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Head Shy No More!

You reach out with a towel to wipe the crud from your horse’s eye. You approach with a soft brush to groom his forelock. You reach up to scratch his forehead or under the jowls.

What do these scenarios so often have in common? Head shying. The horse ducks away from your approach, backs up, tips his head while held, swings his head in the opposite direction — anything to avoid you.

Head shyness is a common behavior issue among all horses because it’s a prey response; horses are suspicious of anything around their head or neck areas. They’re wired to think that this may be a fatal attack in a very vulnerable place (think jugular vein and mountain lion). It’s not unusual to see a docile, submissive horse go from a calm, standing posture to the reactive ‘red zone’. I’ve actually had a horse flip over from me just touching the top of his poll. This reaction is like a light switch: On / Off.

Most people lump head shyness in with issues about clipping and bridling. “My horse can’t be clipped” is a bigger problem because he isn’t able to tolerate any stimulus around his head and neck area.

Begin with the Basics: Basic Control

To solve the head shying issue, I suggest starting with the foundation of my program, which is basic control. This means testing how the horse responds to the six basic commands outlined in my Connective Horsemanship program as Basic Control: Go, stop, left, right, back-up and stand still. The horse should immediately respond to all these commands without resistance, and follow your cues. If the horse is rooting his nose outward in response to a stop cue, that tells you that the horse needs work on the stop cue. If while in the saddle you have to cue the horse over and over to go forward, this tells you there’s a need to work on the go cue.

With the issue of head shying, it’s imperative that you gain control of the feet first. It’s very important that you work on the “stop / stand still” cue, as well as the “head down” cue where you teach the horse to lower his head when asked. (These lessons are found in my Connective Horsemanship program.)

Lowering the Head

There are two ways for getting the horse to lower his head: Pressure from the halter (basically adding small amounts of downward pressure from the lead rope, then releasing the pressure when the horse drops his head). The second method, which is bit more difficult because the horse is head shy to begin with, is to place one hand on the horse’s poll and the other on the bony part of the horse’s nose and put intermittent (not steady) pressure on those two points until the horse drops his head. Once he drops his head, release all pressure.

The best method, in my opinion, is the first one with the halter and lead rope. This allows you to get the horse to drop his head to an ideal place that’s about level with your waistline or chest. At that point, start introducing lightness lessons and ‘stand still’ lessons. Then start adding additional stimuli (more hand motion, a washcloth, etc.) to the horse’s head. If he moves his feet, move him back to where he was and start again.

Touching the Horse’s Head

My hand is always the first piece of the puzzle in getting a horse to overcome head shyness. I’ll take my hand and lay it on the horse’s face or around his cheeks, as long as he was even barely comfortable with touching his head. Then I’d let my hand start sliding toward his withers until he’d actually stand still and let me stroke him. When you pet and stroke a horse, it’s very reassuring and calming for the animal; in that state they begin to go through this process very quickly.

If I can get a hand on the horse’s face, that’s where I begin by rubbing the face lightly then take my hand away. If the horse moves his feet, then I’ve lost the game and need to start from the very beginning. The game is that the horse must stand still the entire time I’m adding stimulus, and remain standing still until I ask him to move. I want to make sure I’m practicing the correct things all the time, so instead of allowing the wrong things to happen, I make sure that the correct response is the only response I get.

When is it Too Much Stimulus?

This approach is different from other trainers, who add stimulus, then the horse moves his feet, then the trainer continues to add stimulus until the horse stops moving. So if the horse’s feet are moving, he’s practicing moving away from the pressure (i.e., being head shy) and when he stops, then the pressure is taken away — which is rewarding the stop, but at the same time the horse is practicing moving away from the pressure.

Ear Technique

I want the horse to stand still and allow me to put any amount of touching/pressure I want on him — until I ask him to move. This is definitely a deeper level of training. Once I can get my hand on the horse’s face, then I’ll begin to move my hand up and over the horse’s ears. Initially I’ll do these movements pretty fast, just zipping my hands over the horse’s ears very quickly then back down his neck. The first time you try that, the response is pretty predictable — the horse will throw his head up almost immediately. As soon as he does that, I’ll put pressure on the lead rope and halter and ask him to bring his head back down again. I’ll do that with the horse over and over, and pretty soon the horse will simply stand there with his head down so I can easily put my hand back and forth over his ears.

After the Hand Comes the Lead Rope

When I get to that point of the horse being comfortable with my hand on his head and ears (and without moving), I go to the next piece, which can be many things, but for discussion here it’s the lead rope. The horse is familiar with the lead rope and it’s handy. I go through the same kind of process with the rope as I did with my hands — over the ears, down his nose, along his neck — until he gets used to this kind of touch, pressure and motion with the lead rope. This may seem as though I’m “flooding” the nervous system, but actually I’m not forcing the issue. In the instance I mentioned with other trainers, they are actually flooding the nervous system with lots of stimulus. This makes the horse move and actually causes more problems than you can fix.

By having the horse’s feet stand still, the premise behind what I’m asking the horse to do is similar to Temple Grandin’s “wait box” concept (Temple is a renowned animal scientist and behaviorist). Basically what I’m doing is trying to immobilize the horse’s feet. I’m giving him the message: “You cannot move regardless of what stimulus is on you.”

If you allow the horse to move his feet while being stimulated, that triggers a fear reaction in the horse’s brain, which causes short-term memory to be shut off and become null and void. If you allow the horse to move his feet, anything you teach the horse during that period of time basically won’t be learned — it will take much, much more time to get all of these pieces of the puzzle together. Initially say to the horse: “Don’t move your feet, stand still. And if you do move, I’m going to immediately direct you right back to the place where we started.” I’d back off on the level of my stimulus pressure at that point.

Then After the Rope . . .

To continue this process, start with your hand, then the lead rope, then another puzzle piece (washcloth, hand towel, sleeve of a sweatshirt, etc.). I’d be a little more aggressive, but not to the point where the horse will be freaking out. Simply keep advancing with your hand, towel, etc., to the ‘end game,’ which would be your ultimate goal — for instance bridling the horse or clipping the horse’s bridle path without incidence.

The Station Game

Once you get through all of this, one of the goals is for the horse to not move his feet while different stimuli is applied. This is where my assistant trainer Tim Wolfe’s “Station Game” comes in.

Take several markers (like orange cones) and place them at various places in the arena so that they become ‘stations,’ with each marker having a unique item alongside it that you can use in this game. Use these cones as visual boundary guidelines as you ask the horse to go forward, stop, and do connection exercises on the ground (move the horse’s shoulders, move the horse’s hips, etc.), going from one marker to another. At each cone/marker you will have placed something like a brush, tarp, or jacket (you get the idea). Pick up the brush and brush your horse’s head (or legs or hindquarters or girth area — whatever you need to work on with your horse) while he stands there quietly. The next cone/marker might have a tarp. Use the tarp to rub on the horse’s head (legs, etc.) as he stands quietly. Remember, if he moves his feet, ask him to return to where he was.

Continue repeating this process until you’ve completed all the different stations in the arena with their various “rubbing/touching” items. By that time your horse will be utterly bombproof with anything around his head, legs, girth area, hindquarters — whatever focus you decided on for that particular Station Game.

This progressive game works really, really well. It’s fun for you, and it’s fun and educational for your horse. In the end, you’ll have a horse who will stand for any kind of touching/rubbing anywhere on his body (head included), while standing still like an attentive soldier.

As always, be safe and have fun.

For more information on Ryan Gingerich’s Connective Horsemanship program, visit http://www.connectivehorsemanship.com or simply call 800.359.4090.


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