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Why Do Western Horses Keep Their Heads Down?

Many people unfamiliar with Western riding disciplines wonder why the horses carry their heads so low all of the time. Western horses do often carry their heads much lower compared to horses in English disciplines. There are several factors involved in this. 

6 Reasons Western Pleasure Horses Have their Heads so Low

A horse and rider in a western pleasure class with the horse's head carried low.

Conformation

A major contributing factor to how a horse carries their head in any discipline depends on their conformation. Conformation means the shape and structure of how a horse is built.

Many Quarter Horses and Paints are bred to naturally carry their heads nearly level with their withers. These horses do not need to be trained to hold a low headset. Their bodies are built for it. Their riders do not need to do much to keep their heads at this level, so they can easily be ridden on a loose rein and still maintain their headset.

These horses naturally carry their heads lower than other breeds because their necks attach to their chests at a lower point. Horses whose necks attach at a slightly higher point will be more comfortable with a higher headset. If you compare pictures of a Quarter Horse, a curly horse, and a Warmblood, you will likely see a difference in how they are built and how they naturally hold their head and neck.  

Breeding

Over time, horses have been bred to increase the frequency of a lower headset. Whether this has been done for functionality or for style, it has resulted in horses in the Western world being more comfortable with a naturally lower head carriage. Breeders will choose horses for their breeding program who have highly desired traits, such as a naturally low headset. Their genetics will produce offspring that also have these traits.  

Training

While some horses naturally carry their heads low, others are trained to do so. The horses who are trained to carry their heads low likely carry their heads close to level to begin with. It would be very hard for a horse with a naturally high head carriage to comfortably carry themselves with a level topline for an extended workout.

Some adjustments can be made to how high or low a horse carries their head, but typically they should be allowed to hold their head at the level they are most comfortable with.  

Appearance

The main idea behind the low headset in Western pleasure is to create a very relaxed appearance. The horse should look comfortable to ride for an extended period of time. The goal for Western pleasure horses is for their ears to be just above their withers. This makes their topline along their neck and back appear level.

Horses loose in a field are likely to carry their heads low or level with their withers. This is where they naturally hold their heads when in a relaxed state. That relaxed, natural headset is then transferred to the show ring so the horse looks like a relaxed and comfortable horse to ride.  

Type of Riding

A low headset is not only found in Western pleasure. You will find lower head carriage in other Western disciplines as well. In these cases, it is less about style and more about function.

For example, cutting horses use their head and neck for balance. These horses need to be able to change directions quickly. This means they rely on having full control of their own head to move side-to-side and follow the cow they are trying to cut from the herd. They keep their bodies and their heads low to the ground. Cutting horses rely a lot on instinct. There is training involved, but they naturally know where they need to carry their head to be the most comfortable and balanced to complete their job.

If you watch foals that have been bred for cutting out in a field playing, you will notice them already performing similar movements long before their training begins.   

Effect of the Show World

The upper levels of the horse show world are often guilty of exaggerating certain features or styles and making them the desired standard. The Western pleasure world is no different.

The extra-low headset and almost slow-motion gaits stem from years of Western pleasure judges rewarding lower heads and slower horses. It has become the norm in some areas, and has worked its way down to some of the lower levels of showing as well. These horses are often trained to carry their heads even lower than where they naturally do. This is a style choice, and is not based on functionality. This trend is often viewed negatively by outsiders due to the headset of the horse being unnaturally low.

Historically, some western pleasure horses have been forced to carry their heads low through tranquilization or cruel methods. According to Science Week, “Western pleasure horses were frequently tranquilized so that they would appear calmer and walk with their heads down… Unfortunately. even crueler methods are now used to produce a low head carriage such as tying the horse’s head up for hours before a competition.” 1

Conclusion

The way a horse carries their head depends primarily on how that particular horse is built, and secondly, what they are currently doing.

If you watch how a horse carries their head when they are moving around without a rider, that will tell you what level they naturally want to carry their head at. While it seems that a low head carriage is based on the riding discipline, it actually depends more on the individual horse.

Research sources used for this article:

  1. Houpt, K. A. (2004). Equine welfareScience Week 2013, 54. []

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