Most interactions between a horse and her guardian begin with handling the horse’s head. Whether you’re handling the horse for basic husbandry such as stall cleaning, grooming, worming and health inspections or enjoying the horse as a companion by leading, riding, driving and other activities, interactions begin with haltering or otherwise gaining control over the horse’s head to direct her movements. Most horses accept this handling with no resistance, but some horses react poorly when people try to touch their head or ears. They might flinch, toss their head, hold their head high and away from the handler, or even rear or try to strike the person attempting to touch their head.
Why Are Some Horses Head Shy?
Never Been Taught to Accept Handling
Horses are prey animals and, as such they’re always ready to run away to protect themselves. Because of this, all horses have to be taught that hands moving around their face and close to their eyes and ears are friendly and pleasant rather than threatening or frightening. Never assume that a horse has had the proper training in handling manners. If you have a new horse, always give rudimentary training in head handling. (Please see our article, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling, for tips on teaching your horse to accept handling in general).
Some horses have learned to react out of fear or avoidance when someone reaches for their head or ears. A horse who’s been hit on the face will quickly learn to avoid hands near her head. Horses also have very sensitive ears, and unfortunately some people consider it appropriate to control or restrain a horse by grabbing or twisting her ears. Horses who have been subjected to such treatment will invariably try to get away from anyone who reaches toward their head or ears. Horses are also afraid of strange noises and sensations. Without proper conditioning, they’re usually frightened by the noise and feel of procedures like clipping and fly spraying.
Horses can also become head shy if they experience pain on their face. Sunburn on a white or thin-coated face, impacted teeth, ear mites or other insect bites, fungus or a head or ear injury can cause a horse to react skittishly around people trying to handle her head. Impaired vision can also create head shyness. A horse who’s new to a guardian, or a horse who was fine before but suddenly develops head shyness, should be examined by a veterinarian to rule out medical disorders or pain.
Helping Your Horse Overcome Her Head Shyness
The amount and type of training necessary to help a horse overcome head shyness often depends on the reason the horse is head shy. A horse who’s never had a bad experience with people handling her head—a horse who reacts purely because she’s not been taught that hands near her face bring pleasure—will require less structured training to help her adjust to having her head handled. Such horses, particularly if they’re young, can often be taught to accept handling as long as their guardians use slow and measured movements around them. Horses don’t like quick movement—even from other horses—and they react defensively with quick movements of their own. When you raise your hands around your horse’s face, do so slowly so that she can track the movement. When possible, keep your hands in contact with her body as you prepare to touch her head. Run your hands up her neck or her face rather than simply lifting or waving your hands in front of her.
Many horses will only react to hands around certain parts of their heads. If your horse accepts handling in one area more than another, you should start your training by gently stroking that preferred area. While your horse is relaxed, slowly move your hand to an area she’s sensitive about. Keep gently touching that area, and wait until she relaxes again. Then move your hand back to the area where she easily tolerates touching. You can also incorporate treats and other rewards. The following section offers a brief overview of the use of rewards, known as reinforcement, to reduce reactions to handling. You can also see our article, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling, for more detailed information.
“Reinforcement” involves teaching a horse to do a particular behavior by immediately following the behavior with a consequence that’s pleasant for her, something she wants. The reward becomes the consequence of her good behavior, and it teaches your horse that you like the behavior and want her to do it more often. One way you can reinforce desired head movement—or no movement at all—is by giving your horse something good, like treats or petting. Another way you can reward her is by removing something that bothers her. If your touch is the thing bothering her, you can remove it when she does what you want her to. This type of reinforcement is easy and useful.
The first step in using these two types of reinforcement is to tell your horse when she does the right thing. You can say “Yes,” or “Good girl,” or even give a brief whistle to point out the good behavior. What kind of sound you use doesn’t matter as much as when you make the sound. You want to tell your horse that she’s doing the right thing while she’s doing it. The sound you make serves to draw her attention to what she’s doing at that moment. “Catching” behavior in this way makes it memorable to your horse, and making it memorable helps her associate the reward with her behavior.
The next step is to recognize the behavior you want to reinforce. Suppose you are touching your horse’s muzzle and you move your hand up her head and cheek toward her ear. If she starts to toss her head and pull away from your hand, that isn’t what you want. However, if you move very slowly, using calm, consistent pressure, she’ll be less likely to pull away. Move slowly, and if she starts to pull away, just stop your motion. Keep your hand on her face. When she relaxes, say “Yes,” and take your hand away. This will reward your horse for relaxing and standing still. You can also reward her by giving her a treat.
To summarize, here are the steps to follow:
1. Place your hand on your horse’s muzzle (or somewhere else she accepts).
2. Very slowly move your hand up her face.
3. If she reacts—even if she just tenses—freeze your hand in place.
4. When she relaxes, instantly say “Yes,” and take your hand off her head.
5. Quickly give her a treat.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Horses who are head shy may need an alternative procedure known as systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). DSCC can help your horse get over a fear-based reaction to something. The procedure has two parts:
1. Helping a horse get used to something she fears by gradually moving it closer to her or slowly increasing its intensity
2. Helping a horse learn that whenever the thing she fears appears or happens, something she loves (a treat, praise or another valued thing) always comes right afterwards
By putting these two parts together and progressing slowly though a series of carefully planned steps, you can teach your horse that hands on her face and around her head aren’t threatening at all—in fact, they predict pleasant rewards, not scary things. However, to make a DSCC procedure successful, the steps have to be very small and done over many training sessions. It’s important to avoid triggering your horse’s fear. This can be tricky, so don’t hesitate to contact a qualified behavior expert to guide you through the process. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) in your area. Please read our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for more information about this procedure.
Using DSCC to Help Your Horse Overcome a Fear of Hands on Her Face
First steps: No restraint Restraining a head-shy horse in cross-ties or by other means that rely on her halter can be dangerous, so begin treatment with your horse standing in her stall. A round pen or other small paddock or corral is also suitable. If you do the treatment in your horse’s stall, stand in the doorway so that if your horse shies you can get out of her way safely. Prepare for training by having a handy supply of food your horse likes, such as cut-up carrots, apple pieces, grain, horse cookies and hay. Keep the goodies within your reach but not where your horse can help herself to them.
Move slowly Move slowly and calmly as you work with your horse. Avoid sudden movements, and don’t get angry with her. If things don’t go as you hope, simply start over or try again tomorrow. Anger, frustration or anxiety on your part will increase your horse’s flight reactions and undermine your training. As you work, keep in mind that you’re helping your horse overcome fear—you aren’t running an “I’m the boss, so stand still!” session. Although that style of training is popular, it often increases fear rather than reducing it.
Using treats When you feed your horse treats, present them in your open palm so that she doesn’t accidently bite your fingers. She may lip your hand after she’s taken the food, but that isn’t dangerous. Horses like to investigate things with their lips. Be careful not to pull your hand away quickly, because that might frighten her and increase her head shyness. Of course, you must protect yourself, so if you think she’s going to bite you, immediately curl your fingers away from her mouth, lips or tongue, and drop your hand back against your body as you step away.
When using treats to help a horse overcome fears, you often want the treats to last more than a second or two to keep the horse occupied. So it’s best to use a large treat, like a horse cookie or a carrot, and present it to your horse, held in your fist with only part of the treat sticking out. Hold the treat in your fist, and keep your thumb next to your fist with your fingers tucked inside. Teach your horse that you won’t pull your hand away, so that when you place the treat against her teeth, she’ll grab it and try to pull it away. Twist your fist a bit to help her break a piece off.
Approach from your horse’s left When you approach and work with your horse, do it from an angle (your 10 o’clock to her 12 o’clock) rather than full face. This protects you if she bolts, makes it easier for her to see you and is less intimidating to her. In addition, approach your horse on her left side. The left side of a horse is referred to as her “near” side because trainers always handle horses from their left side unless there’s a reason to do otherwise. Because you’ll be handling your horse most from her left side, you want her to learn that approaching from that side is always pleasurable for her.
Treatment steps First, teach your horse to tolerate having her face touched below her eyes. Follow the steps below, doing as many repetitions as you need to achieve the goal described at each step. You might complete some steps in a single session, while others will take days or even weeks of training sessions.
1. With a treat in your hand, lift your hand to your horse’s muzzle and feed her the treat. Repeat this a few times. You aren’t trying to touch her head. You’re only feeding her treats. Once she’s eaten a few treats, bring your treat hand up almost to her muzzle, but pause about six inches below her lips. When she drops her head to your hand, say “Yes,” and give her the treat.
2. Once your horse understands that she should drop her head to your hand, hesitate before giving her the treat. Lift your other hand, palm open, toward her head. Freeze that hand in midair by her muzzle. If she jerks her head away at the sight of your hand, just wait for her to become calm and refocus on the treat. When she drops her head to your treat hand, say “Yes,” and give her the treat. While she eats the treat, lower the hand you were holding up in front of her face. Wait a few seconds and repeat the sequence. Continue this step for several days or sessions until you’re sure your horse is aware of your raised hand but isn’t bothered by it. Ideally, she’ll notice your raised hand and then immediately drop her head in anticipation of treats.
3. The next step is to accustom your horse to being touched. While your horse is eating her treats, lay your palm against her muzzle. Talk to her. If she moves her head because she’s finished eating, try to keep your hand on her face. When she stops moving, say “Yes,” and remove your hand.
4. Now touch the side of your horse’s muzzle before lifting your treat hand. (Continue to feed the treats low so that she lowers her head to take them.) While she’s eating, say “Yes,” and remove your hand from her head.
5. Follow steps 2 through 4 as you touch other parts of your horse’s head, always working slowly as you move to touch areas higher on her head. Continue in this manner until you’re able to stroke or massage your horse around her face for a few seconds before offering the treat. Be sure to offer the treats low, below her muzzle and rub her gently while she lowers her head to eat her treats.
To touch your horse around and above the eyes, follow these steps:
1. When you want to touch areas by and above your horse’s eyes, lift the hand you intend to touch her with and hold it out, palm toward her face, without actually touching her. When your horse notices your hand, say “Yes,” drop your hand and offer her a treat. Repeat this at least five times. Talk to her in calm and soothing tones while you work with her, and always offer the treats below her muzzle so she lowers her head to take them.
2. Next, lift your hand and lay it gently on your horse. Talk to her as you do this. Even if she moves her head a bit, don’t change your tone of voice. Wait until she stops moving. When she does, say “Yes,” take your hand away and give her a treat.
Work with your horse until she accepts your touch anywhere on her head. Practice during different times of the day and in different places. Lowering her head should continue to be a part of the reward sequence. Raised heads can be a result of anxiety in horses, and lowering their heads helps them remain calm. Occasionally hold a large cookie in your treat hand, gripping part of it within a fist so your horse has to work to bite off a chunk. While she’s preoccupied and her head is low, rub or massage her face or scratch her forehead. Gently rub her ears as you offer her the rest of the cookie.
Once your horse accepts the touch of your hand, teach her that tools and tack held in your hand are also safe for her. Using things such as towels, soft face-grooming brushes and her lead rope, repeat all the steps above just as carefully as you did when you were getting her used to your hand. The training will probably proceed quickly, but realize that your horse might be especially afraid of specific tools. Always move slowly and proceed through the steps methodically.
Haltering and the Head-Shy Horse
Haltering is a procedure basic to the care of your horse. Almost every interaction you have with your horse involves handling her halter at some point. It’s important that your horse accept being haltered without stress. She needs to wear her halter for leading and regular handling, but you should remove the halter each time she’s stalled or put in an area with unbreakable projections (such as a corral made of metal pipes). Halters must be fitted appropriately. You don’t want it to be too tight because that would be uncomfortable for your horse. But it’s important that it not be too loose, because your horse could get the halter snagged on something or get her hoof caught in it. The halter should lie against your horse’s head with enough room for you to put your palm flat against your horse’s head beneath the cheek strap of the halter.
Helping Your Horse Accept Her Halter
Teaching your horse to accept your hand or a grooming brush as described above won’t necessarily teach her to accept being haltered. But just a few extra steps should help you accomplish this goal. Be aware that many horses object most to the feel of the halter against their ears, so pay special attention and take care when bringing the halter near or over your horse’s ears.
Begin with a loose-fitting halter and some treats. Unbuckle the crown strap on the halter. (The crown strap goes over your horse’s poll.) If you’ve worked with your horse with towels, brushes and lead ropes, she shouldn’t be too reactive when you bring the halter toward her. Hold the halter in the hand you usually use to touch her face. Grasp it by the ring that attaches the nose strap to the chin and side strap. Use your other hand to lower your horse’s head, and give her treats as usual. When her head is low and she’s munching treats, slowly lift the nose strap up and over her muzzle. Say “Yes,” and remove the halter. Repeat this until you get the nose band up across the bridge of her nose where it normally goes. Give your horse treats to keep her head low, and then lift the crown strap gently over her poll. Say “Yes,” and remove the halter. Repeat these steps, but buckle the halter at the end. Once the halter is buckled loosely on her head, give your horse several treats or a partial flake of hay so that she eats while wearing the halter. Don’t leave her alone, though, while wearing this loose halter. When you remove the halter, use a small treat to get your horse to lower her head. Unbuckle the halter, and gently and slowly remove it from her head.
Continue your horse’s training for the day as long as she’s keen for your treats. If she loses interest in the treats, try again later or the next day.
Once you can buckle a loose halter on your horse’s head, work on having her accept the crown strap moving over her ears. Remove the halter by first putting your hand below her muzzle to get her to drop her head. Give her a treat. Then unbuckle the halter and take it off. Next, buckle the crown strap on the last buckle so that you can bring the halter over your horse’s ears without having to push them down much. Drop her head, put her head in the halter and, lifting the crown strap high, move it quickly but smoothly over her ears. Once it’s on, give your horse a treat. When you remove the halter, ask her to lower her head first. You’ll find that she’ll soon lower her head whenever you bring her halter up to her.