Head Carriage

I have a question that has gnawed at me for years: How DO they get the perfect head carriage and stillness on the 2 and 3 year old Morgan show horses?  I know some bloodlines are more “hinged” than others and set up well into the bridle, but that does not explain the impression you get when you see a 2 or 3 year old pleasure driving class with beautifully set heads (I am completely leaving aside for now whether that head carriage is “balanced” or whether the horse is moving properly).    I have been around Morgans 30 plus years and I have seen the breed transformed from thick-necked, nose out and laboring to perfect head position, precisely shod (if you doubt me, look at Morgan Magazines from the 60s and 70s), and I know some of the means-dumb jockies, surcingles, draw reins- but I would really like to hear some comments/insights  about how these  young horses are produced.   I am sure there is some controversy as to HOW they are produced (bustles, shackles, etc.) and I would welcome comment on that as well, but that is a sideshow.    I admire trainers who can produce a marketable product and a two year old with a still head and neck moving well in harness is a marketable product.

24 Responses to Head Carriage

  1. Jrchloe says:

    Just hoping to help get the ball rolling, it does matter if the horse is balanced and moving properly to have a steady headset. To get a horse to have a correctly set head they need to first have a strong hindend to be able to hold more body weight to free up the forehand and lift the withers.

  2. Chris Nerland says:

    Thanks for the comment. I have been thinking about this, and note an interesting fact: there are probably 100 books or more on dressage-how to train…. the philosophy thereof…. how everyone else is wrong…but as far as I can tell there are only two well known books on saddleseat-Crabtree’s seminal work (but that is more on the actual riding rather than training) and Training Your Colt to Ride and Drive by Childs and Wallen. Either saddle seat/fine harness trainers don’t have time to write or it is all a big secret. I do think that training for the show ring may be the last major horse sport where the knowledge is passed by word of mouth.
    At my advanced age(lol) I certainly am not going to open a training stable, but I think there would be a large audience for a trainer who could articulate how they assess a long yearling, how they start them, what they look for in a harness prospect versus a saddleseat horse, why some bloodlines work better at an early age, how and when they use appliances such as stretchers, why a bustle works, side reins vs. draw reins, work in the long lines, overcheck vs. side check, and even a visit to that complex world of shoeing for show horses.
    I think we can even have a discussion of the use of ginger, drugs(calmatives and when and where they are appropriate) without getting into their legality/acceptability.
    Here is the thing: there is a vast amount of ignorance out there regarding the “show ring”. Just visit some of the web sites and see a discussion of shoeing and how terrible it all is. I have shod my own horses for years and have done some show shoeing and I have seen the evolution of shoeing in the Morgan breed evolve from pretty rough to superb. You very seldom see a horse pounding anymore or laboring from too heavy a shoe.
    Yes, we have short articles such as “ask a trainer” and maybe I am looking at a compilation of all these, but I really don’t think so. We have some trainers out there who are thoughtful and who are combining disciplines-I am interested to know if they think saddleseat/fine harness is going in a different direction from the rest of the horse world. I mean, the emphasis of so much of the “TV trainers” (see RFDTV) is on the relationship between the horse/rider and how you achieve that. (A bit too warm and fuzzy for me). But people who ride seem to want to do/be more than just that perfect picture who gets in the saddle/buggy and navigates a superbly trained horse around an arena. I think the popularity of Hunt Seat reflects that desire.
    A superbly presented Saddleseat or fine harness horse is a wonderful sight-and I have an inkling of how difficult it really is to produce that perfect picture. I would like to know more of how that perfect picture is produced. I want to start my colts right, so they can move on to develop that beautiful headset, that stillness. I suspect it is something quite different from dressage, since we do, after all, have 2 year old performance classes.

  3. RaeOfLight says:

    There were a lot of shows all over the country this week, so hopefully all the trainers who might shed some light on this issue will be back online next week and give us some insight.

    Another thing I’ve wondered about with this though is the young future hunter/western horse who gets shown Pleasure in harness. I remember one horse in particular who was trained by a well known trainer and shown with much success as a Jr horse in the English Pleasure Harness division. When I went to see this horse in person for the first time I was shocked at how NOT upheaded she was based on pictures I’d seen. She had a beautiful hunter frame, but somehow they had cranked her neck way up. Now, I do think there should be a place in the harness division for these youngsters rather than having them out under saddle as 2 and 3 year olds, but is changing their frame so drastically to fit into this category doing them a disservice in the long run?

  4. StacyGRS says:

    There is no perfect head set, but there is perfect for that horse:) A horse can only do well what they can do comfortably. That doesn’t mean it can’t take effort, but it can’t put their body where it can’t go without sacrificing another part of their body to compensate. I can’t say we get the perfect head set, but we treat them all the same when they come in. Of course, we make speculations, etc, but, so much of a horses success is based on attitude and desire and you don’t know that. Everyone does it differently. We teach them to bend their neck, steer, and pull the buggy with their head down before we use an overcheck. We start every colt in a straight line learning to stop, go and steer. Some people dislike draw lines, we use them quite a bit. They can be mis-used, but they can also teach a horse to bend and give without having a solid pull on them. A draw line tends to require a super light touch and because you can change where it ends, but it still has the pulley, there is no feeling of something just pulling a solid pull. The various angles of the line can help them by way of the touch coming from different directions. Because there isn’t a “firm end” we find they don’t tend to hang on or lean on a draw line…they tend to learn to hold themselves within the frame without the frame being so much of a hard line. Very hard to explain, sorry:) Perhaps this is why there isn’t a book…because every case is different and it’s hard to explain:) Our experience is that if you give them all the same tools…knowledge of the bridle, confidence to go forward, physical fitness to pull the buggy, and understanding of their job..as much as a 2 yr old can understand…then they’ll tell you where they belong. Some will start to get more aggressive going forward, some will show you it’s hard for them to wear the o/c, some will start to drop their backs as they learn to wear things, etc. I have to say that our 2 yr olds in Feb are not a very pretty sight, in general…but we find if we let them find their way a little and not insist they impress us on a daily basis, they end up better for it in the long run.
    O/C vs. sidecheck is personal preference..mine is O/C. It’s an argument a good friend and I have had more than once:)
    As for calming agents, we have used them for training purposes, on rare occasion. If a horse is really frazzled by something, you can use them to get thru the rough spot. My personal feeling is if you aren’t pretty sure it’s a one time thing to get thru something and once the horse comes out on the other side with understand and comfort with it there will be no more need, then it isn’t going to help. If a horse can’t work without it, then they certainly aren’t going to be able to show without it! They likely aren’t ready for what they’re being asked. You’re not teaching them, at that point, just giving yourself an advantage to make each day easy. Not productive. There are fewer tricks involved in our daily work than people think.
    If you’re looking for a step by step guide to training a colt from start to show ring, that’s a tough one…just hard to explain and there’s alot of intuition and trial and error involved. Each colt responds differently.

  5. Jrchloe says:

    One should use dressage to train a saddleseat horse. Use the dressage training scale and add another point to the pyramid for specialized saddleseat training. You want a horse who has rhythm, is supple, wants to make an even contact with the bit, uses its engine, is straight and then finially has the strength to collect itself. Then you can start to fine tune headset and motion. A true saddleseat prospect has more of a natural inclination to be a saddleseat horse because of conformation and talent so you shouldn’t have to train for what a horse already has but just improve. There are biomachanics that dressage teaches that helps the trainer understand where the problem is rather than just fixing the symptom that is easily seen.

    There are actually a few saddleseat training books that don’t call themselves saddleseat training books. Show Your Horse by Bob Robinson (is a training book with a shoeing chapter), The Silver Saddle by Bob Ruxer has a training section, Professor Beery has a Saddle Horse series, The Do It Yourself Show Horse by Lynda Ann Miller (hard to find but National Horseman is reprinting chapters in the magazine), The Arabian English Pleasure Horse by Kathleen Obenland, Kathleen Obenland also has another book Show Ring Success that is more about showing and then some horse shoeing books with saddleseat horse sections like The How To Horseshoeing Book by Christy West.

  6. Jrchloe says:

    There are also some TTouch groundwork techniques that are useful for horses that need hindend help.

  7. StacyGRS says:

    While the things you mentioned (rhythm, being supple, even contact, etc) are things to work towards in a dressage horse, I don’t think they are exclusive to dressage. It’s pretty much what most disciplines strive for…SS included.

  8. Jrchloe says:

    Well dressage just means training, I was not talking about Dressage (competition) and its a time tested progressive program for all disiplines. A well trained horse should go through the program and then at the end become specialized. Thats why I said to train a Saddle Seat horse.

  9. Chris Nerland says:

    Thank you for the above comments, especially Stacy. The comment on why you like draw lines was actually very clear to me, as I have used them myself. I find that even w/surgical tubing, a colt tends to “lean” on a dumb jockey rig if it is over-used. I like it for showing the colt that, yes, he can indeed trot around a round pen with his head in “that” position. I cannot strap him into the position, he has to find it out on his own. I know training the young ones is not like a recipe book, but I think there has to be some sort of philosophy (if you will) behind it. To me, saddleseat and fine harness is all about the “picture”. The picture is the still neck, the head position, the cadence. I agree there has to be balance (they cannot fall overthemselves) but I really do not see dressage (in the common understanding of that term) as playing a large part, when classical training, for example, advocates trotting a horse for a year or more before moving to the next stage.
    I think our saddleseat/harness trainers can and do produce a horse outside of what we now understand to be classical dressage. I think they do so by means that are very much under-appreciated and misunderstood by the horse public and I would like to see a knowledgable someone write a book setting forth the way it is done. We need a Colonel Podhajsky eqivalent.
    One last remark: Might it be that it takes a year or more to to “lighten” a dressage horse because the most common breeds used (Traks/Oldenburg etc.) are difficult to get to “lighten”? (I am not talking about the high school movements which are so physically challenging that they take years of physical prep). Is it possible that America has produced two breeds (American Saddlebred and Morgan) that can accept swiftly and easily the discipline and physical changes necessary to produce that show ring posture and way-of-going? Jes’ puttin’ that idea out for consideration, folks.

  10. Jrchloe says:

    Hmm. I am starting to understand the Morgan world more and more.

  11. StacyGRS says:

    I think there are alot of commonalities between disciplines that are not dressage, reining, or SS…they are just horsemanship. Balanced horses that respond well to the bridle, self carriage, etc are goals we all have. We get there different ways and it benefits us differently, but the similarities are clear, IMO.
    Personally, I think there are some good books, but I also think that some of the books, videos, tv shows are not as beneficial to people in becoming trainers, but they often give them some exercises etc that make them think they are training. Just the other day we had a lady hand walking a horse down the edge of the rd (there’s a horse path there). No chain over it’s nose (of course) and occasionally she’d stop and face it and wave the lead at it and get it to run backwards…in between dragging her and walking sideways. She clearly felt she was getting in some good training. It jumped at a pick up truck that was pulling an empty flat trailer that was rattling alot. Next thing you know, she’s now lunging it a couple of laps this way, stop it and make it turn around and lunge the other way..did this for 10 minutes…on the side of the road, just over a blind hill, on our neighbors property. I’m guessing, by the looks of things, had the horse flinched while she was on it, the situation would have become ugly very quickly. She had all the right riding clothes, from head to toe, and very nice tack, etc. So, this way she got to do some “training” without having to be a capable rider. Not sure the horse gained anything, he did get some exercise and time spent with his person…but I’m guessing she’s no closer today to being able to ride him safely and the books or videos won’t fix that, I don’t think. It’s a funny line…I am glad people want to learn and glad there are some well written books, etc…just not sure in the end how much they do. I’m a skeptic:)

  12. Chris Nerland says:

    Just to make clear: in no way do I speak for the Morgan World. My comments/ideas/questions are solely my own.

  13. morgansrule says:

    It is interesting to see this question of how to set a head turn into training philosophy 101. I think the post about the side of the road trainer says a lot. I can swim, but I am not a swimmer. I think way to many people read a book, watch a video or even watch their trainer for years and then decide they can train. Maybe they can. But, maybe they can’t. If everyone could do it well, no one would be able to charge for it! Being a horse trainer (whatever discipline) is so much more than teaching horses what particular trick pleases us today. My dog can sit, stay, lie down, sit up pretty and play dead….but I KNOW I am not training any dogs to run sheep or go to Westminster. It is the same with horses. I find the term “horse whisperer” a funny term. Those highly skilled trainers don’t whisper to horses. They listen to them and move on when the time is right. That is why it is hard to write a book. I am asked all the time how I know when it is time to get on a horse for the first time. Honestly, I don’t know…the horse just tells me that day, I swing up and go for a ride, no fuss, no muss. The only horse that ever gave me an issue, I got on due to pressure from an owner, against my judgement. That will never happen again.

    As for setting a head, my two cents are this. Teach the horse that the bit is a correction, not a crutch and have him carry his own head, not lay on the bit. One thing I find frustrating is all the folks that think a twisted wire that is used twice in a session is more severe than a fat snaffle the horse lays on the entire session. To me the difference is one shock from the electric fence when trying to get the grass on the other side vs a huge rub and gash from leaning over the barbed wire. I am happy to accept change for my two cents! :-)

  14. Chris Nerland says:

    Morgansrule: thanks for the comments. Like I said above, I am not looking for a recipe-I got on my 3 year old by just walking out one day, looking at her and saying to myself “she is mentally and physically ready”. I could articulate what factors were weighed in that decision, so I think they CAN be stated. The difficult part is applying the criteria to the next horse and the next etc.
    I think the TV Trainers are probably excellent horsemen in and of themselves and they can produce startling results (why else clinics?) but the average horse person can take away an impression that if you buy the funny-looking paddle, or my patented bridle or my over-priced videotapes, you too can get these results. Doesn’t happen like that.
    On the other hand, I don’t think you can just tell people-send the horse to a trainer if you want results and don’t look too closely-first, you had better know what sort of results you should get. There are some bad trainers out there. A little education on how your horse should look and move would be very helpful. Second-my generation wants to know WHY. Don’t tell us “because we always did it that way” or “I learned that 50 years ago from an old saddlebred trainer”.
    My original question was how do you get a still neck and head carriage on 2 and 3 year olds? Stacy gave me some feedback on that w/drawlines. How about some other comments on what works for you? Do you find particular bloodlines set up more quickly and flex? I have a LaSalle style dumb jockey. I like it. Do you have one? Do you use it or find you do not like some of the effects? I think a pretty interesting book could be written just setting forth matters like those and expressing the particular author’s experience as opinion alone rather than mandate.

  15. morgansrule says:

    Breeding and type play a large part in the whole scheme. 1st, a horse that is built to hold his head up will have a solid carriage more easily than others. Breeding influences the situation by helping with attitude. Anyone who has ever trained a Morgan Guarantee foal knows what I am talking about. Some horses have an “I will, I will” attitude, others have a “make me” attitude. And others have a “let’s talk about it a while and I will decide how I like YOUR attitude about it before I come to a final decision” attitude. Anyway, those with the I Will attitude are easier than the others, which often leads to a solid 2 or 3 year old. Like you have stated, there are so many factors it is hard to sum it up. An entire book could be written just on this piece of the pie (a “what to do if” type of book) One interesting thing to keep in mind….many people who work with animals do so because they don’t do so well with humanoids, so explaining things sometimes becomes not fluent. I write, and I must say, I picked up on this blog due to the fact that I find it very interesting that someone is looking for it out there. With all the small “publish your own” companies, it might be worth looking into. I would feel a compilation of many trainers opinions would be the way to go. For every person who thinks I am a good trainer, there are 500 trainers waiting to “fix” my 2nd place horse!!

    As for what I do personally, here’s what I can give. Do I own a dumb jockey? Yes. Do I use it…rarely. Mostly I hook rain coats to it and let especially spooky horses sack themselves out a while before it is time to get on! The general idea behind it is that it mimicks the placement of the hands on the reins and teaches a horse to have a high head carriage, with a steady pressure. My opinion is that anyone who has gotten into a pulling contest with a horse knows how well steady pressure works. It teaches the horse to lay on the bit and use it as a crutch. If the rider doesn’t do this, the horse actually becomes more unsteady because now all of a sudden there is movement in his mouth and he tries to correct looking for that crutch.

    One thing I want to address is the word “steady”. In my mind that does not mean “not moving”…it means “not searching” A great saddleseat horse with a great head carriage is constantly moving….small corrections. This is the best way I can describe it….when you watch a great horse going, really concentrate on each step and what is happening. Each stride, the rider should be pushing the horse forward into the bit, while minutely correcting the horse back. Driving them “up” and “collecting the energy” is how my old trainer described it. The outside front leg goes forward, the tension is on slightly on the outside rein, enouraging the horse to move into the opening of the inside leg and rein. The inside snaffle should be sligthly slack. When the horse completes the stride, the “bump” changes, so each stride constantly pushes the horse into the next, in a collected space allowed by the leg and bit. During all this fabulousness, the curb has a very slight steady pressure, setting the nose exactly where it needs to be, and not allowing it to stray out of that frame. A horse tosses its head or rolls under 100% due to the curb. It is a function of too much correction with the severe part of the bit. If you watch a great one, you will see a very slight back and forth motion of the head and zero fight on the bit, as they don’t have time to fight, it is constantly shifting in their mouth and they can’t decide it’s bothering them enough to fight. It is very important to use both reins seperately….this is lost on many people.

    In the training part, I line with a check (over or side all depends on the horse and how short thier palate is) to find out where they are comfy. I don’t line a horse checked way up every day. I work more on making a soft mouth and responsive horse that doesn’t get hurt and likes to work. The rest falls into place, generally.

    One last thing to keep in mind. The horses in the ring are there because they are ready, there’s probably 10 more at home that don’t have solid head sets, and that’s why they are at home!

  16. Vintage_Rider says:

    What an awesome, specific description of what my poor trainer has been trying to instill in me… imagine an AMI working on all that… I think you have a full chapter right there. Thanks for the journey!

  17. Chris Nerland says:

    Thank you so much for the above. This is absolutely the sort of comment I wanted to solicit. So, you mentioned palate. Sidecheck if a short palate or vice-versa? I am very much looking forward to observing an English Pleasure/Park saddle class and seeing if I can spot what is going on. I have never read an explanation like you gave and it was illuminating. Yes, I understand snaffle and curb functions, but how it is actually applied in a saddleseat class was something new.

  18. Vintage_Rider says:

    Not just saddleseat, any full bridled horse, as in hunt.

  19. StacyGRS says:

    Ironically, we own a dumb jockey and use it the same way! We don’t tend to bridle in one…I choose to be the dumb jockey around here:) A big part of training is taking all of the bits and pieces you get from everywhere and deciding what works best with your program. What your hands like best, what your schedule allows, what your horse does well with.
    While I don’t tell people to send me a horse and don’t ask questions, the answers generally require many, many factors. What I’ve done and not done, what has worked and not worked. I take into consideration why something didn’t work…was the horse scared, irritated, oblivious, etc? What this horse is physically capable of. What they did yesterday and how it went. There’s a lot of psychology in what we do (human and horse, btw) and it’s alot like saying “how do you stop someone from being afraid of the dark?”…there is no exact answer. It depends on why they are afraid, how long they’ve been afraid, and what motivates them to become un-afraid. Or asking a teacher how you teach a child to read…the kids progress at different paces and they get stuck on different letters/sounds and as you come across a problem you find a way to deal with it. Each teacher approaches it slightly differently, I would guess, but the goal is the same and the route they take is different from case to case. I only explain this because I don’t want to appear to not want to explain, but, one of my issues is with people giving others “tools” and instructions and setting them loose on an animal. We saw a demo at EqFest one year on the Stabilizer. For those of you that don’t know what this is, it’s a glorified lip cord that you could buy, at the time, for $22.00. This man took a supposed untouched horse, like they do, and showed us how he could have it calm and being groomed and saddled in 1/2 an hour with the Stabilizer. “Each time he resists, I just snug it up one notch and endorphins are released making him calm down…” It sounds so pleasant:) We saw alot of people buy that thing and I am guessing that some of them got flung around pretty good when they got home and tried to make it work. And I’m guessing some horses had sore faces too!!
    That said, If there were a plain “this is how you get a steady headset” answer and I had it, I’d be happy to give it. And if someone else has it, speak up…I want the answer too!!:)

  20. DVFMorgan says:

    First I just want to comment on the horse and lady that Stacey saw running backwards when the gal waved the lead rope at the horse. This is not a bad thing, it is a very good thing, the lady is only making the horse stay out of her space and asking the horse to back. We back our horses up alot on the ground the same way, it makes them think alot more about listening to the person leading them. I even make them back up into their stalls, why? Because I can, and it makes them be more respectful. Some Morgans can become very pushy real fast, and when you have children and amateurs leading their horses around, the horses must be obedient on the ground.

    As for the headsets, the conformation and desire of the horse dictates alot of that. We ride alot of western horses, they were all started in a smooth snaffle, no martingale, no nose bands. The type of snaffle you use can make a huge difference in your horses, I prefer a loose ring snaffle. We do a lot of lateral flexing, before we ask a horse to flex through the poll, but it is all a process, and each horse proceeds at a different rate. There are no gimmicks that get you there quick, it is basically lots of riding time, and trying different methods that work best for you.

  21. StacyGRS says:

    You are correct, Karen…nothing bad about teaching a horse about space. However, once they get running backwards instead of just backing away it seems to have created another problem. The response taught is not respect, it’s fear. As he ran backwards and ended up on the asphalt of the road and she couldn’t stop him from backing because the closer she got, the faster he ran, it is no longer a useful lesson. In the hands of someone that has some horse sense, a helpful horsey friend around, or some kind of assistance, these things can be very useful. But just the video does not a horseperson make.

  22. DVFMorgan says:

    Yes, running backwards out of fear is not the right answer, backing up because you have been asked, and stopping when asked, is the right answer. There in lies the problem of the wanna be trainers, they think cause the horse backed up real fast, it was doing the right thing. All the ground work must be precise.

    Video’s, yes I agree with you there, and those showmen are making a basket full of money off their videos and goodies. Their clinics are very good, and a knowledgeable person can get some useful tips, but I think the majority of people that attend some of those clinics, use the info for a couple of weeks and then are right back at square one.

    Perhaps some Morgan trainers could get together this fall and put together a DVD on starting a horse under saddle and harness, going from bitting , to long lining, to cart and saddle. I think there would be enough sales to justify doing something like that, there seems to be a lot of interest on here.


  23. Chris Nerland says:

    I would buy that DVD!

  24. daughterofaltair says:

    Any word on that DVD? ;)

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