He’s Headshy

‘He’s headshy.’ That one simple statement provokes a groan. But even horses that aren’t headshy can be incredibly evasive of the bridle.

So many owners have trouble doing the simple task of bridling their horse. Why can’t he just put his head down and open his mouth?

Even if you’ve never struggled with this, your horse probably does something you don’t like! Read on and see if you can put the principles I show to use with your horse.

Start Simple.

Start without the bridle. Chances are your horse has learned context specific behaviour; in other words, his head goes up when the bridle or your hand comes near, but not otherwise. Start handling his head without the bridle first. Make sure that you wear proper safety gear.

Horses learn what works for them. If he wants to get your hand off his head, whatever behaviour removes your hand fastest is the one he will learn. So be careful to only remove your hand when his head is still.

Progress Slowly.

One short session every two or three days (or every day if that is more convenient) is plenty. Horses learn faster with an interval of a day or two in-between training. Gradually expect your horse to keep his head still for longer. Then teach him to put his head down by removing pressure when he does.

Be Effective.

If you reward your horse randomly, he won’t know what you want. Same if you punish. Wait for the response you want, but also don’t wait too long. Find something that motivates your horse to try answers, and be quick to tell him when he hits the right answer.

Reach the Goal.

When you introduce the bridle again, your horse will go right back to its old behaviour. Don’t worry, that is normal. But now you have the tools to have him relax again while the bridle is on your arm. Go through every step you taught him before until he is relaxed again.

Then bring the bridle closer. As soon as he loses his head posture, stop there and work through it again. You’ll find he relaxed faster with each repetition. With simple steps, patience, and consistency, you’ll have that bridle on his head.

I help people whose horses aren’t behaving the way they want through training like this all the time. I offer lessons and training, but sometimes you just need a little article to set you on the right track.

Check out other helpful articles here.

Respect and Your Horse

How you see respect

So much of the horse training world is built on respect. Your horse has to respect you, because if he doesn’t he will walk all over you, push through you, or not do what you tell him to. That is frustrating and even dangerous.

The concept of respect also puts a lot of pressure on you. How? Well, if your horse doesn’t respect you, it must be because of something you’ve done (or not done), right? That is stressful! Or maybe he’s just a bad horse. That’s even worse—I love horses and can’t stand discounting one as being ‘just bad’.

How your horse sees respect

This is going to sound strange.

Your horse doesn’t look at you and think, ‘I respect this person, I’ll do what she says,’ or even, ‘I don’t respect this person, I won’t do what she says.’

Yet, it is still true that sometimes your horse does what you say and sometimes he doesn’t. So, if this isn’t caused by respect, what causes it?

Your horse is acting on what he has learned. If he is rewarded in some way for performing a behaviour you like, he is going to do it again so he can feel that reward again. That behaviour worked for him, got him something he wanted.

In the same way, if he is rewarded for performing a behaviour you don’t like, he is also going to do it again. The reward is teaching him what he should do.

What this means for your relationship

Just—stand still!

Nothing starts a ride off badly like your horse pinning you against the wall of the tie stall or stepping on your foot—just because he is nervous and can’t seem to stand still and wait for you! This article explores why some horses dance around and how you can teach them to chill out.

What’s the Fuss?

You’ve asked your horse to stop, and you tied him up. What happens when he starts moving his feet again? He has failed the Rhythm level of the shaping scale by not continuing to do what you’ve told him to until you ask for something else. What does that mean? It means this is a training issue, not a respect or impatience issue.

Looking at the problem in these strictly objective terms helps to expose the solution. If he is moving without being asked, he just needs to be taught to not move until asked.

So, what we need to do is ‘shape’ the ‘stop’ response so it includes stopping (which we will assume he already does well) and staying stopped. Shaping is systematically rewarding behaviour that is closer and closer to what you want until the horse reaches the desired behaviour.

So, What do I do?

Check your horse’s stopping. To proceed with training Park, your horse will need to stop in two steps from light pressure on the lead rope.

* If you horse stops in two steps when you stop your feet, it doesn’t count. Why? If your cue for your horse to stop is when you stop your feet, his cue to move is therefore when you move your feet. That means he has permission to move while he is tied up because you are moving. Having a clear cue that shows the horse when it must stand still is necessary. Some cowboys drop the lead rope. I prefer using backwards pressure on the halter. Choose a cue and stick to it.

Ok, he stops well. Grab a dressage whip (it is long enough to be useful but not so long it is cumbersome). Make sure your horse doesn’t fear it. A whip is a cue, not a punishment. If he tries to run away, you will have to get him used to it being around before you can use it. When he is comfortable with you having it, teach him to step backwards when you tap the front of his legs lightly.

Holding your lead rope in one hand and the whip in the other, face your horse so you can see his feet. Step backwards, away from him, just one small step. Did he move? If he follows you, tap the front of the leg that moved until it goes back. Don’t get upset; he just made a small mistake, and you corrected it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment, so calm, quick correction is the best way to teach.

Try stepping away again. As he gets better you can be more creative with how you move. Can you get him to make a mistake? Run away, leap away, jog circles around him, veer off on an unexpected angle. Correct any mistakes and go back to the last level he was successful at to practice.

How Long will it Take?

If you spend 15 minutes on this every time you handle your horse, and if you are consistent and clear, your horse should be standing very nicely most of the time in a few weeks. Keep in mind that when you start going out of sight, you are changing the context of how he learned to stand still (previously you were always in his sight) and he might make more mistakes. If you go to a new area, he may also make more mistakes. Introduce new situations in small steps and give consistent correction. Don’t forget to practice when he is tied as well!

As always, if you’re trying to make headway and it isn’t working, you know who to call! Contact me for help.