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Dear Dana: How do you get a horse soft in the face?

By Dana Hokana / Horsetrader columnist - August 4th, 2010 - Q&A Dear Dana

Let me start with giving you some principals to proper flexion. First, in order for a horse to bridle his head, he must flex or give in the poll and the jaw — and also in the neck. This will enable him to have the profile and head carriage needed for our Western and English classes today.

You can use several exercises to gain suppleness and control of your horse’s head and neck and enable you to teach your horse proper flexion. In order for a horse to flex or give in the poll, jaw, and neck, I must be able to take a hold of his face and ask him to soften in my hand — and give me his face. I have discovered an easy way to get control of these parts of my horse’s body.

I start with teaching my horse lateral flexion of his head and neck. I do this by asking for my horses face laterally or off to the side. I ride two handed and take one hand out to the side, asking my horse to really bend his neck, bringing his face out to the side. Then, I ask him to step forward while having the bend through his head and neck. As I have a hold of my horse, I do not jerk unless he is pulling away from me. If he’s giving his face, I stay soft but keep my pull constant while pushing with my legs to keep him moving forward. I pay attention to the cadence of his steps — if he’s jerky or very uneven in his motion, I work at this until he is fluid and cadenced.

I also pay attention to his body language, as in his tail movement, mouth, and ears. The quieter he is, the more willing he is. I will ask for a few steps in this maneuver, then I will drop off of him, giving him a break, letting him walk in a straight line. Then I pick him back up and ask for the maneuver again. If I get a lot of resistance, I will often drive him forward to the trot. The use of forward motion will often break through a stiff or resistant horse. I have found that when my horse’s cadence becomes consistent, a new level of willingness is achieved.

I never do this exercise with draw reins or a training fork, as I’ve seen horses bite at these and get hung up — extremely dangerous. If at any time your horse shows too much resistance, stop and seek the help of a professional. I always work both sides of the horse’s body equally, unless the horse is exceptionally stiff one way.
When that’s the case, I will work on the resistant side longer until I feel them get soft in my hands. My goal is always that my horse becomes soft and flexible.

When done correctly, this first exercise will teach your horse to flex through his neck and jaw and give in the face. It will help a horse that has a tight-looking neck and one that is intimidated in the face and behind the bridle to “stretch out and let go in their neck” — and to have a nice, level profile.

The previous exercise doesn’t, though, address flexion in the poll or bringing in a horse’s chin. This exercise will, though: Ask again for the exercise we just learned, and this time, once your horse is comfortable, relaxed and giving, you will bring your hand up and across in front of the saddle horn and ask your horse to drop his nose down toward your toe. Doing this, you will increase the bend and flexion while still having his head around to the side, but with more control of him. Do this with forward motion, starting at the walk — it’s a harder exercise with a higher level of difficulty and flexion, but it also brings you greater results.Evaluate your horse’s response and watch his body language.When you get your desired response, drop your horse and give him a break and then try again. Your goal is to get him softer and more responsive. Since this exercise has a tighter bend and a higher level of difficulty, it may take weeks to gain as much control and suppleness as we have shown here. Be patient, it is worth the effort!

After mastering the last exercise, here’s afinal one. Take a hold of your horses face with both hands, drawing straight back. Don’t jerk — simply draw your hands back and ask your horse to walk forward, encouraging him to be soft and light in the face. The trick to getting that nice level top line is to hold and push until he drops his head to level with his withers. Also pay attention to his feel in your hands. Your goal is that he not only drops his poll, but he also softens in your hands. Make sure when he does this you reward him by releasing your cue.

Best of luck to you,


P.S. — These exercises are also shown in many of my DVD’s in my Winning Strides DVD series.

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