Updated: Feb 26, 2020
High Headedness, and Why It Matters
Ever get the sensation that you are riding a giraffe rather than a horse? That you just can't connect through the reins? That your horse doesn't “hear” you? That you are both tired and sore after a ride?
High headedness in horses can be a hereditary behavior, naturally occurring in some horses, or it can be a learned behavior response to anything new. In either case, it is certainly undesirable for several reasons, which we'll take a look at here.
Remember that “might be a redneck” comedy bit that Jeff Foxworthy used to do? Well this exercise is somewhat like that. These are a few behaviors that will clue you in to whether your horse “might be high headed”.
Watch your horse move freely in the pasture or in a round pen at various gaits. If your horse consistently holds her head above about a 25 degree angle relative to the back, your horse might be high headed.
Notice whether your horse's head is at eye level when you look out straight in front of you from the horse's back while riding. If it is at or above your eye level, your horse might be high headed.
Lead your horse through obstacles on the ground and notice what the response is when he encounters something new. If he raises his head as a first response, your horse might be high headed.
Notice whether your horse's head goes up with every new situation on the trail. If it is a regular response, your horse might be high headed.
If your horse sticks her head in the air every time you try to connect through the reins, your horse might be high headed.
Stand back and look at your horse. If the muscles on the bottom of the neck are more developed than the muscles on the top of the neck, your horse might be high headed.
Have friend watch while your do the above tests. Sometimes it is easier for a more objective observer to see these signs. If your friend sees more than one of the above behaviors, your horse probably is high headed.
This horse shows several signs of high headedness and the negative effects for horse and rider.
So why does it matter?
High headed is high strung. Horses in the wild often use their far vision to scan the horizon for danger. Because of the way their vision works, they can see best in the distance when they hold their head high.
Raising the head is directly associated with high anxiety. Whether the head raising triggers the anxiety or the anxiety triggers the head raising isn't clear, but it is obvious that a horse with a head held high is in a state of higher anxiety than one whose head is low. Grazing or relaxing horses hold their heads low.
A horse who is in a state of anxiety has a hard time “hearing” you. Whether you are using your voice, your reins, or a lead, the horse in anxiety is focused on finding and identifying the source of anxiety, not on what you are trying to tell him.
Physically, a high headed horse shortens and tenses all the back and hind end muscles so your ride feels like riding on a board. A relaxed horse with a lower head carriage lengthens and softens all those same muscles, giving you something more like a trampoline to ride on. For the horse, those tense muscles are also more prone to injury with you bouncing on them.
In addition, the movement of the horse tends to be up and down, rather than forward. If you watch racehorses you'll see that they run stretched out, with necks extended in front of them. This up and down movement is harder for you to ride, and gets you nowhere fast.
If you've had the experience of riding a high headed horse, you likely have noticed how difficult it is to connect with them through the reins. It feels like you just can't get then to respond, and there are no brakes. It is easy for them to brace all the muscles on the bottom of the neck and throughout the upper back and abdomen against you, making it particularly difficult to have any kind of “conversation” through the reins.
Last, but certainly not least, a horse who is consistently in anxiety is not a happy horse and “if my horse ain't happy, ain't nobody happy”
Fortunately for you and your horse, there are some proven methods to change high headedness.
TTouch and Whole Horsemanship can change this behavior. Whether you are an experienced horse person or not doesn't matter. It doesn't involve violence, and depending on the horse, can change the behavior in a matter of days or even minutes. You can add just a few tools to your "toolbox" to use for head lowering at any time. So don't despair, attend a Whole Horsemanship clinic, private session or online mentoring.
Happy Trails to You!