In my experience, 95% of head-shy horses have excessive pain and tension in the poll. Usually by the time it reaches the point of head-shyness, it’s extreme. There are things you can do to help the horse release this tension, but we also want to determine what’s creating it in the first place so that we can prevent it from occurring or returning.
When discussing head-shy horses, often the first question that is asked is whether or not it is a behavioral issue or a physical issue? One of the first signs that something may be a behavioral issue is how relatively easy it is to train the horse through it. If a behavior is unreasonably difficult to train out of the horse, or the issue is consistent, or keeps coming back, then you might consider the possibility that it’s a physical discomfort or pain issue.
There’s a long list of possibilities that can cause head-shyness in your horse. The most obvious reason could be a trauma from an outside source, for example, rearing up and hitting his head in the trailer or on a beam. Other possibilities might be ear-twitching or hard-tying a horse that pulls back a lot. By the time the horse learns that pulling back isn’t going to work, often the damage is done – especially if the horse is strong-willed or panics. The damage is not permanent and it certainly can be undone, but tension in this area of the horse will not let go easily on its own. Adding to this list of possibilities is training style and the use of extreme tack. Also, certain tactics will get quick results in training a stubborn horse in the short term but will lead to long term problems down the line. In some cases we can even teach the horse not to pull his head away when we put the bridle on, but even then there is that tense, wide-eyed look that often remains as we pass the head stall over his ears.
Another consideration is that head-shyness is a physical issue, in other words, pain and tension in the poll and atlas. Sore front feet and dental issues are two of the most common. Back soreness can cause tension just behind the poll and on top of the atlas. If it is a sore foot, the horse will react to palpation at the pectoral muscle under the girth line. Dental issues will create pain in the TMJ, which radiates into the poll. Sore hocks create tension in the hamstrings (and vice-versa), which pull on the sacrum, creating tension in the atlas. A saddle pinching a sore back behind the withers can create pain on the top of the poll, as the horse tenses along the topline to get away from the saddle. If a horse is head-shy, it’s a 99% chance that he will need body work, and releasing tension in that area can be one of the most rewarding things you can do for the horse.
If your horse’s head-shyness is due to tension at the junction between the poll and the atlas – the first vertebra of the neck and is probably the most important junction in the horse. Virtually any discomfort in the horse reflects in the poll/atlas junction. The Masterson Method Bladder Meridian and the Lateral Cervical Flexion are simple yet powerful techniques to use. The Bladder Meridian Technique bypasses the horse’s survival-defense response and connects directly with the part of the horse’s nervous system that holds and releases tension and the Lateral Cervical Flexion Technique will release tension in the poll and atlas. These techniques will help you get to the bottom of what has caused or is causing head-shyness and how you can prevent it from coming back in the future. The key to doing these techniques is to keep the horse relaxed and to stay as light as possible when practicing them. Once the horse realizes that he is not being forced, and that it feels good, it will be easier to work with him.
To view other training clips, go to Training Clips