Inside the Mind of the Head-Shy Horse
By Pat Parelli
Most of us have spent enough time around horses and horse owners to have come across the term “head-shy horse” a few times. We’ve heard the term, but what exactly does it mean? Well, a head-shy horse perceives that any movement or contact around his head is dangerous, and responds as such.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about head-shy horses (as well as ear-shy horses, which is self-explanatory) is that they often rub their heads or ears on other horses with no apparent worry or fear. They seem to only become head shy when humans are involved. Hmm…
I’ve seen people who own quote-unquote ear-shy horses spent hundreds of dollars to bring veterinarians out to check their horses for physical ear problems, looking for something that would cause their ears to be sensitive and sore, to no avail. And then as soon as the horses back out in the pasture, he’s rubbing his ears on his fellow horses again!
When we’re looking at a topic like this, it’s important to note that horses are perceptive to danger, people, places, changes, and things. They know what happens before what happens happens. A lot of horses’ ear-shy tendencies come out because of what happened the first few times they were bridled. In those formative stages, they often put their head up, the bridle comes off over the left ear ( you may notice the left ears often the shyest), and it clanks them on the side of the mouth. It only takes a couple of repetitions of this before the horse puts two and two together and mix the connection: “Oh, I know what happens. Every time my ear gets touched my tooth starts to hurt!” That’s what I meant by “what happens before what happens happens.”
Now, when it comes to head-shy horses, the first thing we need to remember is that horses had fisheye type lenses in their eyes. They often see differently than we do, and things tend to look like they’re looking at them. Horses that are head-shy have two things going on: 1) this fisheye lens tends to make objects appear closer – and perhaps more threatening – than they actually are, and 2) most every horse has a certain area of their body that they’re hypersensitive about; for these horses, it’s the head.
It’s important for us to understand that head-shy horses are simply acting out of self-preservation; they’re not trying to be difficult for the sake of being difficult. If you study the anatomy of the horse, you’ll notice that the first three vertebrae from the poll are very close to the surface of the skin. Every big predator (lions, tigers etc. ) knows that area is very vulnerable, and if they can get their jaws around those vertebrae, it’s game over for the prey. Of course, every horse knows that this is that those big predators know that too, so you can understand where that sensitivity around the poll comes from.
When it comes to overcoming the vulnerability, it’s better for us to refer to giving the horse confidence, as opposed to using the term “desensitizing.” A lot of people with head-shy horses will try to desensitize their horses (you may have heard the phrase “sacking them out quotations parentheses”) using some pretty dysfunctional strategies that never really get the desired result. Heck, many decades ago, even I use some of those strategies – before I knew better. The more useful, natural plan is getting the horse confident about this area. Once we understand the two contributors to head shyness listed earlier (the fish-eye lens and hypersensitivity), we have a better idea of what we need to do.
Not surprisingly, it comes down to the Friendly Game. The point of the Friendly Game is to convince the horse that you’re not going to hurt harm it, so utilizing approach and retreat, repetition, and patience is key period but remember to stay sensitive to your horses innate fear around his head; don’t assume that playing the Friendly Game for a couple of days will suddenly and permanently fixed his head-shyness.
At this moment, I have two horses that are particularly sensitive around their ears. As a result, I’m extra cautious about their heads and go about things very slowly. Every time period these horses feel the most vulnerable around their heads, and it’s up to me to respect that and help them gain confidence.
Here’s the biggest thing: I don’t use their head shyness as an excuse to avoid their heads! I use it as a strategy. With these horses, the approach is “slow… steady… confident…” Take the time it takes – and the time the horses need – and you’ll find that together, you can overcome head-shyness, ear-shyness, and other similar issues. Your horses will become more confident moving forward, and you will have become a stronger, more effective, more patient horseman!