Opinion On Training Techniques:
Tying a Horse's Head Back
By Karen Nelson
July 2009
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Tying a horse’s head back is a fairly common training technique when starting a horse. The horse is left in a stall, round
pen or corral with its head tied to one side with a rein or side rein going from bit to girth. The reasoning behind this
practice is that this teaches the horse to “give” to pressure of the bit in a very basic manner. The horse is left to figure it
out on its own so that it can concentrate without distraction.

Initially the horse won’t know how to get away from the pressure/pain in its mouth as it isn’t intuitive for a horse to move
away from pressure/painful stimulus, particularly as the pain in the horse’s mouth/cheeks is in various places. Typically
the rein is attached to the girth, which is much lower than a rider’s hand would be, and will drop the bit pressure more
severely down on the bars, and if the bit is single jointed, will encourage the bit to break onto the roof.

On the rein side the pressure/pain will be on the bars and corners, on the non-rein side the pressure will be on the
corners/sides, and depending on the bit type there will also be pressure squeezing on the tongue.
This is what tying a horse's head back looks like. I
have used a stretchy cord here in order to get the
photo, however it would be typical to use a rein,
rope, or side rein for this purpose as they are less
stretchy. The rein may be tied higher or lower
depending on the trainer.
When selecting a trainer, it is important to be aware of the training techniques they will be using, and to be comfortable
with what is going to be done to your horse. Understanding the short and long term ramifications of certain training
techniques can be difficult however, particularly as trainers usually know how to "sell" their methods.
It is expected that the horse will eventually move its head toward the rein side and/or drop its head and feel the pressure
diminish. After a few trial and error movements of the horse’s head, it may determine which motions diminish its
discomfort. There are however many movements of its head that could result in the pull on the bit being diminished;
turning its nose to the side, pulling its head back towards its chest, or a combination of the two. Really, any motion which
brings the horse’s mouth closer to the point where the rein is attached will relieve the pressure and “reward” the horse
by removing discomfort.

Alternatively the horse may just sit there leaning on the pressure of the bit, and end up habituating it to the feeling of
pressure. Habituation is the learning process whereby an animal becomes used to a certain pressure, sight or sound,
and considered it to be “normal” and not worthy of reaction. A horse that is habituated to bit pressure would come
across as “hard mouthed”; an inaccurate, but often used expression to describe a horse that does not respond to
reasonable rein pressure. The truth is, the tissues of the mouth cannot develop calluses, so the mouth cannot become
literally hard, it is just that the horse as been taught to ignore a certain amount of pressure/pain in the mouth through
the process of habituation; training techniques or riding techniques that give the horse the idea that a certain amount of
pressure/pain is normal background “noise” to be ignored.

Now try a little experiment on yourself. Pull your earlobe (or even better, an earring) towards your shoulder. Imagine you
don’t know where the pull is coming from. What is your reaction? If you have a really good imagination, your first
reaction would likely be worry as to why your ear is suddenly being pulled on! You may even try to pull away from the
pressure to try to escape whatever is pulling on you. Sooner or later you will drop your ear towards your shoulder. You
may find though that the feeling of pulling on your ear remains even after you “gave” or let go. That is the result of the
sustained pressure. You can guess that this continued feeling of pressure or pain even after release likely happens in
the horse’s mouth as well.

Next, consider how your neck feels as you bring it closer to your shoulder. Do you feel how you have contracted that
side of your neck? Can you feel the subsequent tension and stiffness in your body? Can you imagine being left like that
for 15 minutes or more? Would this be a positive experience?

Compare this feeling, to the feeling in your neck if you instead stretch your opposite ear to the ceiling; you have the
same general bend/shape in your neck, but do you feel how stretching opens up your back and neck and may even feel
good as you do it? This is the “bend” we want in our horses, not the contraction in the first experiment.

So what does this tying a horse’s head around teach the horse?

A lot of what tying the horse to one side teaches is left a little to chance, and to the horse’s natural inclination. The
horse will turn its head or “give” in the manner it finds easiest. This could result in:
1) The horse learning to tip its nose in, and twist its head rather than bend through the neck.
2) The horse learning to drop in behind the vertical rather than bend laterally.
3) The horse learning to contract the inside of its neck rather than stretch the outside of its neck, and subsequently to
address all new pressures by contracting and stiffening.

Quite often the horse will respond differently on each side as it will be naturally stiffer on one side.

Either way, it is very unlikely that the horse will learn to bend through its entire body using this training method, so the
horse will likely learn to separate its nose from its spine/body, something which can lead to a “rubber necked” horse.

Habituation to the pressure of the bit may also be a consequence of this practice, resulting in the horse needing a
stronger bit or training gadgets to get its attention as training progresses.

A final lesson that this exercise will teach the horse is “learned helplessness” or that fighting/resistance is futile. To some
this may sound great, but we will go into why this is neither desirable nor humane in the next Topic: Leaving a horse
Tied (coming soon).