Jonathan Field: How to overcome head shyness

A trusting relationship will not only help resolve a horse’s aversion to having his ears handled but will head off future behavioral problems.

Q: I recently brought home a 4-year-old gelding from a rescue. I don’t know his history but he is friendly and fairly calm and he gets along fine with my other two horses. However, he has one major problem—he won’t let me near his ears. He leads just fine and will let me put on and take off his halter as long as I move very slowly. But grooming around his head is difficult because he raises his nose sky-high whenever I get near his ears. If I keep trying he becomes agitated. I’ve never dealt with this problem before and I’m finding the techniques that I’ve used to get past previous problems—patience, treats, gradual desensitization—don’t seem to be working. I’ve been dealing with this problem for two weeks and haven’t made any progress. Do you have any suggestions?

This is a great question because the solution I will outline can be used not only to help head-shy horses but also others with trust issues.

This sounds like a common type of head shyness, one I see often. From your description, I am assuming that your horse is averse to any movements around the air space of his head near his ears, such as approaching with a brush, headstall or clippers. You will have two goals in solving this problem: First, getting your horse to accept having you touch his ears, and second, desensitizing the air space around his head.

Before starting any attempt at retraining, however, have your horse examined to make sure this behavior is not an indication of pain. Ear infections, dental issues and other physical problems can make a horse head shy, at least temporarily, and if they persist can lead to habits that are hard to change. They need to be resolved before the horse’s behavior gets worse and affects other areas of his demeanor.

When you’re ready to begin training, keep the big picture in mind. All too often, I see people run out, go straight at the problem to find out how bad it is, prove that fact to both themselves and their horses, fail to resolve the issue and then blame the horse, his breeding or his previous owners. Do the opposite. Be proactive and take on this opportunity to connect with this young horse and prove to him you are OK and are a source of comfort and safety.

Remember, this horse wasn’t head shy around his dam. It’s just people he doesn’t trust. If you do this right, not only will you get rid of the problem but you will head off many others that would have developed if this head shyness had been allowed to continue. That’s why I love questions like these!

In tackling head shyness, you will need to make sure your horse respects your personal space. Of course, this is true for any training but especially so with this particular problem because a horse’s head can be used as a weapon. I learned this firsthand at 10 years of age when I was knocked out by a half-draft mare named Irish. I was leading Irish and allowed her to move too close to me. She whipped her head toward mine, caught me just right and knocked me into tomorrow. So please keep in mind what I learned the hard way: Your safety depends on getting your horse to respect your personal space. When you begin, position yourself near his shoulder, out of range if he whips his head around.

Before you start, map out a plan for resolving this issue. It will take at least seven to 14 days to help your horse get over his head shyness, and you’ll need to be prepared to make only a little progress in each session. Focus on doing what it takes each day to make the session positive with lessons that will last for life. There is no one-move quick fix here!

When you’re ready to begin, the first thing to do with this horse is to eliminate what I call the “anticipation anxiety.” That means that you won’t bring him out and go straight for the problem area. If you do, pretty soon he will see you coming and anticipate: “Here we go again. That person is coming for my head!” So, this is one case where you do not want to be direct—at least for now.

Instead, ask the horse to move at a trot for at least 20 minutes. Once you have him warmed up and mentally connected with you, training can start. Here are the key steps I use to address a challenge like this:

1. After I have moved the horse around for 20 minutes, I offer a friendly slow rub directly on his head. This shows him I am going to be relaxed and patient. For safety, I rub with the arm closest to the horse. I also stand by his shoulder as far behind the swing of his head as I can reach and keep my arm between his head and my face. If he becomes vigorous in swinging his head around to avoid my hand, I will move him another 10 to 20 minutes. Then I try slowly again.

2. Here I am gentlyholding the halter—making sure my fingers can’t get caught—to maintain a feel of him and a mild control of his head. This way I can sense his level of angst. Staying out of range of the swing of his head or the strike of a front hoof, I offer him a quiet, gentle rub and begin the process of showing him I mean no harm. This is about finding a place to work from on which I can build. If at first this is all I can do, that’s OK because I can add more with each session.

3. Taking the next step to address head shyness, I lead the horse toward something I have created to cause him anxiety. In this case, I present a flag on a stick. Having a horse move toward what worries him is a great way to build confidence. Start by raising the flag slowly and asking the horse to walk toward it. With each step forward lower the flag, go to his head and give him a rub with your hand as a reward. Then repeat. With this exercise, you build on two things at once. First, you desensitize the zone around his head, then with the hands-on rub as a reward, you show him that he will enjoy being touched on the head.

4. The next step is to approach the horse from a distance and rub him with the stick and flag. Notice here I have tied the flag around the stick to make it smaller and less intrusive. In a short time, I will be able to walk him toward it and rub him with the flag in my hand, and he will relax and realize this is no big deal. Move the stick and flag in and out and side to side a lot. I move the stick very slowly at first, so I can see whether I am asking too much and need to slow down. If he needs to back away, I allow him. If I don’t, the potential of a front foot strike gets more likely. You need to go slowly and observe the horse’s posture and behavior so you don’t cause him to go into a self-preservation fight mode.

5. Once I can rub the horse all over easily with the stick and flag, I replace his fear of being handled around the head with a new stimuli. When I find a place on the horse that he has a worry about, I replace that fear with a yield. That is, I ask him to focus on a task rather than allowing him to simply react to a stimulus he finds scary. For example, I teach him to move the forequarters away with light, driving pressure. This way I substitute a positive place in his brain for his feeling that “I hate everything that comes near my head.”

6. I always take the opportunity to show the horse that I’m OK and anything I hold is OK. This process can help you build trust with your horse that will help you get past many future issues. 

7. I always finish with a rub and a relaxed moment or two. Get the foundation right and then go forward. You don’t want to have a horse who can win at the show but won’t load in the trailer, stand quietly to be saddled or is otherwise lacking in basic ground manners.

When working with a head-shy horseDON’T…

… tie him and/or confine him.

… be impatient or get angry when you don’t get what you want. I’m not saying you will, but so many people do. Then
they prove to their horse they are not worth trusting.

… be too slow and sneaky. It creates conditions on how you can be around him, and you don’t want that.

… rely on treats. They won’t be a big help here. This training will be more effective if you succeed without the tricks.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #451, April 2015. 

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