Handling the Head-Shy Horse

Determine why a horse is head shy, and then use learning principles to reverse the behavior. Learn more in this article from the Summer 2023 issue of The Horse.
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Whether your horse has had a long-­standing aversion to being touched on the face and head or you’ve just noticed this behavior change recently, always rule out a physical problem before attempting to eliminate the behavior. | Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Determine why a horse is head shy, and use learning principles to reverse the behavior

One horse flipped over backward in cross-ties—twice—when his owner approached his face with a towel to wipe away dirt. Another needed five oral syringes of medication daily for weeks, but he threw his head out of reach every time his owner approached. Horses like these that are extremely head or ear shy can be dangerous and difficult to handle and treat.

However, both horses not only overcame the scenarios above but became willing participants, says positive reinforcement trainer Shawna Karrasch, who is based in Pennsylvania.

Horses can be head or ear shy for many reasons. “Two common causes are preexisting pain or fear,” explains Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC, an equine behaviorist in British Columbia, Canada. Preexisting pain or fear might be exacerbated when you touch that part of the body. Or the horse might learn when people touch that part of the body, it will induce fear or pain.

Before you can help a horse become more comfortable having his head and ears touched, you must sort out which scenario is causing the defensive action. Then you can use learning principles to systematically teach your horse to tolerate—and even ­enjoy—having these parts of his body touched.

Rule Out Physical Problems

Whether your horse has had a long-­standing aversion to being touched on the face and head or you’ve just noticed this behavior change recently, always rule out a physical problem before attempting to eliminate the behavior, Karrasch says. Call your veterinarian to conduct an exam.

“There are so many things that can cause pain and discomfort. Even cervical pain can make a horse reluctant to touch on the head or near the ear,” Fraser says

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.

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Written by:

Katie Navarra has worked as a freelance writer since 2001. A lifelong horse lover, she owns and enjoys competing a dun Quarter Horse mare.

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