Over­com­ing head shy­ness

A trust­ing re­la­tion­ship will not only help re­solve a horse’s aver­sion to hav­ing his ears han­dled but will head off fu­ture be­hav­ioral prob­lems.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Jonathan Field Pho­tos by Angie Field

Jonathan Field shows how to es­tab­lish a trust­ing re­la­tion­ship that will not only help re­solve a horse’s aver­sion to hav­ing his ears han­dled but will head off fu­ture be­hav­ioral prob­lems.

Q:I re­cently brought home a 4-year-old geld­ing from a res­cue. I don’t know his his­tory but he is friendly and fairly calm and he gets along fine with my other two horses. How­ever, he has one ma­jor prob­lem---he won’t let me near his ears. He leads just fine and will let me put on and take off his hal­ter as long as I move very slowly. But groom­ing around his head is dif­fi­cult be­cause he raises his nose sky-high when­ever I get near his ears. If I keep try­ing he be­comes ag­i­tated. I’ve never dealt with this prob­lem be­fore and I’m find­ing the tech­niques that I’ve used to get past pre­vi­ous prob­lems---pa­tience, treats, grad­ual de­sen­si­ti­za­tion---don’t seem to be work­ing. I’ve been deal­ing with this prob­lem for two weeks and haven’t made any progress. Do you have any sug­ges­tions?

This is a great ques­tion be­cause the so­lu­tion I will out­line can be used not only to help head-shy horses but also oth­ers with trust is­sues.

This sounds like a com­mon type of head shy­ness, one I see of­ten. From your de­scrip­tion, I am as­sum­ing that your horse is averse to any move­ments around the air space of his head near his ears, such as ap­proach­ing with a brush, head­stall or clip­pers. You will have two goals in solv­ing this prob­lem: First, get­ting your horse to ac­cept hav­ing you touch his ears, and sec­ond, de­sen­si­tiz­ing the air space around his head.

Be­fore start­ing any at­tempt at re­train­ing, how­ever, have your horse ex­am­ined to make sure this be­hav­ior is not an in­di­ca­tion of pain. Ear in­fec­tions, den­tal is­sues and other phys­i­cal prob­lems can make a horse head shy, at

least tem­po­rar­ily, and if they persist can lead to habits that are hard to change. They need to be re­solved be­fore the horse’s be­hav­ior gets worse and af­fects other ar­eas of his de­meanor.

When you’re ready to begin train­ing, keep the big pic­ture in mind. All too of­ten, I see peo­ple run out, go straight at the prob­lem to find out how bad it is, prove that fact to both them­selves and their horses, fail to re­solve the is­sue and then blame the horse, his breed­ing or his pre­vi­ous own­ers. Do the op­po­site. Be proac­tive and take on this op­por­tu­nity to connect with this young horse and prove to him you are OK and are a source of com­fort and safety.

Re­mem­ber, this horse wasn’t head shy around his dam. It’s just peo­ple he doesn’t trust. If you do this right, not only will you get rid of the prob­lem but you will head off many oth­ers that would have de­vel­oped if this head shy­ness had been al­lowed to con­tinue. That’s why I love ques­tions like th­ese!

In tack­ling head shy­ness, you will need to make sure your horse re­spects your per­sonal space. Of course, this is true for any train­ing but es­pe­cially so with this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem be­cause a horse’s head can be used as a weapon. I learned this first­hand at 10 years of age when I was knocked out by a half­draft mare named Ir­ish. I was lead­ing Ir­ish and al­lowed her to move too close to me. She whipped her head to­ward mine, caught me just right and knocked me into to­mor­row. So please keep in mind what I learned the hard way: Your safety de­pends on get­ting your horse to re­spect your per­sonal space. When you begin, po­si­tion your­self near his shoul­der, out of range if he whips his head around.

Be­fore you start, map out a plan for re­solv­ing this is­sue. It will take at least seven to 14 days to help your horse get over his head shy­ness, and you’ll need to be pre­pared to make only a lit­tle progress in each ses­sion. Fo­cus on do­ing what it takes each day to make the ses­sion pos­i­tive with lessons that will last for life. There is no one-move quick fix here!

When you’re ready to begin, the first thing to do with this horse is to elim­i­nate what I call the “an­tic­i­pa­tion anx­i­ety.” That means that you won’t bring him out and go straight for the prob­lem area. If you do, pretty soon he will see you com­ing and an­tic­i­pate: “Here we go again. That per­son is com­ing for my head!” So, this is one case where you do not want to be di­rect---at least for now.

In­stead, ask the horse to move at a trot for at least 20 min­utes. Once you have him warmed up and men­tally con­nected with you, train­ing can start. Here are the key steps I use to ad­dress a chal­lenge like this:

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