I have a four year old mare who is nice to school but rushes forward and holds her head too low - she is very difficult to get of the forehand and is especially low in canter. She is also beginning to find her own strength and out hacking she can be strong. I currently ride her in a loose ring french link snaffle and was wondering if you had any suggestions of where to go from here. I am wary that the wrong bit will encourage head lower and back her off too much.
The first thing you have to remember is that your mare is still very young. She is still finding her balance and needs to strengthen up and mature a lot before she is going to be able to work in a correct frame. The work you put into her now is going to affect her way of going for the rest of her life, so if you do it slowly and right, you are going to have a wonderful horse in years to come.
The first thing I would do is to put her onto a very intensive lunging program. Please get the assistance of someone qualified in your area to make sure you are doing it right, as chasing her in circles for 20 min is going to have no effect on her way of going. She needs to learn to halt, walk, trot and canter on the lunge. I would use very loose, high fitted side reins on her, as a Chambon or De Gouge will probably encourage her to work even lower, which we do not really want at this stage. Keep the side reins really loose to start with, and remember that the most important thing at this stage is to work her up from behind, making sure she is tracking through well behind (simply put, her hind foot is being placed on top of or well in front of her front foot). She will find her own frame as long as you are working her well forward and balanced, and you should be doing plenty of up and downward transitions with her on the lunge. This will improve her balance and get her using those hindquarters. I cannot emphasize enough the value of a correct lunge program - most riders I have taught will tell me `yes` when asked `Does your horse lunge properly?
I can tell you that 9 out of 10 of those horses are not being lunged well at all, and are simply being chased around on a circle for 20 minutes. Doing plenty of trot-canter-trot transitions on the lunge will teach your horse to balance herself and get up off her forehand. You can also use pole work on the ground to get her to lengthen and shorten her frame, as well as flex her inside hind leg. Please find someone who knows what they are doing to help you!
When riding, I would suggest that you use a leather strap fixed to the front D-rings of your saddle. What this will do is to set your hand and quieten it. Your mare will learn that she can go up, down, left or right and your contact will not change. If you keep her moving forwards you will find that she will slowly realise that it is more comfortable for her, and less hard work, to work steady in front and to carry her own head and neck. The most important thing is that you keep pushing her forward into your contact and keep her moving forward. Do lots of transitions and correct bends with changes of bend to lift her up in front. Lateral work, if done correctly, will help her too. Make sure as well that your position in the saddle is not making things worse! Have a friend who rides well look at your position and tell you what you are doing in the saddle, or even better, have someone video you while you ride - it is often very sobering to see what you are doing in the saddle!
I would not change her bit at this stage, as she will not learn to carry herself correctly until she is stronger in the muscles that count. Always remember that self carriage is the result of the body carrying itself correctly, not the nose being dragged in or out or wherever you think it should go. Working correctly starts behind in the engine, goes through the lifted back, and the head and neck will pop themselves into place with no trouble at all. (Head position is a side effect of the rest of the body working correctly!)
Working outside is great for her development too - lots of up and down hill work will also teach her to carry herself better. If she does get a little strong outside, take her back to walk or trot or tire her out on some hill work! Try to stay relaxed when you are out with her and try to be as patient with her as you can.
Remember, she is young and still learning what to do. You will need patience, someone really knowledgeable to help you and lots of time to help her work better. Take it slow and never be afraid to go right down to the basics!