One of the goals on my to do list is to get Dante moving with head down at walk and trot to increase the strength of the back. Two trainers you might want to check out in re: to the why and how is Art2Ride and Straightness Training.
In summary, when the horse is initially worked in long and low, the back is stretched and is allowed to rise, strengthening the long and flat muscles on the back. There is a good explanation about all of this right here on the nuchal ligament and why development of the back is so incredibly important for carrying a rider (and is how nature wants the horse to be).
Art2Ride has a jallion videos but here is one that shows you what they are about.. this video addresses the first stage which is lunging, putting the horse on the circle, position of the handler and looking for the horse to stretch down (this is reactive horse, early in its training):
If your horse was already trained and was ridden for years in a tight, behind the bit posture or trained with draw reins, you might have the problem I had with Tristan – over flexion. This is a typical problem with horses that have worked as lesson or show horses both in the Western or the English fields because JMO most people, especially beginners, crank back with their hands and while others falsely believe that this broken neck look means the horse is “on the bit.”
The photo below shows Tristan (post fractured pelvis) with a slight behind the vertical look. This is a huge improvement of where he was when I first bought him and going behind was his security blanket – whenever he was unsure or worried – he went behind and assumed a false frame (probably taught him from years of being in draw reins and his lesson student days before I owned him):
In this next video, he recommends that once the horse (who is behind the bit) learns how to stretch and lunge correctly, throw away the side reins because these horses have had tools force them into a frame which is how the problem was originally started. I’d suggest checking out a Cavesson for these horses, which is a big improvement over a halter but not restrictive like a bridle.
Like ANY training – lunging or riding with head down and low – can also become abusive as seen with the Peanut Rollers of the Western horse breed shows (which are still winning despite AQHA rules) and the Rolker weirdos in the Dressage community.
See this as an exercise and keep in mind that while you want to build the horse’s back you don’t want to force the horse into a frame.
Back to Dante – Each horse presents a unique opportunity to learn and find solutions and Dante is no different in that respect. I’m in a strange situation with him. I suspect that he has been taught some sort of head set in the past as he always keeps his head in the same place when being worked: Not high, not low – just dum-de-dum… in the middle. He does not move it!
It’s not a “bad” place to be with your head and probably worked for all sorts of casual riding, but what it didn’t do was build up his back. If you look at his back, it is quite sunk right behind the wither/shoulders and he has a bit of a roached back that I’ve discussed before. Looking at this recent photo of his back, the casual observer might say he has high withers; no – he has a sunk back.
I saw Dante lunge both on video and in person quite easily but once he got here after a session he decided to do what some horses will do to evade the work: he spun his hindquarters away from me and faced me. If I approached him, trying to get to his side with my whip to ask for forward, he would back away, continuing to face me. If I had a round pen we would work this out there but I don’t 😦
I’ve come with a plan to get him back on track:
Walking by his side or in front, I’m asking for him to lower his head with a Target while he is moving. When he lowers to reach out to the Target (see Touch Target training post), he gets a clicker-treat.
Once he lowers his head on his own to seek the reward, I’ll remove the target itself and CT when he does the desired behavior (head down). Once he knows to do this on my signal, then I ask for longer duration of head down before CT.
I did a little of this work with daughter helping me and Dante was definitely more interested and engaged with treats involved 😉 He actually moved his hindquarters and had a very nice walk (following the person holding the treats)!! argh!