Monday, July 6, 2009

Head tossing

Head tossing - usually the horse takes the blame - after all, he's the one doing the action, or "misbehaviour". What people often fail to understand though, is that everything a horse does when around us is a response to our actions - or lack thereof sometimes.

Head-tossing can be the manifestation of a variety of root causes, with the most common and most obvious being a horse feeling claustrophobic. This often involves a fairly high energy horse that is all gogogo, or maybe a horse who has been placed in a situation where it lacks confidence. The ultimate result is that the horse feels the need to move its feet - that flight instinct kicks in whereby he feels the desperate need to get somewhere safe (whether back to his herd or the barn or other). Often, when the rider feels the horse tense and want to move its feet (ie, possibly bolt or otherwise panic), their first reaction is to clamp down. Coincidentally, this is also what a predator would do if it were on that horse's (a prey animal) back. The tension in our seat and legs also further sends the message for 'forward' - it's one of our basic everyday cues. Lastly, when we instinctively clamp our legs, tense our bodies, and grab the poor horse's mouth, we also send the message to our horse, as their leader, that we are nervous. Of course they're going to follow suit - if another horse or prey animal in the vicinity or, in this case, their leader, spooks, their first thought is going to be to react first, think later. As a result, the rider goes into lockdown mode and tries to restrict the horse's ability to flee (flight of course being one of their primary survival mechanisms). Just think about it for a minute. If someone is holding you back at a time when you feel like you need to get away NOW, what's the first thing you're going to try to do? You're going to find some way - any way - to regain control of your feet and evade whatever is holding you back, because your life could depend on it! If you were a horse, you might even plunge around, rear, or buck, to gain that control you feel is absolutely essential to your immediate survival. Head tossing can be just one way a horse evades a rider's hands so as to gain control. So, here's a few ideas:

1. Develop a partnership with your horse. Doing so is the solution to just about every behavioural problem. In developing a solid partnership where you are in complete harmony with your horse, you both develop an effective means of communication where no head-tossing is involved because you're communicating effectively with one another. Prior and proper preparation is key, which also means not only developing a harmonious partnership with your horse, but also developing him to be calmer, confident, and to think rather than to blindly react. It means you don't feel like you have to pull on your horse's mouth in the first place. It means your horse does not feel it needs to evade your hands by tossing its head (etc). Your job is to earn your horse's trust in your ability to lead him and keep him safe and as such, he will more calmly follow your lead.

2. Your horse can't toss his head against something that's not there - ie. the reins. Drop the reins - your horse can't toss his head and pull against the reins if he has rein, and he can't feel claustrophobic if there's nothing restricting him from possibly fleeing should he feel the need to do so. The amount of slack you put in the reins is entirely dependent upon you and your horse's level of training and partnership. The point however is simply to not be holding your horse back via the bit; you can do this either on a draped rein or even keeping very light contact with your horse's mouth but maintaining a following hand and an elastic elbow. To correct your horse when you feel him gathering too much forward, pick up any slack and briefly close your hands. Release immediately. Repeat as necessary. Never directly hold your horse back - instead if you open and close your hands, taking up slack and immediately releasing and correcting only as necessary, your horse will feel less claustrophobic and will have nothing against which to fight. You are not pulling back, you are simply closing your hands after taking up a little contact.

3. If possible work off of one rein - just a little bump on one side (use the outside rein to start) often suffices to remind the horse to re-focus and relax. Then release - don't hold the rein you've corrected with. Relax your seat, take a deep (audible) breath. You can even take up the slack in both reins, correct with both reins, but with more correction from one hand. When a rider pulls back with both reins, they not only restrict forward movement and set themselves up for a possible fight, they also set the horse back onto its haunches, thereby providing the horse more power with which to use to bolt.

4. Dressage. Classical dressage is a solid foundation for everyone in any discipline and not only develops your horse in a physical sense but also in a mental sense. You do not have to compete or even achieve third level, but learning the basics of dressage is of great benefit to you and your horse. The building blocks of the training scale are relaxation, rhythm, suppleness, developed using patterns and exercises that encourage the aforementioned, as guided (only) by the rider. When you achieve these and your horse starts picking up contact with your hand (of their own accord), you have another tool in your toolbox to use when your horse is anxious and tense. This allows you the ability to then ask your horse to relax, supple, and to focus on a specific task. After your horse has learned to initiate contact as a result of progressive schooling, you can start to ask them to initiate that contact - when they are on the bit, you have a great deal of control. Essentially your horse is giving control up to you and you have the ability to direct their forward movement and provide the leadership they require and in doing so, you maintain control of the situation and create a relaxed horse with a calm, focused mind.

If, in the moment, your horse is still too worked up, get off and work on the ground until he's calm enough to work under-saddle. You're not letting your horse "win" by getting off. Ever. If you do not have the skill level or the capacity to deal with something under-saddle, staying on the horse is not going to change that and in fact you might create further damage by remaining in the saddle if you are not handling the situation correctly. Instead, get off and leave it for another day - a day when you have more skill or are in a better frame of mind to deal with what is being presented. On the ground, where you are (in most cases) safer, you can also work at it from another angle, such as using groundwork exercises. This might allow you greater influence over your horse and even might allow you to influence your horse to the point where it is then safe to re-mount.

Another common reason for head-tossing is discomfort or pain:
A poorly fitting saddle or bit (have a professional - not just your instructor - saddle fitter evaluate your saddle and someone with experience studying bits evaluate your bit and its suitability to the oral conformation of your horse)
A rider's hard hands
Skeletal misalignment
Muscle soreness
Consult professionals to figure out the problem. Horses might head-toss if the bit is stabbing the roof of their mouth or pinching their tongue, or if an ill-fitting saddle is pinching their shoulders or resting on their whithers. It might even be something as simple as bugs driving your horse to the point of insanity. Consider all the possible reasons for a head-tosser, rather than pinning it on the horse just being stupid (etc etc). They are behaving the way they are for a specific reason, and I can assure you it's not just to p*ss you off. Your horse is a reflection of you, its rider.


quietann said...

Thanks for the insights. I do enjoy your blog :)

On letting go of the reins - not a head-tossing situation, but a spooky one. The other day, I *finally* got brave enough to just let out the reins when my horse was scared of some trash barrels along the road. It's so instinctive to want to grab at a horse's mouth when they are acting up... I was pretty happy even though, in the end, we did not get past the trash barrels. (After about 4 tries, I got her within about 15 feet of them, just standing and looking at them, and turned her around *calmly* and went home. I really dislike dealing with scary objects while on the road... it just feels very unsafe! We worked on dealing with a scary object (SUV with the back open) when we got back to the barn.)

Equus said...


I agree that letting go of the reins is very difficult - I usually have to remind myself to do so often as well. It's a fight against instinct!

Kudos on the success with your mare - even within 15 feet and turning away CALMLY (especial kudos to achieving that) is a lot of progress! Playing around with scary objects and experiencing success is a fantastic way to build trust in your leadership with your horse and thus to creat a calmer, braver, smarter horse ;P