What is the difference between a “head set” and a “frame?”

Ask The Trainer

What is the difference between headset and frame?


There seems to be some confusion surrounding the terms, “head-set,” and “frame.” While these two terms are often used interchangeably, with many people thinking they mean the same thing, they are actually referring to two very different concepts.

The term “head-set” is heard most often in the hunter and western pleasure show industry. This term is used for judging purposes, to indicate where a horse’s head is in relation to his body. It is referring to where, in physical space, the head is, and is not in any way referring to how a horse is balancing or using the rest of his body. It is used for clarification of judging standards to indicate a horse who is calm and obedient, yet alert and capable of doing it’s job, according to it’s conformation. A horse who’s head is too low indicates dullness and lethargy, and horse who’s head is too high indicates tension and stress. One with the nose stretched too far forward would indicate resistance to the bit, and one with the nose tucked too close to the chin would indicate evasion of the bit. So for proper understanding of what a judge is looking for, these things must be put into words. For an AQHA hunter under saddle, for example, the poll should be level with, or slightly above the withers, the head position should be slightly in front of, or on, the vertical. (AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.) Rules for other breeds are similar, with details pertaining to their specific breeds’ conformation. The term is used for a static condition, meaning that the horse’s head should always be within defined parameters.

The term “frame,” on the other hand means something entirely different. This word is used primarily in the dressage world, and refers to the horse that is being ridden in optimal balance for it’s level of training. The horse is ridden in balance, and his balance is ever changing, therefore the rider must adjust his aids constantly in order to keep the horse balanced. A “frame,” therefore, is not static at all, but constantly changing and adjusting. A frame refers to the entire horse, and is not particularly concerned with the head position, rather referring to a horse who is bringing its hocks up underneath its belly in order to support its weight on its hindquarters. This, in turn, causes the back to round up slightly, elevating the withers, which causes the poll to flex and bringing the head into the vertical position. It must also be understood that what may be considered a proper frame for one horse is not necessarily the same for another horse. What is a proper frame for each horse is dependent on that horse’s level of training and conditioning. A Grand Prix level dressage horse’s frame will be very different from a horse at training level. At any level, however, the rider asks the hind legs to be active and engaged, which results in a rounding of the front end. With horses that are beginning their training, the rider does this practically every stride. Even with advanced horses, the riders still do this, just not, perhaps, every stride. So the term “frame” does not refer to a set of defined physical parameters applicable to all horses, but, instead indicates each individual horse’s ability to balance itself and it’s rider.

Most likely, confusion arises because when a horse is properly balanced, relaxed, and accepting of the bit and aids, it’s head and neck will be placed in such a way as to help provide optimal balance. This placement is usually within the parameters defined by the term “head-set.” Therefore, many people mistakenly assume that if the horse’s head is in the “correct” position, then the horse is balanced. This is a gross misunderstanding. A horse’s head and neck can be forced into this position, and a horse can be “trained” to keep it’s head in this position for fear of punishment. But simply doing so will, in no way, magically grant the horse optimal balance. A horse can carry it’s head at a certain position and still be unbalanced, without impulsion, or engagement, of the hindquarters.  Forcing the head to stay in that position when the horse has neither the strength nor understanding to balance properly will cause it distress and resentment. It also causes undue stress and possible injury to a horse’s back and muscles because it is being forced to hold itself in a position it is not physically capable of maintaining.

Another possible cause for confusion is the appearance of a horse and rider in the upper levels of training. An upper level horse appears to be maintaining a properly balanced frame with very little effort, and very little help from the rider. This is often not what is actually happening. While a horse may be strengthened, or trained to the point where it can be put in a certain balance (frame) and stay there with no help from the rider, unfortunately, many times a rider does not take the enormous amount of time this would require. In most cases, the rider must constantly be “feeling” the horse’s balance and adjusting aids, even at upper levels. So, while this may always happening, but one of the points of upper level dressage is to make the aids as invisible as possible.

Perhaps the worst result of this misunderstanding, however, is the overuse of artificial training aids. Uneducated people will often apply a device to the horse’s head or bit that will restrict the horse head to a certain position, believing that simply having the horse “look” a certain way is the ultimate goal. These people do not even realize that the goal of all training is to help the horse attain it’s optimal balance while carrying a rider. The correct “look” is all they are after. The seem to think that because it makes the horse “look right” that it has completely fixed the problem, or completed the training. Others assume that these devices will teach the horse to balance correctly simply be limiting the movement of the front end. Many of these people are under the impression that placing the head and neck in a certain position is what causes the horse to be balanced. They don’t understand that the balance begins at the horse’s hindquarters and results in rounding the front. Used for these reasons, artificial training devices are inappropriate. The purpose of artificial training devices are to facilitate understanding during training. In the hands of an experienced trainer, with a particular horse have a specific problem, they may be of help to a trainer. But they can never be a substitute for a trainer, or a strong training program, as so many people believe.