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How to Correct a ‘Poking Nose’

poking nose dressage above the bit

A poking nose is a common fault that is easily seen, even with an untrained eye; the horse goes around with his nose literally poking out in front of him and his chin lifted.

It’s an issue that is usually observed at the lower dressage levels and with horses that are just beginning their dressage career.

So, in this article, we’re going to clarify where your horse’s nose should be, why a poking nose is not desirable, and we’re going to tell you what not to do about it before giving you seven steps to help you correct it.

Where do you want your horse’s nose to be?

Before we discuss exactly what a poking nose is, let’s first clarify where you ideally want your horse’s nose to be.

Within dressage, many riders focus on getting their horses’ noses “on the vertical.” This means that, when viewed from the side, the horse’s nose is perpendicular to the ground.

However, a horse’s nose should only be on the vertical in high degrees of collection. This is because, during high degrees of collection, the horse is required to take more weight on his hind legs and have a rounder back, supported by stronger abdominal muscles, creating a more raised and arched neck positioning and bringing his nose onto the vertical.

For movements that do not require a high degree of collection, and for novice horses at the beginning of their training, then the nose should always be carried slightly in front of the vertical. This is because the horse will be working in a less compressed frame, although still working over his back and stretching into the contact.

What does “poking nose” mean on your dressage score sheet?

The term, “poking nose” is generally used by the dressage judge to refer to the observation that the horse is not “on the bit.”

Other commonly-used terms to describe the same thing include, “outline could be rounder,” “hollowing,” “head high,” “above the bit,” and “could be softer in the contact.”

The dressage judge is wanting to see that the horse is working rhythmically forwards in a round outline, swinging through his back to seek an elastic contact with the rider’s hands. When the horse is poking his nose, the horse and rider and lacking this connection.

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Why is a “poking nose” not desirable?

A poking nose is not only unsightly, but it’s also a visual clue that the horse is not working correctly.

More than likely, a horse that goes around with a poking nose will be on the forehand and he’ll be using his head and neck for balance, which is detrimental to the horse’s performance, and his soundness and well-being.

The rider will also be unable to communicate effectively with the horse as the lack of connection will render the rider’s rein, seat, and half-halt aids almost useless.

How NOT to correct a poking nose

When riders receive the comment of “poking nose” on their dressage score sheet, their first reaction is to use the reins to pull the horse’s nose in towards his chest. Some will resort to using draw reins and gadgets, whilst others may use curb bits for added leverage and poll pressure to help “encourage” their horses to lower their heads and bring in their poking noses.

Although these methods may (physically) prevent the horse from poking his nose out, they do not correct the problem. If anything, they create more problems by causing pain, discomfort, and tension in the horse. The backward pressure on the bit will also encourage the horse to duck behind the contact when we want to train him to reach into the contact.

Remember that a poking nose is a symptom of an underlying issue. In order to correct it, we need to improve the horse’s overall way of going and carriage, rather than simply forcing the horse to physically bring his nose in.

How to correct a poking nose – part 1

Before you can start training your horse to not poke out his nose under saddle (which is in part 2), here are a few steps that you first need to take.

Step 1 – Rule out any physical pain and/or discomfort

The first step to identifying the cause is to make sure that your horse is not experiencing any pain or discomfort by checking the following four things.

1. The fit and/or comfort of the bit

Horses are all individuals, and as such, the interior of their mouths are all shaped slightly differently. Therefore, what suits one horse in terms of thickness and shape of mouthpiece, will not necessarily suit another.

Since we are diagnosing a contact issue, it’s advisable to double-check the fit and suitability of your horse’s bit.

2. Teeth

Regular dentistry is necessary for your horse’s oral comfort and health.

The grinding action of eating can wear the teeth unevenly and cause sharp edges or angled surfaces that interfere with the action of the bit. Sharp teeth can cause injury to the tongue and inside of your horse’s cheeks, causing him discomfort when you take up a contact on the reins.

Remember, your horse should have his teeth checked by a qualified professional once every six to nine months.

If your horse has only just started to poke his nose and show signs of resistance to the contact, then you may want to have his teeth checked as soon as possible.

3. Fit of the saddle

In order for your horse to connect to the contact, he must first be able to swing comfortably through his back. He cannot do that if his saddle is poorly fitted.

Your horse’s shape and size can change over time, especially as he grows, gains or loses weight, or develops more muscle. Therefore, it is recommended that you have your saddle checked at least once a year, or more often if your horse is still young or if you notice any signs of discomfort or changes in your horse’s shape or condition.

It’s important to have a professional saddle fitter check the fit, as they have the training and expertise to properly evaluate the fit of your saddle and make any necessary adjustments.

Related Reads: How to Fit a Dressage Saddle to Both Horse & Rider

4. General physical wellness

Contrary to popular belief, the term “contact” involves much more than what is happening between your hands and your horse’s bit.

In order for your horse to establish a correct contact with your hand, his whole body must be working correctly.

It, therefore, follows that your horse must be physically well and sound. If your horse is experiencing any pain and/or discomfort, especially over his topline, then he is going to resist working in a round outline and connecting to the bit.

Step 2 – Consider your horse’s age and level of training

Young horses, those that are coming back into work, or ones that are being re-trained for a new discipline will find it hard to work in a round outline for long periods of time because they haven’t yet developed the necessary topline muscles.

If your horse fits this description, be sure to include plenty of long-rein stretching exercises during your schooling sessions to prevent muscle fatigue and tightness, and don’t expect too much too soon.

Demanding too much from a horse that is not yet physically able to meet your requirements can result in resistance to the contact and a poking nose.

Step 3 – Consider your own riding position and contact

Before trying to correct any issues in your horse’s way of going, you must first look at yourself and make sure that you are not part of the problem.

If you are not offering your horse a pleasant contact to work into (for example, if your hands are uneven, unsteady, or harsh) then your horse is going to evade the contact where possible. This can also lead to resistance as your horse could become conditioned to expect a rough contact (or other unpleasant experiences) when being schooled.

You should also be mindful of your own body position and posture, as an improper position can inadvertently encourage your horse to poke its nose out. By maintaining a balanced and centered seat, you can better communicate with your horse and promote a better carriage.

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How to correct a poking nose – part 2

Once you have ticked the above boxes and completed steps 1-3, you can then move on to teaching your horse how to work into the contact correctly under saddle, with the goal to improve his head carriage and his overall balance.

Step 4 – Rhythm and responsiveness

More often than not, horses that poke out their noses are also behind the rider’s leg. So, your first training goal is to get your horse working actively forwards in a good rhythm and to improve his responsiveness to your driving aids.

The best way to do this is through the use of transitions, particularly upward transitions, and rewarding your horse for quick reactions to your leg aids.

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Step 5 – Suppleness and school movements

Once you have your horse ticking along nicely in a good rhythm and a suitable tempo, your next goal is to promote suppleness through the use of school movements.

The best exercises for this are ones that require frequent changes of bend, such as serpentines, figures of eight, and loops. You can also ride smooth changes of rein, circles, and spirals.

These movements, when ridden nicely forwards and bending correctly, will encourage suppleness, both laterally (side to side) and longitudinally (over your horse’s topline).

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Step 6 – Contact and connection

By this stage, you should now have your horse working actively forwards from your leg in a regular rhythm. He should be loose in his body and over his back, and bending nicely around your inside leg.

If you have ticked those boxes, your horse should start to stretch forwards and seek a contact with the bit. As the rider, you need to allow this by having a suitable rein length and keeping your hands steady.

If your horse is yet to stretch for the bit, then try riding a few smaller circles focusing on establishing the correct bend through your horse’s body and maintaining a good forward rhythm.

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Step 7 – Self-carriage and stretching

Once your horse is seeking the contact (as in step 6) then his nose should no longer be poking out. Instead, he should have a slight arch to his neck and his nose should be carried slightly in front of the vertical with an open throat-latch area.

To further improve your horse’s balance and self-carriage, you can use half-halts to encourage your horse to increase the engagement of his hind legs and lift his shoulders.

You can also test the contact and self-carriage through the use of a give-and-retake. If the contact has been established correctly, then you should be able to yield the contact forwards for a few strides without any change in your horse’s outline, speed, and direction.

Finally, after asking your horse to work in a more correct posture, remember to reward him for his efforts with frequent stretching breaks. If this is the first time your horse has been asked to engage his abdominal muscles and work over his back, then these muscles are likely to tire quickly so a stretching break will be well received.

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In conclusion

A poking nose is a visual symptom that indicates an underlying problem.

Assuming that there are no physical reasons for the issue (such as bitting, teeth, back problems, etc.) then a poking nose is usually observed on a horse that is behind the rider’s leg, on the forehand, and using his head and neck for balance. A horse that works in this way is not only unable to progress up the dressage levels, but he will be more prone to injury.

When trying to correct this problem, many riders try to fix only the visual of the poking nose. This results in the use of stronger rein aids, draw reins, leverage bits, and/or additional poll pressure to physically bring the horse’s nose in. Although the nose will no longer be poking out, these methods result in pain and discomfort for the horse and often create more training problems.

To fix a poking nose correctly, you need to address your horse’s overall way of going and teach him how to connect to the bit and carry himself in a more functional and horse-friendly posture. This is achieved by working your horse rhythmically forwards and in front of your leg, promoting suppleness and swing through his back, and encouraging him to seek an elastic contact with your hands.

Once this connection has been made, your horse will begin to round over his back which automatically brings his nose into the correct position.

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  1. So should the rider's hands remain completely still (apart from when asking for slight bend through the head and neck, and when half halting)? I find the whole topic of contact confusing, because many people say a still contact is needed to encourage the horse to soften to and seek the bit. Whereas others say that the bit needs to be constantly moving, as though the horse is chewing a polo. I believe I've heard fans of the Spanish riding school describing it as 'having a constant conversation down the reins with your hands'….So not pulling or see-sawing, but more wiggling and vibrating the reins lots. It all scrambles my brain and is definitely the part I have been most stuck on for many years.

    1. Hello Hannah,
      Personally, we wouldn’t encourage anyone to wiggle or vibrate the reins or to have the bit constantly moving. Our reason for this is that if the bit is continually moving (even slightly), then that creates a lot of background noise, making it harder for your horse to decipher your actual rein aids. The aim is for the contact to be quiet because then you can use lighter rein aids.
      Your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders should all ‘breathe’ with your horse’s movement rather than remaining fixed and rigid, but we recommend that you aim for a quiet contact that is elastic and comfortable for your horse.
      Side Note: Your horse gently mouthing the bit is okay (as though he was chewing a polo), but this should come from your horse, and the movement shouldn’t try to be re-created by the reins.
      We hope that helps.
      HTD x

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