Find the Source of the Problem
The very first thing to rule out in any situation is a health problem. Many times a horse will begin to become headshy or begin tossing his head when he has an ear infection, sharp teeth that need to be filed down, or other health problems that cause pain in the horse’s head area. If your horse has always been good about people handling his head, and has recently become headshy, you should definitely have a veterinarian inspect your horse to rule out any health causes before attempting to fix the problem with training. If your horse’s headshyness is being caused by a health problem, no training method will fix it.
If the veterinarian thoroughly inspects your horse and find nothing wrong with his health, it is most likely a training obstacle for which you should overcome. Horses who are headshy are dangerous to handle and ride. A horse should never be ridden until he has completely overcome his fears of being handled around his head. Headshy horses are inclined to rear and buck more often than horses who are not headshy.
The headshy horse is much more sensitive to any type of movement near his head. When you ride a headshy horse, you are putting yourself and others at great danger. If your horse is headshy, I would suggest that you stop riding him until he completely overcomes his fears.
Explore Your Training Options
If you have ruled out all other possible causes and have come to the conclusion that it is poor or inadequate training that has caused your horse to become headshy, then you will need to find a training method that is safe to use. As with all training methods you use, you should choose one that does not threaten the safety of you or the horse. I will go into detail here on two different methods that I use on horses to “cure” headshyness.
Both methods outlined below work equally well, and they will work on all horses. The first method may take slightly longer to produce results than the second one, however, this all depends on how consistent you are with the training. If you are a consistent and patient person, both methods will work very well for you.
Start with your horse turned loose in a round pen or small paddock. Walk up to him, pet him on the neck or shoulder for only a second, then turn and walk away from him. Then, walk up to him again. Pet him on the neck or shoulder again for only a second, then walk away again. Pet him on the same exact spot each time. Repeat this until the horse stands still and accepts you touching his neck or shoulder 100% of the time.
If the horse has absolutely no problem with you doing this, then the next time you walk up to him, pet him one inch closer to his head than you did the last time. Pet him for only one second, then walk away. If he objects to your petting him closer to his head, you have advanced too fast, too soon. In this case, you must go back to the area he was comfortable with you touching until he is so comfortable with you touching that area, that it won’t make a difference when you move one inch closer to his head.
Continue with this until you can walk up to the horse, pet his forehead, ears or any part of his face without objection. The trick here is to retreat (stop and walk away) before the horse shows any signs of headshyness. If you think he will object to you touching him 5 inches from his ears, but not at 6 inches from his ears, then do not touch him at 5 inchesIf he shakes his head, pulls away or turns to walk away from you, you have advanced too fast, too soon.
The reason I turn and walk away from the horse after each time I touch him is to condition his emotional side. When I walk up to touch him, his thoughts might be, “Uh Oh, she wants to touch my ears! Eeekk!” But, if I only touch his neck, then walk away…his immediate thought is, “Pheeww! She only wanted to touch my neck!” and he sighs with relief. Through repetition, you can get closer and closer to the objectionable area (whether it is the ears, forehead, muzzle, or other area). When I have repeated this exercise a hundred times, the horse has gone through the up-and-down cycle of his emotions a hundred times and he then decides it is safe not to worry about me touching him. This is a big trust-builder.
Once you can walk up and touch any part of his body for a second without his objection, you can use the same technique to increase the time you handle each part of his body. If he has no objection with you rubbing his forehead for 3 seconds, but objects at 4 seconds of rubbing, then you must stop at 3 seconds before he has a chance to object. This will be teaching him that you will not push his buttons. It will show him that you are listening to what he is telling you (that he doesn’t want his ears touched for more than 3 seconds), and it will build trust. Once you have walked up, pet his forehead for 3 seconds and walked away enough times, you will soon be able to pet him for 4 seconds, then 5, and so on.
In the end, you have a horse that can be approached and handled any time you decide to walk up to him and do so, and your horse will begin to have more trust in you.
Start with your horse turned loose in a round pen or small paddock. Your hand must start on a spot on your horse’s face that he does not object to you touching. Let’s say my horse lets me pet him on his forehead, between his eyes, but he does not like for me to touch his ears. Then, I will start with my hand on his forehead. I begin by rubbing his forehead (the area he does not object to me touching).
Then, when the horse least expects it, I run my hand very quick over his head (thus, touching his ears briefly) and down his neck (another area he does not object to me touching). I rub his neck for a few seconds to reward him for standing still while I touched his ears briefly, then I walk away. It takes less than 1 second for my hand to go from his forehead, over the top of his head, to his neck.
Sounds weird, huh? Well, what just happened was this: the horse was standing there calmly and probably not paying much attention to my petting his forehead. Before it even registers in his brain that my hand has just gone over the top of his head, I am no longer touching his ears (because it only took a split second to perform this action from start to finish).
His brain is telling him that I just touched his ears, but, by the time he is ready to react by tossing his head, he realizes that [whatever just happened] did not hurt him, it was not frightening, and it has gone away. Since I my hand went from his forehead, over the top of his head, back to his neck faster than his reflexes can possibly kick-in, he does not have the time to toss his head or object to it. By the time he realizes what just happened, it is all over and done with.
Sounds weird, huh? Now, how useful is it to be able to touch a horse’s ears for a split second? Not very. This is why you’ll need to, through repetition of this exercise, gradually begin to slow your hand down until you are touching his ears for 1 full second before moving on to his neck. Then, soon, you’ll be touching his ears for 2 seconds, then three, and so on.
If your horse does not object to your touching his ears for 3 seconds, but he objects when you try to touch them for 4 seconds, this means you have advanced too fast, too soon. You will need to go back to touching the ears for 3 seconds, repeating the same exercise until you are 100% sure that he will allow you to touch them for 4 seconds. There should be no guessing. Do not advance to 4 seconds until you have repeated 3 seconds so many times that you know for sure he will not object to your advancing to 4 seconds.
Now, Go Right Out There and Train Your Horse!
Now that you have read my methods of training a horse to accept handling around his head and ears, you’ll need to pick a method to use. Both methods work equally well. If you completely understand how to use the second method, it might be a bit more fun to try. However, the first method is a more “standard” way of teaching a horse to accept handling and I have found it to be easier to explain, and easier to learn. Whichever method you choose to use, stick with it and be patient. The most important aspects of horse training is to be consistent and patient, no matter what methods you decide to use.
By using the same techniques for your horse’s entire body, you will soon have a horse that trusts you to touch any part of his body, whenever you want. And, when I say “any part”, I mean exactly that. Every horse should be taught to allow handling of their entire body for health maintenance and most importantly, for safety reasons.