet out of the stirrups and step off the horse after he lies down and
away from the legs. You can watch the saddle horn and step off in the same direction it goes. If you don’t want the horse to lie down then quickly ask for him to do something different.
After you’ve practiced and taught these cues to the horse from the ground, advance to doing them from the saddle. Remember get the cue very solid from the ground first
before trying it in the saddle. Start at the walk, then on to the trot. You can get the horse to lower his head at the canter but be careful not to lower it too far- he could stumble!
Note that you will want to work half way down on the left side and then switch sides and work on the right side half way down. Continue to switch back and forth until you complete the exercise.
After teaching the cues on both sides the horse will respond when you use one hand on the center of the reins above the neck. Meaning that he is responding to both reins at the same time instead
of just one rein, which is appropriate for the snaffle bit.
Additionally, Once the horse has learned these cues don’t aggravate him with them by continuing
to practice them unnecessarily. Save them for when you need them! You can occasionally test for
results under varying conditions. Then you’ll know if he learned them because he’ll do them.
Remember, the horse should be taught all new lessons in a safe, calm, controlled environment such as a round pen or other safe place. Then later as the excitement level goes up such as on a trail
ride, at least the horse will understand what you are asking him to do.
After you teach the lessons in the safe environment then go trail riding, and work with the horse to
get him to respond to the calm down cue. If the horse does get excited and you request the calm down cue, he should respond correctly by dropping his head. However, his head may pop back
up quickly because of the increased level of excitement. The solution is to continue to request the
calm cue until he keeps his head down. Then move on to your next request from the horse. This is an exciting exercise to teach your horse, so that when things do get exciting you can have another
way to be in control.
Head down when using the halter and lead rope is also used to control the head elevation.
You will be working from the ground. Begin using the same procedure as before but this time hold
the lead rope just below the halter. Apply the lightest pressure possible in the downward direction
and release when the head gives downward. The release must be at the instant that the head starts downward. Again, if the horse stalls out by staying in neutral and not responding apply added
pressure, maintain that pressure and do not release until the head gives downward. If the horse moves his head stay with the head movement until it starts downward. After you increase the
pressure to achieve the desired movement, always go back to the lightest pressure possible on your next request.
Allow a reasonable amount of time for the horse to respond before adding greater pressure. After you are getting the horse to respond consistently downward as his first movement after your
request, continue to work at getting his nose to the ground. After you teach this exercise with the halter and lead rope switch to the bridle and teach the same procedure of downward pressure
with the rein. Work each side and then both reins together from below.
I hope these exercises serve as a means for you and your horse to be safer and have more fun
together. I am interested in knowing about the results that you achieve with this exercise or any questions you may have.
Contact: Rugh Mason
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