Head Shaking in Horses
At best, a horse shaking its head can just be funny or annoying. At worst, it can be dangerous, unseating riders or yanking reins out of the rider’s hands. It is a symptom of frustration, either psychological or physical. It could be a response to flying insects, chronic problems with a horse’s muscles or skeleton, or problems with ill-fitting equipment. If head-shaking is a chronic problem, it is up to the owner to become a detective and figure out how to address it.
Many people automatically reach for a different piece of equipment when their horse starts to toss their heads while riding, whether a stronger bit, draw reins, side reins, chambons, martingales, gogues, and a host of other devices. This is unfair to the horse, who is tossing its head to communicate something. It may be something as innocuous as “I don’t want a bit,” or something as serious as “my back has been thrown out and the saddle is causing that sore back a world of pain.” If we assume that the horse is just misbehaving and just reach for a new piece of equipment to force its head into place, the problem that the horse is trying to communicate will almost certainly get worse.
If a horse is shaking its head during warm weather, the logical first guess is that it is bothered by insects. To that end, there are a variety of ear bonnets, flymasks, and other accessories that can be used while horses are out at pasture. If you want your horse to enjoy a ride out in nature as much as you do, consider investing in deerfly patches which can be placed on the browband of your horse’s headgear, as well as on your helmet or hat. Many riders also like to carry a horsehair whisk to shoo away the flies their horses can’t seem to shake off.
If the head-shaking seems to be a chronic problem, or otherwise not related to insects, the first thing to check is a horse’s teeth and mouth. Since the teeth are constantly growing throughout a horse’s life, their chewing patterns can wear their molars in such a way that sharp hooks and edges can form on the sides of their teeth. These sharp points and edges can cut a horse’s cheeks and tongue. There may be other problems such as rotting teeth or sores from foreign bodies that a vet can address. Another thing that is important to remember for a horse in training, or for a young horse, is the various dental changes (teething, wolf teeth eruption, and canine eruption in colts) that young horses go through. Furthermore, their jaws often grow at different rates, and a bit that fit them two months ago may be too small now. These issues can cause horses discomfort or pain. Horses in training may also toss their heads to express pain from somewhere else As always, for any behavior problem, be sure to look for pain as a root cause and be ready to address it from a veterinary perspective.
If there are no problems with the horse’s teeth, the next thing to address is equipment. The first and most obvious place to examine is the bit. This is a science all on its own, and The Ultimate Book of Horse Bits: What They Are, What They Do, and How They Work is an excellent resource for understanding how bits work. While the answer is not to automatically try to tighten a noseband, some horses may benefit from a different noseband. For a more full discussion of horse tack, there is more information in Horse Tack and Saddlery: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Riding Equipment and The Horse Tack Bible. For horses that refuse to accept a bit at all, they may appreciate making a switch to a bitless bridle or hackamore. Many horses show a huge positive change when switching to bitless options. Care must be taken however – each of these pieces of headgear work on different pressure points on the horse’s head, and each has action that is quite different from a bit and bridle. Your horse may need retraining, and especially with the hackamore, care must be taken to adjust it correctly to avoid injuring the nasal bone. Consulting with a trainer or other skilled professional is crucial when undertaking a quest to change equipment.
Head tossing is often linked to discomfort in the spine somewhere, whether from muscle tension and soreness, misalignment, or some degree of injury. A horse that is in intensive training or coming back to work after time off may be gaining muscle along its topline. This can cause a saddle to stop fitting, to pinch or slide around. Conversely, if a horse was in good physical fitness and lost muscle tone due to inactivity, time off or illness, that can also cause a saddle to stop fitting properly. The subject of saddle fit is far too extensive to go into now, but to educate yourself about this fascinating subject, Saddle Fitting Essentials, Suffering in Silence, and The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle Fit Book are a good place to begin learning. If your horse is in pain, the books Where Does My Horse Hurt? and Beyond Horse Massage can give you tools to help your horse where he is in pain. That said, an equine massage therapist or chiropractor may need to come out and check to see if there is something more serious or complicated happening in the horse’s body.
And now we approach the hardest part: the image in the arena/tack room mirrors. As riders, we have a responsibility to ride as kindly and correctly as we can to cause our horses minimal discomfort as they do their jobs. The best way to avoid head tossing in horses is to ride them in a way that the horse is encouraged to move its body properly. Here there is nothing that can replace another set of eyes to watch you while you are riding. An even better solution is having regular riding lessons to avoid forming bad habits. For further reading on correct rider position, Sally Swift’s Centered Riding is a timeless resource. That said, no book can replace a pair of expert eyes on the ground watching you ride and correcting your mistakes.
If your horse is constantly shaking its head while riding, that is a sign that something is bothering him, or has bothered him in the past and made him form a habit. Not only is it annoying and can cost points in competitions, but it can be a sign of pain and discomfort. Sometimes it’s a reaction to discomfort from riding, and sometimes it’s a reaction to discomfort coming from equipment. It is not fair to a horse who carries us and gives us so much joy to ignore his attempts to communicate with us about his discomfort. It can take some creative thinking and detective work, but what greater result is there than your horse’s well-being? And what greater reward is there than having a happy, comfortable horse who can enjoy his job as much as you enjoy riding him?