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Head sets

From: Cheryl

Dear Jessica,

I have been following your "helpline" for about a year now and I find it absolutely wonderful! So many times I have read other people's questions and said to myself, "wow, I never thought of that". They're a joy to read.

My aunt owns and breeds Appaloosa, they're quite wonderful and well trained, however she mainly trains them Western. Unfortunately where I live (and lived) they mainly have English stables, so all my training has been English Hunter/Dressage. Of course this makes it a little difficult when I ask for a trot and I get a jog (and the same with lope/canter). Through the years my aunt and I have helped each other by teaching the other in what we lack. If it wasn't for me, she would have never entered in the English classes at the Appy shows. Just for good measure, she threw me in a Western Show a couple of years ago for "fun". I must admit riding one-handed was a little tricky.

For 5 months, my aunt let me borrow one of her mares to board here while I'm at school. She's a sweet little 6 year old broodmare with maybe 20 days training before I brought her up here. She was born with no color, so my aunt just let her grow since she's not elegible for the Appy shows (unless she's freeze branded or they register her hair swirls). We worked on a lot of things (both English and Western) and made great progress. She can now side pass, turn on the haunches and forehand, go through a gate, leg yield, longe, and she even jumped over some low fences (the last two she had never done before, obviously I'm a little proud of our accomplishments). We ride with a D-ring snaffle with little or no contact.

So this brings me to my question: What about head sets? We never worked on this because I didn't know where to start. She carries her head up high and every time I'd try to get her head down, she thinks I'm asking her to slow down, so I'd respond with more leg, and that would just confuse her, so up pops the head again. A couple of times I'd try draw reins, and they work, but I don't want to rely on them to get what I want since I'm not experienced enough to know the long-term outcome. I tried longing her with a surcingle and side reins but I'm afraid of making them too tight. My goal is to get versitility, a relaxed Western head-set when there is little contact and a more English-style set when I'm want more contact. I know this is very difficult to do, and I'm wondering if it's just easier to have two or more horses trained for different classes (which alot a people do). Right now she's back on my aunt's farm and when the weather get a little nicer, I'll be spending time with her again. How should we start?

If you can help me out in anyway I'd really appreciate it.

Thanks a billion,


Hi Cheryl -- thanks for the kind words, they're appreciated. ;-)

Appaloosas are versatile animals, and you may very well be able to go on riding this mare English and Western. She's obviously a clever mare and you're obviously a good trainer, since you've done a great deal with her already. Where she may need some help is in learning two different ways of going, and, as you say, two different ways of carrying her head.

The easiest and simplest way of doing this is to work her in different tack according to what you'll be doing that day. She'll understand very quickly that Western tack means different cues and a different way of moving.

Head-set issues can be complicated. You are dealing with two very different styles: English riding involves keeping soft, steady, elastic contact with the horse's mouth at all times -- the well-trained English horse looks for contact! Western riding involves having NO contact -- the horse should respond to the weight of the reins, the feel of the reins against its neck, and the shift in the bit's balance when the rider lifts or drops her rein hand. The well-trained Western horse is expected to remain BEHIND the bit at all times, so that there is never any direct contact through rein pressure.

The easiest way to achieve both of these is to be very clear about which one is which. When your mare is working in English tack, ride on contact, with one rein in each hand, and a soft feel of your hores's mouth through a well-fitting snaffle bit. When your mare is working in Western tack, ride one-handed, with looped reins, and don't use a snaffle. Use a curb -- a mild one with short shanks and a low or medium port (depending on your mare's mouth conformation -- get your aunt to help you choose the right bit), something like a colt bit or sweetwater bit, in a heavier metal, sweet iron or steel (not aluminium). The bit will feel different, sit differently in her mouth, and have different action, and it will be 100% easier for her to tell whether it's a Western day or an English one. ;-) The bit will also feel different from YOUR end of the reins.

Don't think in terms of a head-set as such. Instead, focus on keeping her comfortable and moving foward, ON contact when you're using your English tack, OFF contact when you're using your Western tack. She hasn't been under saddle for very long, and she needs to develop her body in ways that will allow her to carry a rider comfortably. The stronger and more supple she is, the more versatile she'll be able to be. Focus on basic exercises, stopping, starting, turning, and transitions. Make the sessions pleasant for her.

Don't use the draw reins or the sidereins; draw reins are almost never appropriate, and sidereins can do more harm than good unless you're very experienced in their use. At this point, you need to encourage her to develop herself correctly. Instead of thinking about bringing her head down, think about bringing her back UP.

Be sure that your saddles fit her well. A good riding horse, English or Western, needs to be able to work off its hindquarters and lift its back. This takes muscles -- and the muscles can only develop if they are used correctly. Saddle fit matters a lot, because a horse with a sore back will drop its back instead of lifting it, and the second the back drops, the head will come up... If your horse is comfortable in her saddles, you'll be able to encourage her to move in ways that will develop her muscles and help her lift her back. You can show her how to use those muscles by doing belly-lifts whenever you're standing next to her. Reach under her belly with one hand on either side of her girth or cinch, and use your fingertips to tickle and poke (gently!) her mid-line. Keep an eye on the saddle seat -- you'll see it lift an inch or two as she tightens her belly muscles and brings her back up. This is something that you can do often -- the more often, the better. ;-)

Take your time, have fun with her, and let me know how it works out.


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