Head Down - Calm Down
A horse puts its head down to eat, drink, focus on a close object (top third of the eye) and in preparation to roll or lie down. When a horse puts its head up it is usually so they can see through the bottom third of their eye which is the only part of the eye that can use long distance focus. They primarily need this focus to be able to spot predators appoaching so they can go into right brain "flight" mode and run as fast as they can away from the potential predator to keep themselves alive. As an evolutionary consequence to this pattern horses bodies have been programmed that when their head is down their brain associates it with relaxing and releases endorphins (chemicals that cause relaxation). It also means that when their head is up the brain associates it with perceived danger and quickly pumps adrenalin into the system to enable them to make a quick getaway in order to survive.
This response is still in our horses today and we can use this as trainers, to the horses and our advantage by training them to put their head down on cue. In doing this we can neutralize or prevent the adrenaline response by simply asking our horse to put its head down and keep it down there until the endorphins are released and the horse no longer perceives the situation as threatening. This is useful for any horse owner because a horse in right brained fear mode is very dangerous. They react by running and the horse becomes 500kgs of adrenaline on legs, which can be like a loaded weapon in the wrong hands, they often do not look where or what they are running through...including you, fences and roads. So having a method of calming the horse is really a vital safety mechanism rather than an optional training trick. So follow these steps and ensure your safety and peice of mind knowing that you have an instant calm down cue.
So what do I have to do:
Teach your horse to put its head down in response to a VERY light physical cue and when they understand this add a visual and a verbal cue. (wave hand downwards and say "head down")
How do I start:
Standing beside your horse with a halter and lead on it gently rub it behind the ears until the horse is relaxed. If there is a problem with touching this area thoroughly address that issue by desensitizing with approach and retreat before continuing with this. Gently press the hair on your horses poll with one hand in a downwards direction. If the horse tries to move away follow them ensuring that they do not flick or shake your hand off. If your horse does not put its head down gradually increase the amount of downwards pressure until they offer SLIGHTEST downward movement. As soon as your horse begins to move its neck down (even minutely) click/treat and return to rubbing the area gently. As usual the timing of the click is INCREDIBLY, VITALLY, EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!!!!!! (did you get that subtle hint?)
Make sure you click while the head is going down, not just after you release or if they are still pushing upwards, click during the response you want them to repeat. In this case during the downwards movement.
How the horse sees it:
Repeat this process and the horse will begin to realize that the pressure is released when it moves downwards. So the horse gets comfort (release of pressure) and positive reinforcement (click/treat) when it moves its head down. So the horse learns that putting its head down when it feels pressure on its poll is A GOOD THING TO DO because it has a positive outcome. You will notice the horse lick its lips a few moments after you release the pressure. This means that the horse is storing the idea in its memory of how to make that annoying pressure on its neck go away. Then it will get lighter so that eventually you just rub the area and then press the hair lightly and the horse yeilds its head down until you stop pressing and rub the area. . It is important that you release for any downward movement to begin with. Then you can gradually increase the requirements for a click/treat in steps. Do lots of repititions at each step making sure the horse understands before upping the requirements. The steps could be as follows:
1. at first the horse just has to move slightly downward for a click/ treat
2. then it has to move down a bit further
3. then a bit further
4. then all the way down
5. then keep it down there for a moment
6. then keep it down there for longer
7. then keep it down there until you ask it to come back up.
Remember that each step has to be repeated until it is solid before moving on to the next step...it may take several weeks to get to step 7 or it might take days, it depends on how good your timing is and how smart the horse is.
Adding a visual and verbal cue
When the horse moves its head downwards in response to a VERY light downwards feel on the halter or pressure from your finger tips you can start addind a visual and verbal cue. Wave one hand downwards and say "head down" then ask the horse to puts its head down as usual with pressure with your fingertips or the halter, as the horses head moves down click/treat as before. The horse will begin to associate the downwards wave and verbal cue with moving its head down (though the verbal cue will take longer) and will soon take the cue off the downward motion of your hand and will be moving its head down before you even touch it.