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There are several steps in teaching the bow. These instructions are for teaching the one knee bow where the horse goes down on one knee (usually the left) and tucks his nose. It is important that the horse have his cannon bone parallel to the ground to avoid injury to the knees. Head position varies. Some horses have a preference or you can shape it to whatever you like. Common options are with the nose touching the knee, with the head between the front legs and parallel to the ground (tucked behind) or anywhere in between.
There are several basic steps to teach your horse to bow. These are:
The first step is to teach your horse to stretch. (optional)
The second is to teach your horse to pick up his leg when you tap it.
The third is to teach your horse to rock back and down. Some horses will need to step back with their hind legs after you pick up the front leg, especially if you didn’t stretch them first. Most people use a combination of luring the horse with a treat and rocking the horse down and back.
Once your horse knows how to bow, he will be able to rearrange his legs and you can just cue by tapping the cannon bone and saying “bow.”
If you want more detail, here is how I have taught my horses to bow. My methods came from Chuck Grant, Mari Monda Zdunic, Allen Pogue and basic clicker training methods. I should mention that I do most of my training with minimal equipment (halter and lead). However, in the case of the bow, I have used a stirrup leather to hold the horse’s leg since I think there is some danger of the horse becoming unbalanced. I should also mention that I am not an expert! This is what has worked for me. So far I have taught 4 horses to bow, but I’m still learning.
1. Stand your horse in a quiet location with deep shavings. Ask him to stretch (optional). You should be standing next to his left shoulder. I think it helps if you are facing the horse so he does not think about walking forward.
2. Ask him to pick up his left front leg by tapping on the front of the cannon bone with the whip.
3. Reward him for any lift, working up to when he is comfortable holding his leg up on his own, or allowing you to hold it and move it slightly backwards. You can hold his leg in your hand or sometimes I used a stirrup leather looped around so that if I dropped it, the leg would automatically be released. Know your horse. If your horse seems to become unbalanced, you are safer using at least a short rope (or stirrup leather). Do not get in a position where you could get caught under your horse if he became unbalanced. If you use a rope or stirrup leather, make sure your horse is totally comfortable with this restraint before you proceed.
4. Once you have your horse with his leg up and he is comfortable, start to ask him to rock back. I taught my horses to look for a carrot at their knee. This was where I wanted their head to end up, and it made this movement clearly different from obeisance. Where you choose to put the carrot is up to you, but will affect the final head position. You can use a target stick instead of a carrot if you prefer. This is a good idea if your horse gets snatchy. Remember, they can’t see the treat down there. I used a target stick with my filly. You will generally get a better response if you use food directly, especially if you feed multiple treats to get them to hold the position. However, if you use a target stick, your horse will be easier to wean off the idea of bowing without getting the treat in the “down” position. If you use a carrot, make sure it is a long piece so that the horse doesn’t nip your fingers.
5. Move towards the horse’s back end and gently move their leg back and down. Make sure that the horse is dropping his shoulders down, and not just straightening the elbow joint to allow the leg to move back. I try to keep the leg pretty well folded at this point. It is ok if your horse moves his hind legs back. Some horses do this to give themselves room to drop down. Also make sure that the horse is not just reaching back with his neck and getting his head too far underneath him. Make sure you reward for dropping down, not just reaching back.
6. As the horse drops lower and lower… (this will take many sessions), work up to getting the cannon bone flat on the ground. I often make a pile of shavings under the expected landing spot so that there is even extra padding, and the horse has less distance to drop to the reach the ground. You want the horse to understand that the goal is to have the cannon bone flat on the ground. If you keep the knee angled a little down, then they won’t usually try to stand on the bent leg.
7. Your goal is to have the horse with his cannon bone flat on the ground and his nose tucked between his legs, or next to the bent leg. To get the horse to hold the position, you can train him to expect more than one treat and he will stay down to wait for them.
Some other tips.
You might want to teach your horse to pick up his leg from a tap on the leg before you start the actual bow practice as the padding on his leg might cause him to ignore the tap.
Every horse has his own style. Some horses will bow better if you stretch them first. You would do that prior to tapping the leg. Other horses can learn to move the hind legs back after you pick up the front leg. You can actually ask your horse to back up after you lift the leg. Eventually the horse will learn to do this on his own. The position of the back legs becomes important for how gracefully the horse rises and is able to move off into another movement.
Some horses will kneel when you want them to bow. Some trainers will ignore this and just stand the horse up and ask for the bow again. I say take it! Your horse might be confused for a while as to whether you want a kneel or bow, but once you get the communication straightened out, you will have both. If your horse offers the kneel and you never reinforce it, you might have trouble when you try to get the kneel as preparation for the laydown.
Remember to be satisfied with even a little improvement in each session. If the horse goes down too fast and scares or hurts himself, it will take a long time to rebuild his confidence. Remember that bowing is a big stretch for the extended leg.
There are common “sticking points” in this teaching process. If you are having problems, you can email me with your questions. Please remember that the bow is both a stretching and a strengthening exercise. If you think your horse has physical limitations, you might want to teach him a modified bow, where he doesn’t go as far down. I would be careful of a horse that had shoulder or back issues. If the horse has shoulder issues, this can be a good stretch if you take it slow. If the horse has back issues, then you want to make sure that he doesn’t hollow his back when he goes down.
Here is Willy demonstrating the finished product: