When in your training do you start to care about how the horse is holding his head and neck?

“Question Stacy Westfall, when in your training do you start to care about how the horse is holding his head and neck? Or does this just come naturally? Just curious on your thoughts on this subject.”

There are many opinions concerning what a horses headset should be. Some breeds or disciplines desire the head to be held high while others prefer low. Even inside of specific disciplines, reining for example, the preferred headset often changes from trainer to trainer. Many breed associations have eventually needed to address headsets and rules have been written as to what is acceptable or desirable depending on the class. For example, the AQHA had to address the issue of western pleasure horses carrying their heads too low. Now there are written rules, this is from the AQHA rules online;

lower headset

 “He should carry his head and neck in a relaxed, natural position, with his poll level with or slightly above the level of the withers. He should not carry his head behind the vertical, giving the appearance of intimidation, or be excessively nosed out, giving a resistant appearance. His head should be level, with his nose slightly in front of the vertical, having a bright expression with his ears alert.”

One thing most people agree on is that the horse should not appear resistant; head tossing, gaping mouth, pulling reins away from the rider, etc.

I enjoy training horses to be willing and soft and then, for the most part, I let the head carriage be determined by the horse. I take into account how the horse is built. When people are concerned about the horse carrying its head low I recommend them buying or starting out with a horse that, when observed in the pasture, lunge line or round pen, naturally carries their head low.

The bigger issue for me is how the horse carries themselves through their withers. It is important that the horse keeps his withers elevated for maximum athletic ability. You can see in Episode 24 at the 5 minute mark how Jac is desiring to drop his head as a side effect of the bending and counter-bending. I will actually discourage Jac from dropping his head for a few months at speed, until he has a solid lead change and slide. Then I will allow him to drop his head if he wants after that. Jac doesn’t understand that dropping his head too fast will make learning the lead change and the slide more difficult.

I have trained horses for western pleasure, reining, trail, lunge line and general trail riding. I currently choose to train for a discipline where I can generally win without aiming for a specific headset. If I chose to train for a different discipline I wouldn’t have a problem with aiming for a specific headset…but I would start with a horse where the natural head carriage had my work already done.

Jac low head


  1. marla2008 on March 20, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    O.M.G. Stacy thank you SO much for bringing this up. This is such a fundamental question, and such an issue in the horse world. I’m actually a little baffled by all the cool and very mild answers. My contribution will be way more extreme. First off, let me state that my young horse (4 yrs old) is a Portugese Crusado (half full blood Lusitano, half… something else unknown). As such (Portugese and Spanish breeds have it in common) he is quite built “uphill”, and has a naturally high head carriage. Actually, he’s getting along pretty well in his training and is quite soft on the bit and will break at the poll and soften up any time I put contact on the reins. He’s quite comfortable with breaking at the poll and tucking his chin nicely in. But even so, his NECK tends to be very erect, and I can see/feel it’s very tricky for him to extend his neck and lower his head, as the Western disciplines would require he does. It doesn’t help that I’m trying to introduce him to Reining maneuvers. Here in Europe when people think “Western”, all they care about is a horse going around with its head between its knees.
    Reining is my discpline of choice, but I have a love/hate relationship with it as I see every rider and trainer I come across pulling on the bit (often unmercifully) as soon as the horse tries to come out even by a smidge, out of this totally unatural low carriage that is asked from them at all times.
    I’ve tried to ask many horse trainers, more or less famous, many times, and I have never received a SINGLE answer to my question “WHY do you ask your horse to perform with his head below its knees ?!?”. My guess is that there is NO reason, other than what is fashionable and gives a (very false) look of a horse freely and naturally carrying himself in a “pretty” arched attitude, while in fact the horses are forcefully and ruthlessly kept in this frame.
    And if I honeslty ask myself : would I want my horse to have a lower head carriage, Western style ? YES !! Absolutely ! But I’m NOT (ever) going to use gimmicks or become obsessed about getting it, since it is so against his conformation. Soft and broken at the poll is probably the best I’ll get from himn and if I want lower, I’d be better off getting a naturally low headed breed.
    Now Stacy if you happen to read this comment, I’de be VERY interested to hear your take about this obsession of the low head among Reiners nowadays ? (I’m not even mentioning Pleasure horses, that are a true ordeal to watch…).

  2. Joyce Pickering on March 20, 2015 at 11:13 am

    I quit showing in western pleasure in the 1980’s when the peanut roller (low head carriage) was popular. Even now I hate to watch a western pleasure class. The horses look like they are crippled. I love reining but some of the trainers are asking for the low head carriage. It just doesn’t look natural. I agree with Stacy…how a horse carries his head depends a lot on the way the horse is built.

  3. Donna Taylor on March 20, 2015 at 9:35 am

    We are bringing home a horse on Saturday who needs trail miles, (and we needed a borrowed trail horse) She has a very high headset and the trainer we are getting her from said not to worry about it, that the horse will find it’s comfortable spot with time. We don’t show but this horse will be used for jumping cross country someday. She loves the jumps, I can’t figure out how she sees well enough to gauge her strides with her head up like that….I’m hoping with lateral work and time she can be more comfortable with her head at least level.

  4. Lesia Lowe on August 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Stacy… when I first watched this video…..I have wondered about what you said: “Jac is desiring to drop his head as a side effect of the bending and counter-bending.”….. when you say side effect…. does that mean ALL horses do the head dropping/stretching when you are teaching the bending???? thanx!

    • Stacy on August 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Yep…that’s what I’m saying. When done properly the horses want to lower and stretch. I’m not saying all of them are built to want to be that low all the time, but it does help all of them learn how to round and carry themselves collected.

      • Lesia Lowe on August 15, 2014 at 6:40 pm

        ohhhhhh ok……… I know sitting at the computer to long makes me want to stretch my neck like that sometimes….haha…. thanx!!

  5. Flo on February 21, 2014 at 7:14 am

    I come from a Stb harness racing background, love trail riding, and have always wanted to learn reining/cow work. Played around with some team penning. In 2012 I rescued a grade paint weanling, now coming 2 in May that shows a lot of athletic ability. Don’t think she will have the low QH head carriage, but she does carry herself nice overall and I personally don’t like riding a horse that carries its head real low anyway. I want to compete with her in Ranch Versatility eventually. My father, a professional racehorse trainer, was known in the business as a “colt man” ando I have decades experience working with young horses albeit driving not riding. I LOVE your spiral in/out exercise. Have used it to re-train many Stbs to under saddle. I’ve been following you for years, and am training my filly following your Jac videos. We’re up to the long lining at trot and canter. ( Love your canter cue, have a video of her longlining on youtube if you’re interested). Right now 2 questions: 1: At what age do you usually get on their back? and 2: Even though I don’t think this will be an issue for my horse, just curious: how do you discourage the low head set? PS, I was hoping to get out to one of your clinics with her, but now you’ve moved from Ohio. 🙁

  6. Hot Rod Cowgirl on February 20, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    Right on and so true…..

  7. Teresat on February 20, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    I ride dressage and the idea is that the head carrriage should reflect how the horse is using his/her body. Not that many don’t try for a ‘short cut’ with gadgets etc. I agree that you buy the horse that’s conformation suits what you want him to do.

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