My Horse Is Tossing And Shaking His Head

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Common Complaints
My horse is fussy with his head.

Help keep your horse from shaking his mane with these anti-head tossing tips from Julie Goodnight.

When you ride, does your horse fuss with his head, throwing his nose up in the air and tossing his mane? Does he root down on the reins, jerking you out of the saddle? Does he shake his head, grind his teeth and snarl his lips whenever you pick up the reins? Or worse, does he take off with you when you ask him to stop, running through the bridle no matter how much you pull?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to help your horse to accept your hands and find relief on his mouth. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that’s happy and responsive to your aids.
The Reason
Tossing and shaking the head, rooting the reins, grinding teeth and snarling lips while being ridden are all indications that a horse has a great deal of anxiety about the bit and pressure put on it. Unless he tosses and shakes his head when you are not riding or when he is not bridled, it’s safe to assume that there is an external cause for his anxiety—either the bit or your hands.
Examining your horse’s mouth will reveal if there are wolf teeth present—these are nasty little shark-like teeth that can be razor sharp and may interfere with the bit and/or cut your horse’s lips; they should be pulled when your horse is young.
Also look in his mouth for evidence of scarring on the tongue and in the corners of his mouth. This could indicate previous abuse with a bit or evidence of an accident (like running off with the reins loose or getting a rein caught on something). The scars may be hyper-sensitive to the bit and could be the root of the problem.
Once you rule out physical issues, we have to look to training problems and how much quality education your horse has over the years. Has your horse ever been taught how to respond properly to pressure on the bit? Does he know how to give softly both laterally and vertically when he feels the lightest pressure? This has to be systematically taught to a horse—preferably before he is ever ridden. Sadly, this stage of training is frequently skipped and many horses, young and old are hopelessly confused about how to find the release.
If your horse never learned how to properly respond to the bit, he has been searching for a way to get a release of pressure and has mistakenly learned that the only way to get it’s to throw his head, root the reins or whatever antic works. If he can’t get a release by any means, he’ll digress into more fractious behavior or just shut down mentally and run through the pressure.
Many horses know perfectly well how to respond properly to pressure on the bit, but have become anxious and fractious because the rider has uneducated or unrelenting hands. Either the release on his mouth comes at inappropriate times or never comes at all, no matter how your horse performs. Your horse is working for the release; if it never comes, he loses his incentive to respond.
The bit can be a huge factor in creating or relieving anxiety for a horse. Many riders switch to a harsher bit because they want more control over their horse. If the cause of the problems is related to anxiety over the bit, going to a harsher bit will only make matters worse. Typically going to a milder bit will give better results.
Amazingly, most horses tolerate un-giving, uneducated and harsh hands from the rider—they cannot perform to their potential, but they take it—day in and day out. Other horses are too sensitive or too volatile to handle it and exhibit undesirable behavior ranging from head tossing to bucking, rearing or worse.
Whether your horse shows a minor amount of irritation and resistance from pressure on the bit or devolves into a head-tossing fit, there are some actions you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to rule out physical issues that may be causing your horse pain, unrelated to the rider’s hands. Have a vet thoroughly examine his mouth for teeth problems and/or scarring. If you find physical issues, they must be resolved or consideration given to alternative bridles, like the Bitless bridle, side pull or a mild hackamore.
If your horse shows no sign of physical problems, we have to look to his training and the rider’s hands. Either or both can be causing your problems. Your horse may need to go back to basics and learn the proper response to pressure on the bit. You’ll have to teach him to give laterally (to the side) and vertically (tucking his chin and flexing at the poll, with his face approaching vertical).
To teach him to give laterally, it’s best to start from the ground with your horse saddled and in a snaffle bridle. Slide your hand down one rein toward the bit about 1/3 of the distance from the pommel to his mouth (the other rein should be totally slack). Then slowly lift your hand up to the pommel of the saddle and lock your fist on the saddle so that he cannot pull on your arm and find a little release.
Wait until your horse bends his nose back toward your hand and voluntarily puts slack in the rein—then give him a big release and rub him on the neck and ask again. Work repeatedly on one side before switching to the other. When your horse gives softly as you slowly pick up the rein, bending his nose around before the pull comes on his mouth, he knows how to give laterally to pressure on one rein and you are ready to try it mounted (begin standing still).
Once your horse learns to give laterally on both sides, he can learn to give vertically by tucking his chin and breaking at the poll when he feels pressure on both reins. A trainer with skilled hands can teach this to your horse while mounted, but it’s best taught from the ground with the use of an elbow pull bitting rig. For information on how to use this bitting device, see the article on my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=63 .
Most trained horses that have been confused by the rider’s hands and are acting out their frustration with problem behavior, will respond immediately to a rider with good hands. If your horse has been confused and ridden in a counter-productive way for some time, he may need time with the elbow-pull bitting rig to rehabilitate his training and recondition his muscles.
The critical factor for this type of horse is to retrain the rider to use her hands effectively and ride more often on a loose rein. Riders must learn to have giving hands that move rhythmically with your horse and adjust automatically with his head position. Until the rider is balanced with an independent seat and hands, she should ride on a loose rein.
By addressing the needs of your horse, teaching him the proper response to bit pressure and educating the rider, it will relieve your horse’s anxiety about the bit so he can happily perform his job. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit www.juliegoodnight.com.