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Headshy Horse

I have a 19 year old thoroughbred x who has become head shy since Ive got him which was about 4 months ago, originally it was just his bridle he didn't like but now he wont let me halter him either.

I have had his teeth checked etc by a vet and all OK, just wondered if you could give me any advice as every time I go to halter or bridle him he now puts his nose to the ground and swings his head around to the side out of my reach, it was actually easier when he threw his head up as I could hold his head down.

I would be really grateful of any help you could give me.

Thanks for writing. There could always be a million reasons why a horse "suddenly" starts to behave in a certain manner. I would guess he did not start this over night, but perhaps he showed more subtle mannerisms or resistance when you attempted to touch his head in the past, and so you may have not noticed.

Instead of being distracted by his head tossing (which is a symptom and not the issue itself) you may have to investigate and "break down" the big picture to understand why your horse is doing what he is. Head tossing is typically a mixed sign of frustration and a bit of a aggressiveness. The aggressive behavior masks the insecurity he is currently feeling (if he is more offensive rather than defensive he may be able to protect himself better.)

 Because I have not seen you and your horse interact, I can only offer you some thoughts and perhaps an alternative perspective in viewing your horse's behavior. The seemingly drastic "sudden change" in your horse's behavior is a common occurrence between horses and humans. Many times we create a relationship with our horse that is so attentive it can be on the verge of overbearing in a horse's mind. The horse may appear calm and quiet and interested on the outside but may be stressed internally with feelings of doubt, fear, worry or insecurity.

 Were you ever able to work your horse at liberty or was he only worked while restrained with a halter and lead rope or while being ridden? If you were able to work him both loose and while on the lead, was there a difference in his stress levels, attitude, willingness, availability in his mind and how much "try" did he offer you?

 How much interaction and what kind of relationship do you have with your horse? Horses are wonderfully adaptable creatures and can rather quickly "get used to" or learn to "tolerate" situations without acting aggressively or in an ill behaved manner despite their internal feelings. Their true feelings about situations do not surface until they are "allowed" an opportunity and freedom to communicate with a person. You'll need to create scenarios where your horse wants to participate rather than tolerating you. At 19 he's pretty confirmed in his opinions about people. You will have to learn how to present scenarios in a new and interesting way that will renew his curiosity and encourage him to trust you.

 Right now may be the only opportunity that your horse has to convey to you (by remaining physically distant) that he may not be feeling as warm and fuzzy inside about his relationship or interaction with people. Most people do not notice a horse attempting to tell them that he is having a mental or emotional problem until the horse does something so physically obvious, disruptive or unmanageable that the person cannot ignore the behavior.

 I suggest each day that you work with him, you approach him as having a "blank slate" education, experience and history wise. This may feel disheartening to you after all the "progress" he made with his training. In my mind, I would rather have a horse that can convey his honest feelings regarding his attitude towards me and work with him towards making him "feel good," rather than force him to tolerate whatever it is that I'm asking of him, with no regard as to how he feels about it until the day he can no longer "deal" with me and acts out dangerously, reactively, or aggressively.

So how to proceed from here? Ask 20 people and you will get 20 different answers. I would say you would need to get you and your horse into a "safe" place such as a round pen (even if it's a bit ugly to catch him to get him there) and then start with a clean slate. Assume he knows nothing (do not worry, his "training" will not be lost or forgotten) but with the guidance of someone who can help you and your horse work together, you will need to start talking "with" your horse rather than "at" him. 

You'll need to revisit the basics in areas such as pressure: spatial, physical and vocal. With the guidance of  someone who can help point out his body language so that you will begin to become aware and understand that there is a reason why your horse does every single thing he does.  You will have to learn how to take what he is offering and be able to clearly communicate so that you can influence a change in his future behavior, rather than correcting him "after the fact."  In a calm, quiet and clear manner, your goal should be to be able to influence your horse emotionally and mentally, which in turn will affect his outward behavior and attitude towards you.  Once he learns to respect, trust and try- symptoms such as "head shyness" will dissipate on their own. 

Good Luck,

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