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Correct a Head-Shy Horse with Clinton Anderson

Teach your horse not to fear movement near his head with this no-nonsense, step-by-step method to cure head shyness.

In the November '09 Horse & Rider article "Stand Back" (Clinton Anderson's Groundwork for Everyone), Clinton teaches his student Renee Humphries how to train her Appaloosa gelding ("Sammy") to respect her personal space-to increase her safety on the ground. A head-shy horse is an equal hazard to his handler and himself. In this article from our August '06 issue, Clinton teaches you how to correct a head-shy horse; plus, boost his confidence through systematic desensitizing.

To Get the Most from this Lesson

  • Before you begin, turn your horse out, work him in a round pen, or do some of my "longeing for respect" to get him relaxed and using the thinking side of his brain.
  • Conduct the lesson in an enclosed area such as a round pen or small arena.
  • Outfit your horse in a halter and lead rope, but leave him untied throughout the lesson.
  • Conduct this lesson every time you handle your horse for as along as it takes for him to become blasé bout movement near his head.
  • Obviously, never strike your horse's head in anger for any reason, even occasionally. If you do, no amount of desensitizing will overcome his head-shyness.

A head-shy horse is a safety hazard to himself and others. He jerks his head away from your hands, making catching, haltering, bridling and general handling more complicated than it needs to be.

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People often deal with this problem by trying to avoid prompting the startle response in the first place. But the more they attempt to "sneak around" their horse's head, the more anxious and head-shy the horse becomes.

The solution is to desensitize the horse to all movement around his head. This cures the head-shy adult horse, and prevents a younger one from becoming so.

With my step-by-step approach, you'll teach your horse he has nothing to fear from your hands or movement near his head. You'll do this by allowing him to raise his head in response to your hand movement, but keeping the hand up and moving until he relaxes, and only then withdrawing it. In this way, he's rewarded for the behavior you want (relaxation) rather than for what you don't want (raising his head).

It takes time and persistence, but if you follow through consistently with the method I'll teach you, your horse's behavior will dramatically improve.

1. Standing to the front, but off to the side of your horse (where he can't reach you with head or hoof), raise your hand and begin making the motion you would use if you were trying to flick water from your hand onto his face. In a rhythmic fashion, bend and then straighten your arm quickly and repeatedly, snapping your wrist (but being careful not to strike your horse). He'll raise his head away from you in response, and may even back away from you. Don't try to stop him from moving. Just keep flicking, following after him if need be. Stay rhythmic and calm, and eventually...

2. ...he'll relax by dropping his head a bit and stopping his feet. The instant he relaxes even a little, stop flicking your hand and stroke him instead, praising him with your voice. Repeat several times, then move to your horse's other side and repeat the entire sequence.

3. Now return to the near side and "up the ante." Standing out of harm's way, thrust an open palm toward your horse's head as if attempting to whack him in the eye. (Obviously, it's extremely important that you not actually hit him, as that would reinforce his fear, rather than desensitize him to the motion. Make sure there's a good six to eight inches from the end of your extended arm to your horse's eye.) As before, keep extending your arm in a calm, rhythmic fashion, following after your horse if need be, until...

4. ...he relaxes (even if only a bit). Then stroke him reassuringly over his eye and tell him he's great. Repeat several times, then move to the other side and repeat the entire sequence.

5. Now stand directly in front of your horse but far enough away that he can't strike you. Drop the lead rope on the ground, and begin raising each arm to the side of your horse's head, in an alternating fashion. Raise your left arm, as I am here...

6. ...and then your right. By now, your horse may well stand obediently. If he does, stop and praise him, then try moving your arms more quickly. If he raises his head and/or moves, keep up the alternate arm-lifting until he relaxes, then stop and pet him.

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