Handling Head Problems


Evading the bitFew things can be more frustrating to a rider working with a green horse than trying to figure out and fix problems with head carriage. The list of evasive mouth issues is long. One example is a horse that’s behind the bit, which means he avoids contact with the bit and the rider’s hands by over flexing at the poll until his chin is nearly on his chest. Another example is a horse that escapes the bit by telescoping his neck until he looks like a giraffe. Then there’s the physically exhausting horse that leans on the bit, pulling against the rider’s hands and arms.

While each of these problems has its own particular solution–best addressed with professional help–the first impulse should be to have a vet rule out physical causes. A sore back, arthritic hocks and dental issues can cause a horse to evade the bit and resist the rider’s hands. Providing the horse is sound, the next step is to select the most appropriate bit for the horse. Rarely does that mean switching to a more severe bit or gadgets such as draw reins. In fact, many horses that evade the bit actually improve when switched to a milder bit and less equipment because it’s less intimidating. Ultimately, though, training problems associated with a horse’s headset will only get better with patience and consistent flatwork. And that has to be executed by a rider with a pair of sympathetic, educated hands.

Flatwork exercises that encourage a horse to bend and move laterally through turns will make him more supple, especially through his head, neck and shoulders. As he loosens up in his front end, he will become softer in the mouth. Upward and downward transitions from one gait to another encourage the horse to shift his weight and balance from his front end to his hindquarters. Once the horse begins to collect his stride he will lean less on the rider’s hands for support and become lighter and more responsive. Throughout the horse’s training, however, the rider must reward the horse for any signs of improvement by softening contact with his mouth.

Read more about developing good hands in the May 2010 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.

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Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.


  1. Great article! So nice to see that it encourages soft forgiving hands, proper bit selection, and most importantly, PATIENCE! I’ve been working on my OTTB’s “headset” for a long time. He always carried it up in the air. Finally the other day he figured out what I wanted, dropped it down and relaxed! What a huge accomplishment! I believe that too many people are impatient and use draw reins as a crutch.

  2. Transitions are great, but they have to be done properly. By getting the horse to lift his/her shoulders, he/she can carry themselves. A horse who is avoiding the bit has no self carriage. Once a horse is lifting and moving the shoulders, then the head will come down and the proper muscles will build. By NOT having contact on the bit the horse has to carry themselves and doesn’t rely on their crutch to support them (YOU!).

  3. I really like this article~ I have a horse with this problem. He holds his head high in the air and it is hard to use the right aids and paterns of aids to get him to sofen up and put his head down to loosen the martengailes hold on his head. When he actually does soften up and I give him some slack as a reward, as soon as I do anything else like direct him or try to go on a circle he automaticly tenses up and puts his head high in the air and I have to go all the way back to step one! I shall try some of the tips and see if I can get him to soften up a little more. Thank you for the help~


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