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Q. I am in the process of purchasing a 10 year old paint gelding, and he has had no previous dressage training which I think is a good thing to have in any horse. I would like to teach him to get round, because I don't think he has a clue! I was thinking of maybe lunging him in side reins or some other training device, but I don't know if it will work. I just basically want him to take the bit and put his head down. He does not fight it or put his head up, nor does he have any particular bad habits so far as I can tell pertaining to his head-setting, but he just has NO clue whatsoever about putting it down. It's not really up or down; it's just kind of there. I'm also thinking of having a trainer work with him at the stable where I board him.

Also, what do you think of draw reins? When I was leasing a TB this year, we put him in them, and it did correct the roundness issue but only temporarily, like for that particular ride!

I pretty much want my horse to have a nice head-set when I ride him because I ride hunt seat and jump him. I just want him to put his head down in a nice position! I took dressage lessons for several years already, but now I am more into jumping. A trainer that was helping me find a horse told me I make the horses want to come round for me because I had dressage training, so I guess I'm kind of good at it, but this horse just doesn't understand. Any suggestions?


A. I'm afraid you may be confusing roundness with an artificial head-set. I doubt highly if the use of draw reins made the thoroughbred "round" for the duration of a single ride. They may very well have forced his head and neck into a completely unnatural and evasive position during their use - a position which many novice equestrians mistake for roundness.

True roundness is the long-term achievement of correct training of the horse coupled with progressive development of the equine athlete's musculature. It may take years to develop, but it's an admirable and worthwhile goal. There is no training device that can force roundness from a horse who is not physically prepared to produce it on his own, and any training device used incorrectly will create only resistance and stiffness, as illustrated by the thoroughbred who returned to his more comfortable style of movement the instant the draw reins were removed.

I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish by insisting exclusively on a "nice head-set" for your horse. I'm not even sure how you're defining "nice head-set". You mentioned getting your horse to drop his head. If he were evading your hands by lifting his head high in the air, hollowing his back, and shortening his stride; stiffening his jaw against you; poking his nose out and laying against your hands; or dropping his nose toward his chest and refusing to accept any contact with the bit at all; I would generally identify such problems as training issues best addressed by a competent trainer who is committed to teaching the horse to accept the bit through appropriate responses from the rider's legs and seat.

Once your horse learns to respond readily and move comfortably forward from your seat and legs, and once you soften your hands and allow him to seek them out on his own, it's likely whatever problem you're currently encountering with his head position will resolve itself. Sounds like your new boy just needs to focus his attention on engaging his hindquarters. Doing so will automatically send him into your hands. I've found the most effective tool for directing a horse's efforts toward proper movement and carriage is lateral work. If you haven't yet started him on lateral exercises, you might want to take a look at my response to the "softness" question. The exercises mentioned there may be very helpful to you.

If you attempt to force your horse to hold his head in whatever position you decide is "nice" without teaching him to move in a relaxed and ground covering manner while willingly accepting soft rein contact, you can forget about competing successfully against thoroughbreds in the hunter arena in the States. Attitude, style of movement, and jumping form will always take precedence over a horse's head-set in competitive standings.

The idea of exposing your Paint to dressage training is a very good one, but unless you are quite experienced and knowledgeable in such training techniques yourself, I would most certainly recommend finding a reputable dressage trainer to do the job for you. Ask for and check out personal and professional references, watch the trainer work with other horses new to dressage, and discuss thoroughly your goals for the Paint. A good trainer will start your new horse on the right path and should also teach you how to continue the training yourself in an appropriate manner.

Beware of any "trainer" who relies heavily on mechanical devices to falsely produce speedy results. These individuals turn out 30-day-wonders ... not trained horses. A knowledgeable trainer may properly utilize side reins on the lunge, but once mounted, those trainers who truly understand what it takes to develop a willing equine partner will rely primarily on their natural aids, leaving the "gimmicks" to those less skilled among their ranks.

Most training devices can be used appropriately on a short-term basis by knowledgeable trainers to address specific training issues, but any trainer who feels it necessary to depend on a mechanical training device on an ongoing manner would be highly suspect in my opinion. It was, for a great many years (and perhaps still is ... I've been out of the loop with western training techniques for a while now), very common for western trainers to use all sorts of mechanical devices to force their horses' heads into a completely unnatural position at the absolute destruction of their natural gaits. This obsession with head-set was ultimately recognized for the HUGE error and detriment to the riding style that it was, and now western horses are being returned to a somewhat more normal head carriage and natural movement.


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