My horse, Ember, was very head-shy when he first came to me as a rescued racehorse who’d been on his way to slaughter. A severe ear mite infestation made the problem even worse. After the mites were gone, he still expected any touch to his ears to be painful. Then I made a mistake by forcing him to accept a bridle by working him in the round pen until he was tired and complacent, then quickly putting the bridle over his head despite his protests. Between his pre-existing fear, the memory of pain caused by mites, and my stupidity in allowing my ego to override my common sense when my horse wouldn’t allow me to bridle him, I ended up with a lovely young Thoroughbred I could do nothing with because I couldn’t bridle him!
Thankfully, I regained my senses after simmering for a few days, and realized my horse’s head-shyness wouldn’t just go away on its own, nor could I force him not to be afraid. I resigned myself to spending a few weeks working slowly and carefully to retrain Ember to accept a bridle. He is now completely over his fear of bridling and handling of his ears. The same technique will work for almost any head-shy horse, if you practice diligently and are careful not to push too far, too fast.
Before You Start
Before embarking on any training program for a head-shy horse, make sure that a medical problem is not causing the behavior. A veterinarian should evaluate your horse, using a mild tranquilizer if necessary, to ensure that your horse has no painful mites, growths, injuries, allergies, or foreign matter in the ears. Some horses that suddenly develop head-shyness are trying to tell you that they hurt and need help. Also have the veterinarian check your horse’s vision. Blindness sometimes manifests first as head-shyness.
It’s important not to endanger the results of training by forcing your horse into a frightening situation. Make sure you can handle your horse safely without triggering a fearful response. If your horse is so afraid that you aren’t able to halter and lead him, begin by finding a way to work with him without haltering. The best way to do this is generally to stand outside the stall or pen, using a stall guard in the doorway to keep your horse out of your lap.
On the other hand, if your horse can be haltered but not bridled, try using a simple Western style bridle with a buckle crown and no noseband until you’ve taught your horse to accept his usual bridle. Using a bridle that can be unbuckled, slipped behind the ears, and buckled again, just like a halter, may allow you to continue training your head-shy horse under saddle while you work on the underlying problem on the ground.
The Training Sessions
Now for the actual training: It’s simpler than you might think. Get a clicker and some treats. If your horse has never been clicked before, start by clicking and handing him a treat, until you’re sure he understands that a click means a reward is coming.
Next, place the hand holding your clicker on the crest of your horse’s neck, as close to his ears as he’ll allow you to touch. Wait patiently and ignore anything else the horse does until he drops his head even slightly. When the head is lowered the merest fraction of an inch, click and treat your horse.
Repeat this in one to two five to ten minute training sessions daily. Once your horse begins to treat light pressure on the crest of his neck as a cue to lower his head, you can begin creeping up toward the ears, just a little bit each day. If you move the clicker hand up gradually, he’ll be so focused on lowering his head to get a treat that he won’t realize what you’re doing. Plus, head-lowering is already a calming behavior for horses, so you’re getting more bang for your training buck by teaching both the behavior itself and the calm mood it encourages.
Eventually, you’ll be able to lay your hand on your horse’s poll, right between his ears. When he’s comfortable with that, start cueing head-lowering with very light pressure on the poll, and as he lowers his head, rotate your hand to cup the back of one ear. Click and treat. Slowly progress toward touching the front of the ear (careful not to tickle!) and even sticking fingers inside the ear.
If your horse’s trouble spot isn’t his ears, simply adapt this technique accordingly– you can use it to work up to touching any part of the body, although if the targeted body part isn’t the head or neck, you’ll need to cue a different behavior than head-lowering.