I have gotten a few questions on this topic recently, and have decided to answer them with this article.
In some disciplines and riding styles there is a lot of focus on the horse’s headset. In my opinion, focusing on a headset is a backwards way of looking at training. Instead of focusing on the head and attempting to maneuver it into place with the reins, I would rather focus on the hind end of the horse and essentially work forward.
To achieve the most correct and useful movement from our horses, we need to focus on their haunches and hind legs first. For a horse to travel correctly, he needs to be reaching under his body and pushing off with this hind legs. This will also lift his back, creating room for the pelvis to have a steeper angle and the horse to come underneath himself.
The way a horse’s musculoskeletal system is designed, when his neck lowers his topline engages, lifting the back and bringing the hind legs further underneath him. Relaxed muscles are essential to all this happening, and therein lies the problem with “headsets.” Correct training needs to slowly build the fitness and strength of the horse so that he is able to better engage his hind end and achieve a higher level of collection, balance, and self-carriage. Training for a headset just focuses on the position of the head and neck and tends to overlook the rest of the body. Also, if a horse is not fit enough to carry himself with collection and balance, or if he does not understand what the rider is asking, working on a headset will cause stiffness in the neck and bracing through the back.
The picture below shows part of the skeletal system of the horse so you can visualize how moving one part of the body can affect the rest.
There may be some who go about it differently, but this is what I have learned and what I practice with my young horses. Forward movement, rhythm, and stepping under and across with the hind legs comes first, then the horse is taught to travel “long and low” meaning when a feel is taken on the reins he should stretch his neck down and out. As the horse becomes stronger and more educated he can be asked for more collection as well as schooled in a tighter frame with more arch in the neck, and more “adjustability” not only in the length of his steps, but also in the position of his head. What I mean by this is the highly trained horse can go from a long and low frame to a collected frame with a higher head and neck positioning, then back to traveling long and low.
This next picture is a great illustration of collection and roundness.
Training the horse in this manner takes patience and consistency, but the reward will be a more athletic horse and a more balanced, comfortable ride. This applies to all disciplines, because no matter what kind of tack the horse is wearing or what type of sport he is performing, he still needs to be balanced and using those hind legs.
In this Week’s video, I talk through these same points and demonstrate teaching a young horse to stretch.