Head Shy

Make progress with an "advance and retreat" approach to your head shy horse.

“Madison” had been abused by her previous owners. The 7-year-old sorrel mare had rope-burn scars on each side of her neck and a scar on her forehead from being hit with a shovel. To say she was head shy was an understatement. The kind-eyed mare was carrying a lot of baggage.

I taught her owner of four months a desensitizing technique called “advance and retreat” that she could use to reduce Madison’s head-shy tendencies. It’s the same technique I would use to desensitize a horse to clippers, the saddle, a saddle pad, fly spray or a water hose.

With Madison, I advance my hand slowly up her neck toward her poll and ears until I get to the point that she tenses up, when I find that point, I stop advancing my hand, but I do not take it away. If I take my hand away when Madison tenses, I just reward her for tensing.

Instead, I hold that position and wait until she relaxes slightly. I’m looking for her to come down slightly or for her to relax in any way, then I take my hand away. That’s the retreat.

One thing I do with a head-shy horse is stabilize my arm. With Madison, I lay my arm on her neck, so that when she bobs and shakes her head, my arms is stabilized on her neck, and its just going to move with the neck.

It’s a physiological fact that horses cannot tense up and drop their head at the same time. So dropping the head is always a signal of relaxation. Not only will it help me in desensitizing her, but it will help her physically, too, because every time she drops her head, she relaxes a bit more.

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As soon as she drops her head, I take my hand off her neck and walk away. It’s really important when you use advance and retreat to always turn your back on the horse and walk away to also release the mental pressure you put on the horse.

When you walk out to the pen to catch your horse and you open the gate, the horse turns to look at you. You have established mental pressure or a mental connection with that horse. the horse feels that pressure. So it’s just as important to release the mental pressure as it is the physical pressure.

The only way I can really release the mental pressure on Madison is to turn my back on her. As long as I’m facing away from her, she can relax, take a deep breath or drop her head. But as soon as I face her, there is mental pressure. So when I remove my hand from her neck, I don’t just pull the stimuli away, I actually turn my back on the horse and walk away.

Another part of advance retreat is “pattern conditioning,” which is repeating a pattern over and over again. In Madison’s case every time I touch her, she drops her head. I remove my hand, I wait a couple seconds, then I come back and I try it again. I repeat the pattern over and over. What’s important in pattern conditioning is that you only release pressure when you get the response you want.

The one and only thing that makes somebody an effective trainer is the timing of the release. If your timing isn’t right and you release when the horse tense, you’ve now trained your horse to be afraid of the stimuli. Think of it as a bank account – every time you retreat, you are putting money in the bank if you are retreating at the right moment. If you retreat at the wrong moment, you are making a withdrawal.

Once I was able to run my hand up Madison’s neck to her poll without her tensing, I began working on her ears.

I use my fingers to slowly move along the back of her left ear from the base to the tip. This is when its critical to have your arm resting against the neck so when the horse shakes her head, my arm just kind of goes with her instead of hitting her. At this point, I’m just trying to see if I can touch the back of her ear with me finger or thumb. If, at any point, the horse resists, I hold that ground, then retreat when she relaxes.

Once the horse accepts my touching the back of her ear (I would have retreated quite a few times to get to this point), then I go to stroking the ear. Wait for the horse to relax, then release. If I’m doing a good job on this advance and retreat, in one session, I might have retreated 50 or 100 times.

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When she’s OK with me stroking her ear, then I want to be able to stroke both the inside and the outside of the ear. She’s not crazy about this. When I do the stroking, I want to be able to stroke with my thumb in the ear and my index finger on the outside of the ear.

This is an important move because it causes an endorphin release; she’s going to get a little buzz off of it, and that’s a calming thing.

It’s really hard when we’re training horses to not get greedy: We get the response we want, and we want it again, and then we want it again, and then we want it again. Then what happens is you ask one more time and the horse doesn’t give you the response you want.

Now you’ve got a big fight with your horse, and your choices are to either put the horse away on a bad note or fight with her for the next hour until she does it again. That’s our fault. Don’t put the horse away on a bad note.

I just go do something else with the horse, rather than make a big issue of this one thing. I’ll just back up and do something I know the horse can handle, then put her away on that note.