Making Headway

A head shy horse is a wreck waiting to happen. If your horse reacts defensively when you approach his face or ears, these sneaky tactics will teach him there’s nothing to fear.
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A head shy horse is a wreck waiting to happen. If your horse reacts defensively when you approach his face or ears, these sneaky tactics will teach him there’s nothing to fear.
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You raise the bridle toward your horse's face and suddenly he flings his head up high enough to endanger passing birds. He strikes out with a foreleg, and starts scrambling backwards.

Maybe you know what caused this reaction, maybe you don't-but working around a head shy horse puts you in a very dangerous position. A head shy horse is a wreck waiting to happen. In fact, the chances of either you or the horse getting hurt are so great that John Lyons will not allow students to saddle up until the problem has been resolved.

Fear Response
Head shy horses are, quite simply, afraid. Someone or something has hurt or frightened the horse so much that he doesn't want it to happen again. Any horse will raise his head when he becomes nervous or frightened. But we say a horse is head shy when he raises his head to avoid having a bit in his mouth, dodges away from attempts to handle his face or ears, or reacts fearfully whenever you raise anything toward his face.

Tender Touch

  • First look for and eliminate any potential sources of mouth, face, or ear pain.
  • Develop a cue, such as a "kiss" sound, to get the horse to turn his head to look at you.
  • Approach and retreat with your hand raised to forehead height until he accepts it.
  • Use soft, quick strokes when making face and ear contact so the horse has less time to react before your hand is gone.
  • Gradually slow your movements as the horse accepts that your touch doesn't hurt.
  • Use other props to desensitize the horse to sights, sounds, and sensations around his head.

Head shy horses may pull back, go sideways, rear up, whip their heads around, or strike out. Some learn evasive maneuvers that work so well they don't have to pitch a fit, like the 13.2-hand pony who discovered she had an altitude advantage over her pint-sized handler when she raised her head. But when three strong men later tried to muscle her into accepting the bridle, she lifted all three of them off the ground at once.

A thorough check-up is always the first step in resolving a head shy issue to make sure the horse is not experiencing pain. The horse may have banged his head, or be suffering from a veterinary textbook-load of other possibilities, such as tooth problems, ear mites, mosquito bites, or ticks. Horses that have had such problems in the past may also be uncomfortable having their heads handled, just as some people who have had unpleasant experiences in a dental chair are not eager to walk into a dentist's office.

People often assume that a head shy horse has a history of abuse. While it is sadly possible that he may have been "hit upside the head," it is more often caused by a simple lack of basic horse handling skills. For example, it's likely the little pony mare had been banged in the teeth during clumsy bridling attempts. Eventually she was trained to lower her head and quietly accept the bit-and did so willingly-once she discovered that bridling was no longer painful thanks to improved methods on the part of her young owner.

Whatever the cause, we can't undo the incident that initially instilled the fear. So don't get caught up in the reason behind it-just fix it.

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Safety First
These are the basic rules: You must not get hurt, the horse must not get hurt, and the horse should be calmer at the end of the lesson than when he started. And these rules are even more important when you're working with a head shy horse.

As your horse's regular handler, you are likely just the person to teach him not to be afraid of your hands. However, if his reactions are dangerous when you try to handle his head, then it's best to enlist the help of an experienced trainer. You need someone who can safely work with your horse in extreme situations without endangering himself or your horse.

Remember, too, no horse wants to be head shy. If we can show him he doesn't have to worry about being hurt, pretty soon he'll just stand there and let you touch his nose, face, and ears-and probably enjoy it, too.

A Different Approach
There are only three things you absolutely must have to fix this problem. First-and most importantly-is the knowledge that this is a perfectly do-able project. Second, you must have a specific, achievable goal. Third, you must be patient. You can't cure a horse's fear by force, and hurrying isn't going to help either.

Something you don't need is a solid and immovable post. Tying your head shy horse to anything during these lessons is a recipe for a wreck. Your horse must have the freedom to move away from and to come to you. A round pen is perfect for these exercises, but any safe enclosure will work.

Let's say your goal is to have a horse who will stand still and lower his head while you halter or bridle him. You need a safe starting point while you gain control and get the horse in the habit of responding well.

Why Not Use Bribery?

There are two reasons John has never used treats to bribe a head shy horse into accepting a bit:

1. You want to teach the horse to respond to a cue, not a treat.
2. You might not always have treats handy. You don't want the horse to be "lied to" if the treat is not there to reward good behavior.

First, you'll teach your horse to bring his head to you without you having to touch him. Use your round pen skills to stop, turn, and have your horse bend his neck so he keeps both eyes on you. A "kissing" sound is a good way to get your horse's attention. Every time your horse turns his head to look at you, praise him. If he turns his head away, kiss again. If he doesn't respond right away, work him quietly on turns and stops, and then try again.

When your horse is consistently and calmly watching you, raise your hand to about the level of his forehead. Approach as close to him as you can without him moving away from you. Then turn and walk away. Depending on how much fear the horse has, you may be able to walk right up to him, or you may have to stop 20 feet out. If you can't get closer than that just yet, that's fine. Keep repeating the process, getting a foot or so closer each time before turning and walking away.

Be patient and take your time. When your horse accepts your hand near his head, touch him quickly and lightly on his forehead (not on the tip of his nose), then turn and walk away. Do this until your horse is comfortable with your approach and will accept pleasant rubs between his eyes.

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Fast vs. Slow Hands

You may have been told that when dealing with a head shy horse you need to slow down your movements. Well, yes and no. While we don't want to startle the horse with waving arms or sudden movements, it is usually asking too much of a head shy horse to stand still for several minutes and accept your hand on his ear.

The longer you keep your hand there, the harder it is for the horse to hold his head still-especially because he isn't comfortable with your touch to begin with.

What you need to do instead is to speed up your hand. You want to gently smooth that hand over the horse's ears as fast as you can. That way, your hand has been there and gone (without causing any pain) before the horse can actually move his head away.

Once the horse realizes what you've done, he's going to throw his head up. But by then, it's too late. Your hand is already gone. If he tosses his head, it's no problem. You'll simply pet him and do it again. Eventually, your horse won't throw his head up. After all, the horse doesn't want to throw his head. It's uncomfortable and it wastes energy. Just try it yourself!

By using these quick, gentle hand movements, you are actually reaching your first goal. You have your hands on his ears while your horse keeps his head still-even if it is only for a very short time. As the realization dawns on the horse that your touch doesn't hurt, he stops fussing. At this point, you can start slowing down your hand movements.

Slow down a bit more with each pass over his ears. If your horse starts throwing his head again, take it as a hint that you've slowed your hand down too much, too soon. Go faster again until the horse is more relaxed.

When you can leave your hand on his ears, do the same exercise coming from the opposite direction-start from the horse's neck and bring your hand forward rather than from his forehead back over his ears.

When he's learned that this is okay, too, spend a lot of time praising the horse, rubbing his head, stroking his ears, and generally loving on him. Then start introducing other things such as soft cloths, gloves, towels, your lariat, a jacket, or Aunt Tillie's silly old hat. Rub his face with them. Dangle them from his ears-all the while reassuring him that even weird things on and around his head do not have to hurt. This is going to make haltering and bridling that much easier-those items will seem perfectly tame in comparison.

Once you can safely rub your horse's poll and ears, you can do other things to get your horse used to other strange stimuli around his head. Blow into his ears and make buzzing or blubbering sounds-just like you would if you were playing games with a baby. This will prepare him to accept things like clippers, so you'll be able to trim his bridle path without a fuss.

Head Hugs & Muzzle Manipulations
Hugs are not just an expression of affection. If you can wrap both your arms around your horse's head, you know he is well on his way to getting over being head shy.

To get your horse to accept your hugs, stand on his left side, put your right hand on his poll, and wrap your left arm around the bridge of his nose beneath his eyes. If he is nervous about having both your hands on his head at once, place your left hand on his nose for half a second, then release. Increase the time and distance the horse will allow your left hand on and across his nose. Eventually, hug your horse and immediately release. Repeat this many times from both sides.

Similarly, stand on his left side, reach under his jaw and place your right hand on your horse's right cheek. Bring his head around toward you. Release it at any movement in your direction. Repeat this exercise from the other side. This exercise will also make haltering and bridling easier, as the horse will quickly learn to curve his head around you in a position that's convenient for tacking up.

You'll also need to be able to handle your horse's nose and mouth for bridling, deworming, and dental work. A horse's nose is very sensitive, so be gentle. Start by rubbing both hands on his muzzle. Lift his lip. Rub his gums. Notice that there is a handy gap between his front teeth (incisors) and his molars. This is where the bit rests and is sometimes called the bar space. Teaching your horse that your fingers can be there and not hurt him can go a long way toward simplifying bridling and deworming. Slipping a finger or two into the bar space will also encourage your horse to open his mouth. However, be careful when putting your hand or fingers in the horse's mouth. You definitely do not want to get a finger between his upper and lower teeth! And when bridling, take care not to bump your horse's teeth with the bit, or you'll spoil the gains you've made.

Making Headway
Curing a head shy horse takes knowledge, patience, and persistence. The horse has to develop confidence and come to believe that whenever you raise your hand to his head-or a bridle to his mouth-it's always with the best of intentions. Once he understands that, you've made headway. Teaching him everything else will be easy.