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Dear Dana: What will help my reiner keep his head down?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - April 19th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: I have a half-Arab gelding that I want to do reining on. When we stop, his head pops up, and we go bouncing down the arena. What can I do to get him to come under himself and keep his head down?
Elizabeth Wilson, Anza

Dear Elizabeth: I can give you some good pointers that will help you and your horse! You need to go back to the fundamentals. If you don’t have the fundamentals, you won’t have the rest of it — and problems like you are describing will pop up!

The first thing to do is understand that, in order for his hindquarters to come under him, he has to have his body weight balanced over his hindquarters. When his weight is on his front end he can’t get underneath himself, and all of his movements will be heavier and more difficult for him because he is not balanced. A horse is made to carry at least 60 percent of his body weight on his hindquarters. My guess is that he is on his front end and out of balance.

A properly balanced horse is key to having a good performance. It also sounds like he is resistant in the mouth. Let’s do some exercises to get him off of his front end and balanced over his hindquarters.

Start at the walk or trot and ask him to stop. Then back him until you feel him use his shoulders, and at that point, roll him back or do a half-turn on the haunches. Then, walk or trot back off.

I like to feel my horses soften and almost lift up in the shoulders. I like to do this at the trot, as the forward motion of the trot helps me to get him underneath himself when he stops. Another important point is this: As you stop him, just draw him into the ground — don’t snatch or grab with your hands, just draw with a steady, firm pull. If you feel him pulling back, try to stay constant with your pull until he softens in the face and folds in your hand. Often when our horses throw their heads, it’s because we’ve released at the time when they were pulling away or resisting. Without meaning, we taught them to throw their heads, as we gave them a positive reward (the release) for a negative action (throwing their heads). So, work to become very aware and mindful of how you use your hands and body.

Also, when you stop don’t throw your body backwards. When you do that, it will warn the horse you are coming and can teach him to anticipate the stop. Also, when you throw your upper body back, your approach with your hands will often be rough and abrupt, possibly scaring him in the face. Just fold your body down in the saddle and draw smoothly (but firmly) with your hands. If you have collection in his head and neck, you will be better able to collect him in the body.

Now, let’s go back to the exercise I described above when you trot, stop, turn and trot back off. Feel and diagnose whether he’s pulling you down or forward, and stay in contact until he softens. Back him until you feel him lift his shoulders and soften in your hands. Then roll him back and trot him back off. Do this until his body weight redistributes back over his haunches.

My daughter, Bree, was the leading rider in the World for AQHA in 2010 and 2011, and at times we have to do a check-up and work on our horses’ body weight. Even in our pleasure horses, we can find they are trying to get on their front end — either by laziness or when we as riders may have missed something. It’s just an area that we have to maintain in some of our horses.

As soon as you are happy with his stops at the trot, progress to the lope and work on your stops at the lope. Just remember to stay soft and balanced in your seat and don’t throw your body back and grab him. The lope has a different motion, so make sure you are flowing with him comfortably before you ask him to stop. To sit the lope, unlock your hips and catch his motion like a rocking chair or like sitting on a swing.

Best of luck to you!

P.S. — Some of my DVDs that may help you would be Take Control 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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