Elizabeth Wood
photo by Phil West

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TRAINING NOTES from Elizabeth

Horse fighting rider's hands.

Have you ever felt the frustration of not being able to get your horse to lower his head?



If you relax, your horse will relax.

If you relax, your horse will relax.


Hi Elizabeth,
I just wanted to thank you again for the amazing lesson this afternoon. It was remarkable how quickly Loverboy calmed down and got to work. He just visibly relaxed and his demeanor changed within a minute of you working with us. I feel like we accomplished more today than we have in the last month!
It really reinforced for me what a great horse he is. Once I got out of his way, he was so willing and fluid and just overall fantastic. Loverboy totally showed me that he is up to whatever I ask of him...as long as I ask the right way! I am so proud of the work we did today that I can't stop thinking about it and I can't wait to build on that and keep moving forward.

Thank you for a fantastic afternoon,

Read more of Stevie Loverboy's Success Stories on our OTTB Success Stories Web site.









Bridging your hands can help your balance and keep you from pulling on the horse's mouth.

Bridging your hands can help your balance and keep you from pulling on the horse's mouth.


An excerpt from the
OTTB Success Stories Web site - Lynn's Vision aka "Bubba" . . .

. . .today, Elizabeth showed me a technique where I crossed the reins like the jockeys do, took a two point stance, rested my fists on his withers and we started trotting. “Bub’s” head went right down and never moved. We went around the ring several times and through the ground poles. He was steady, his head was quiet and it felt great. It was actually very easy to steer and he was completely responsive.

Read more of "Bubba's" Success Stories on our OTTB Success Stories Web site.

































A horse with his head up has a hollowed back and a shorter stride.

A horse with his head up has a hollowed back and a shorter stride.



A horse with a relaxed back is balanced and can step under with a bigger and more comfortable stride.

A horse with a relaxed back is balanced and can step under with a bigger and more comfortable stride.


A comment from one of our followers:

While I haven’t adopted that new horse yet, I keep checking your website to see who is available, and today I came across the BEST article ever – on how to get your horse to lower his/her head.  AMEN!! 

I get so tired of seeing riders see-sawing the reins (and therefore the bit) in a desperate, yet futile effort to get their horse to lower their head and watching in horror as their poor horse tries desperately to avoid the pain, with wild eyes, their jaw open and their back hollowed – it’s such an awful sight. 

You are absolutely, 100% right in saying that the rider needs to relax, get a good seat and stop hanging on the reins for balance!  It’s all part and parcel of having a long-term plan for your horse’s training and not looking for a “quick fix” or some mechanical way of addressing issues which essentially come down to the lack of good horsemanship basics.

- Monica Celizic,
Assistant to the President
Michigan Humane Society



training notes from elizabeth

Our horses > training notes from elizabeth > December 13, 2008

Our training notes often show schooling at the farm but may also include cross country schoolings and trail rides away from the farm. Go back through our notes to see how we train our off-the-track Thoroughbreds and prepare them for new careers as sport horses.

Bad rider position can lead to a horse raising his head.
Notice the rider's feet are too far forward and the rider is leaning forward and hanging on the horse's mouth to keep her balance.

Training Notes - Lowering Your Horse's Head

Have you ever felt the frustration of not being able to get your horse to lower his head? An anxious horse is a horse with his head in the air. Other things can also cause your horse to be tossing his head in the air. It could be rider error.

Let's discuss both situations.

An Anxious Horse

When horses are worried, scared or anxious, they will raise their head and hollow their back. When this happens the horse's back end is restricted and the movement of the rear legs will become shorter and choppier.

Experience this feeling yourself. Raise your head and look at the ceiling. Feel your lower back hollow and the muscles get tense. This is what is happening with your horse.

If your Thoroughbred came off-the-track with a sore back (and most of them do) this will only aggravate the back and cause pain and possibly lead to bucking or kicking out.

The answer is get your horse to relax and get him to lower his head so that his back rounds up.

Drop you chin to your chest and look down to the ground. Feel how your back rounds out. When a horse lowers his head properly from the shoulder, his back will round upward and his back legs will be able to track up over the foot print of the front foot.

Ride on a looser rein and sponge the reins to get the horse to relax and lower his head.
Notice that now the rider is on a longer rein and she is not balancing on the horse's mouth because her position is more correct. Also notice the difference in the horse's stride now that his head is lower and his back is relaxed. Compare the top photo to this one to see the difference. The horse is happier and more relaxed and the rider is more secure.

But how do you get an anxious horse to relax?

First the rider must relax. If you are nervous, your energy will transmit to the horse and he will become nervous and anxious. Next, ride on a long rein and sponge the reins. By this I mean, open and close your fists as if squeezing a sponge. Alternate from one hand to the other. Gently please. You are not washing laundry! The horse will start to reach down into the contact. Keep your elbows bent and relaxed and follow the movement of the horse's head. Let him reach down - do not snatch him in the mouth or yank on the reins. Encourage him to move forward at a business like walk by keeping your lower back relaxed (head up - eyes up) and alternating the pressure from one leg to the other as your hips move with the motion of the horse. If his head drops too low, encourage him with your seat and legs. Push his back end under him and encourage him to carry his own weight by being balanced.

The goal:

  • Remain relaxed
  • Ride on a long rein
  • Remain soft in the hands (sponge the reins)
  • Keep elbows following the movement of his head
  • Keep your back relaxed and your head and eyes up

Work to achieve this relaxation at a walk and then a trot and finally a canter. It may take many sessions to get your horse totally relaxed at the canter but remember . . . it starts with a relaxed rider. If you cannot relax on the horse you are riding, then ride another horse to gain your confidence. A sensitive Thoroughbred is not a good combination for a rider that is too emotional or tense. Thoroughbreds make excellent teachers - ride them correctly and you are instantly rewarded. When you are tense, they will be too with their head in the air.

It Might Be YOUR Fault - Rider Error

We have already discussed the rider being anxious but maybe you are totally relaxed and your horse still has his nose in the air. What gives?

The problem might be, "What does NOT give?" - YOUR hands!

A beginner may use his hands to balance against the horse's mouth because his seat in not secure.
A beginner may use his hands to balance against the horse's mouth because his seat is not secure.

Our horses let us put a cold piece of metal across their gums and then tolerate us using their mouth to keep our balance while banging the bit against their teeth. Some horses are less forgiving than others - Thoroughbreds fall into this category. We owe it to them to be kind and to say thank you to them when they give to the pressure of the bit and bend.

How do we say "Thank you"? We leave them alone! What Thoroughbreds want more than anything is to please us. We in turn just pull on the bit to turn or to pull ourselves up out of the saddle because our legs are in the wrong position and we don't lighten the pressure when they give to it - we just hang on harder to keep our balance.


Hanging onto a horse's mouth is a common problem with beginners or riders who do not have a good seat. You must have YOUR balance in order to help the horse gain HIS balance. This can only be achieved by riding in the classical correct seat. Your feet need to be under your hips and in line with your shoulders. If you are sitting as if in a chair, feet in front of your hips, knees too far forward, there is no way you can post without pulling on the horse's mouth. Try riding without stirrups to get your feet and legs where they belong.

An example of good contact with the horse's mouth.
Riding without stirrups quickly puts your legs in a better position. Notice that both the horse and the rider are happy and enjoying the ride. Even a beginner can get instant results and ride like a pro when the seat and hands are used properly. Thoroughbreds make great teachers.

Try these exercises while on the ground. Squat down. Notice that you heels are under your hips and your shoulders are over your hips. You are very solid and secure in this position. Now, stand on the ground and have someone face you and hold your hands. Try to put your feet in front of you and squat down. You will be lucky not to pull your assistant on top of you. This is what happens while mounted if you do not have your legs and feet in the correct position. Every time you try to rise while posting, you are pulling on the horse's mouth to get yourself out of the saddle.

Squat down properly and then try to put your feet behind your hips. Have your assistant ready to catch you before you face plant into the ground. You cannot remain balanced if your feet are behind you. When this happens and you are on your horse, your knees pinch to stop you from falling forward and usually your toe point towards the ground and you loose your stirrup.

OK. So now you know the importance of your legs being in the correct position, but how does this relate to the horse's head being in the air?

If your seat is not secure, your hands will tug on the horse's mouth to keep YOUR balance. Your horse will raise his head trying to get a release from the pressure. When he does not get the release, he will start tossing his head to snatch the reins from your hands to get the release. You most likely will foolishly attempt to snatch them back leading to a classical game of tug-of-war. For those of you who are not familiar with this game I will tell you who wins . . . the one with the weight advantage!

Stop. Admit defeat in this game and play another.

You need to set your hands to be quiet and put them in a position that does not allow YOU to snatch the reins when the horse does what you ask of him. If your seat is not as secure as it could be, and your hands are not quick enough to release the pressure when the horse gives to it, then you need to try some other way to let the horse realize that he did the correct thing when he gives to the pressure and bends his head down and rounds on the bit.

Side reins are a good tool if you know how to use them. They are useful on a lunge line if you do not use them too tightly. They should be set to only apply pressure if the horse's head is raised. Lowering the head releases their pressure - instantly! The horse figures this out and keeps his head down so there is no pressure on the bit. Now how can you achieve the same thing while riding and not using side reins?

The rider is in a two point seat with her weight down in her heels.

Get yourself into a two point seat. Weight on your legs and down into your heels (heels under your hips), knees and lower legs making contact (but not a death grip please) and your butt just slightly out of the saddle, head up and shoulders back. Take your reins and "bridge" them.

To bridge your reins, hold them as you normally would but lay one rein over the other so you are holding both reins in both hands. Rest your knuckles on the horse's shoulders and use the "bridge" as a brace to hold yourself in position. This will give you greater security and consistent contact. Have just enough contact with the horse's mouth to feel pressure when the horse is standing.

At first your horse may resist the contact.
At first your horse may resist the contact.

Ask your horse to move off at the walk. Do not move your hands. The horse may resist the contact - there should be enough contact to feel the horse's head move as he walks - but push him forward with your seat and legs. DO NOT move your hands from the bridge position on his shoulders.

As the horse is irritated by the contact and the unmoving hand, he will raise his head. DO NOT move your hands. Stay quiet and push him into a business-like walk.

A balanced horse steps under himself better.
As the horse keeps his head down, ask for a trot.

At some point the horse will try to release the contact by dropping his head. DO NOT move your hands. BINGO! He gets the release because you are not using your hands to balance on his mouth and you are not taking up the slack in the rein to maintain YOUR balance. The horse's head may go up again. This increases the pressure on the bit. Soon he will try tucking his head down from the shoulder and he will get the release he is looking for! You just do NOTHING. He is learning to give to pressure. Your mission is to learn to be balanced in the saddle and stop using his mouth to balance yourself. Move into a trot and do not change a thing. Soon your horse will set his head where it is most comfortable and he has release from your hands. He will be very happy to keep it there because you are not fussing at him. Happy horse. Happy rider.

The concept is very simple - stop fussing at the horse. Achieving results takes skill and correct posture in the saddle. Your seat and hands should be independent of each other. Go back to basics and start with your feet. Get them where they belong and everything else will line up if you keep your head up, back relaxed and elbows elastic. When the horse gives to the pressure - release and say THANK YOU!

A well balanced rider makes for a happy horse.
A well balanced rider with a secure seat and independent hands, makes for a happy horse.

I wish to say thank you to my star students for demonstrating both the right way and the wrong way to ride. They found it much easier to demonstrate the correct way!


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