In this month's edition of How To Fix, we ask the experts for their solutions to horses who are head shy. Head shy horses are sensitive to having their heads (particularly the poll or ears) touched, and will raise their heads, fly backwards, or employ other techniques to escape contact. This behavior can make them difficult or even dangerous to bridle or put a halter on.
Dr. Sue McDonnell, founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine:
Horses are born protective of people reaching out and touching their heads and faces, much like any other part of their body, but with non-confrontational, positive handling, almost every horse quickly acclimates to head and face manipulation. Once over this initial acclimation, development of head shyness some time later can be the result of present pain somewhere in the head or mouth. Probably most classically head shy horses are ones that have been accidentally taught by inadvertent pressure and release. A classic example we see all the time is head shyness developing in association with bridling: it only takes a couple rough experiences where the bridling or bitting was rough and the bit nicked a tooth or gums. The horse withdraws to escape the discomfort, and then very quickly starts anticipated and avoiding.
Among all species, horses are extremely quick to make associations than enable avoidance. Of course, even though we don't like to believe people deliberately strike horses any more, head shyness can result from human aggression or man-handling about the head and face.
The best way to handle it is to de-sensitize the horse by going very carefully and rewarding increments of relaxation. Instant food rewards are usually the best.
Dr. Bryan Waldridge, veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at Park Equine Hospital: Similar to horses that shy and bolt, I look for spots on the cornea. Anything that's in the center is more likely to interfere with vision than lesions on the outside. If they have an ulcer that has left a scar in the center of the eye, it could interfere with vision and cause retinal damage that gives them a blind spot.
The other thing you occasionally see would be horses that had injuries happen to their ear. I've known horses get a cut on their ear or some sort of ear damage and be head shy. And, horses who have been ear-twitched a lot seem to be more head shy to me.
It's tough to address that because unlike dogs, the horse's ear canal is hard to look into. If you think a horse has an ear problem, you'd better hope it's something easy like a tick being in there. A horse's ear canal is anatomically shaped like an L, so you can see down to the bottom and you can't see the arm of the L. In a dog, it's horizontal, so you can pull it out toward you and see the whole thing. Plus, horses are taller than you so that doesn't help. It's hard to get a good ear exam in a horse. Ticks are about the only thing you can easily get rid of.
Tom Morley, multiple graded stakes winning trainer:
I find a lot of head shyness can actually be to do with their atlas [vertebrae near the base of the skull] and their jaw, so one of the first things we do is have a chiropractor check those. Very often they'll have a slightly, not dislocated jaw, but the jaw won't be aligned properly, or the atlas will be out of place. Adjustment to those can be very sore to horses but at the same time it can be enormously relieving. They've been living with a permanent semi-headache, and then you relieve that pressure on the back of their head.
Behaviorally, we try not to tie those horses up too much. When we're bridling them, we take the bridle to pieces and build it round their head rather than sliding over their ears. It's just a trust thing. At some juncture, 90 percent of those horses have had that trust broken and you've got to gain it back again. Go slowly. Move quietly. Do what's best for them. They're not meant to be confined animals, and being tied up is another form of confinement. Give those horses in particular as much time loose as you possibly can.
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