How to help the ear-shy or head-shy horse.
Can you touch both of your horse’s ears? And work around his face? Working with the ear-shy horse or head-shy horse is frustrating and requires patience and time. It’s well worth the effort when your horse trusts you.
Why are some horses head-shy?
- Some horses, through no fault of their own, may have had rough handling by way of ear twitching or being smacked on or near the face. I’ve only ever known this in OTTB’s whose ears have been twisted, yanked, or both. Usually, it’s the left ear, sometimes not. Some horses are just naturally head-shy or ear-shy, so it’s worth not assuming the worst.
- For the horse owner with a head-shy and ear-shy horse, loop your vet in to explore all options. Medical issues may be the root cause.
More reasons a horse is ear-shy
- A wound on the face or in the ear that is current or scarred. Older wounds may involve uncomfortable scarring which may be hard to see.
- Have you recently tried to clip ears and had some hair fall in?
- Is there a chance your horse has water in his ear?
- What about ticks? And not just around his face, but in the jowls, the forelock, and even in the ears. Your vet probably has some special tools to look deep in your horse’s ears, not just superficially. Turns out, the inside of a horse’s ear is pretty darn complicated and long.
- There are also aural plaques to be on the lookout for, and if your horse is super fuzzy, they may be hard to see. Most aural plaques are painless, some are not.
These are smaller aural plaques in a horse’s ear.
- Some head-shy and ear-shy horses will shake their heads. The true head-shaking horse is a whole other can of worms. These horses toss their heads up and down, as if to say “yes”. When the ears are involved, it’s more of a side-to-side shake, as if to say “no”. Usually.
- Please don’t limit your investigations into just his ears, it could be his eyesight, his teeth, or even his neck.
- A horse that is developing sight issues may be spooked at the shadows or a surprise movement that may be partially seen by that eye. Being head-shy or ear-shy isn’t always about being touched!
- Dental issues are also relevant to explore. A horse that is reluctant and shy about halters and tack may know what’s coming – exercise and possibly a bit, which may be painful.
- How are your horse’s neck and spine and limbs? A visit from the chiropractor may be in order!
Look for triggers
- Start to identify when and where your horse acts out.
- Is it related to where you are standing close to him? What about from a distance? How close do you have to be before he reacts? What side are you on? What is your angle in relationship to his face and ear?
- Does he flinch and react to your touch? Your position? Your words? A specific tool? A color you may be wearing?
- Are you listening to music when he’s sensitive? Do you wear perfume or other heavily scented cosmetics?
Is your horse OK with some ear touching, but not all?
- What about gloves? Or fingertips? Which does he prefer when you are touching his body and not-shy areas?
- Is he better or worse when his friends are next to him?
- What are you doing when he is most head-shy or ear-shy? Feeding, grooming, tacking, turning out?
My point is this – if you are entrenched in the exact same way of doing things, he may be, too. Approach him from a different angle when you see him. Start grooming on the other side that you normally do. Vary up your routine. Change what you are wearing, where you groom him, etc. There are dozens and dozens of variables to explore.
- If you can figure out what he does like – you can use that to gain trust and build on your existing relationship.
There are many ways to desensitize your horse to handling.
- I’m of the school of thought that whatever behavior you want to change or add, your horse MUST equate something good and positive with it.
There’s one example I see all the damn time that I understand, but wonder if it’s the best way. The horse that won’t load in the trailer. Some training techniques will have the horse work and move his feet and do lots of little circles around the trailer. His “reward” is going in the trailer so he doesn’t have to work. How about just taking things step by step?
- So – you may have a horse that will go in the scary trailer, but he also knows that near the trailer is a place of stressful, hard work.
- I would rather teach my horse that trailer = the best thing on the planet and he will get so many rewards and praise for hopping on. This, over time, may eliminate some of the stress involved and create a more trusting and confident horse.
- I used this method to modify the violently dangerous spooking behaviors of my first horse and turned him into a curious and brave creature. I was ready to euthanize him, but with lots of time and building, I ended up with a horse that I could ride at trot and canter in the wide-open fields without a bit and bridle. That story here.
This little clicker was a lifesaver!
What does this have to do with the head-shy and ear-shy horse?
- It’s something that you and your horse can overcome as he learns to trust you and be confident that you won’t hurt him.
- This method of horse training is a “baby-step” method. You use the intended behavior of not being head-shy as the long-term goal, and work incrementally towards that goal. First, your horse is used to you touching his shoulder. And by used to, I mean he will accept it without fear and negative tension.
- Then, over weeks and months even, you start to get closer and closer to his face. As long as there is no negative tension, you can progress.
- One thing to know about this technique is that it takes time – and you won’t go from shoulder to ear in one session. And you shouldn’t. The biggest mistake is deciding to go from shoulder to ear every day repeatedly. Instead, it moves one inch closer per day, with the ear being the final result.
Some easy steps to work help your horse gain confidence.
This can be paired with counter-conditioning.
- This technique is one that you can combine with others, and it teaches your horse that his “bad” behavior is actually one that can be surrounded by positivity and praise and reward.
- There’s a horse at my barn that is just about the most delightful creature on earth. He’s a joy to be around. Until you have to pick his hind feet. He’s nervous, he will clench his hoof up to his belly, when you are done he will slam it down.
- So…we started by deciding that Rome wasn’t going to be built in a day. We needed to lay the foundation that our mere presence at his rump was a good thing. The first few days were just standing at his butt, not touching him, and then praising him with wither scratches and a cookie. We had already determined that he loves both, by the way. Then we would stand near his rump and touch his butt. More praise. Then we would touch his gaskin. Then his hock, then his fetlock, then his pastern, etc. And then (weeks later) we would ask him to pick up a hind leg. Sure, it wasn’t great that we couldn’t actively pick up his hind feet. But rushing this could have brought us back to square one.
And it worked!
- In the case of the head-shy or ear-shy horse, conditioning him to know a reward is coming is the best thing you can do. They will do anything for a pat or scratch or some really nice, positive praise.
Once a horse figures out you are asking him for something, he becomes more trusting and willing about everything when he knows some positive feedback is his reward.
- You may want to explore “clicker-training” with your horse. I use that term loosely, as it’s really more complex than that. Using a clicker to pair, or bridge, a behavior with a sound is handy. The clicking sound tells your horse he’s doing something correctly at the exact moment you need to tell him. If you are fumbling for a cookie in your pocket, or you need to take off a glove, the reward is delayed. The clicker is immediate, and your horse will learn the noise means a reward is coming.
- There’s are fantastic and easy-to-follow books about this, I can’t recommend it enough. It literally saved my first horse from the glue factory.
This article dives into some of the training names and lingo and provides some fantastic examples of training.
Have everyone at the barn halter your horse the same, safe way until you can figure out the ear thing. This usually involves looping the halter around the neck, instead of over the ears.
A few more critical notes about this, especially if you board and your horse is handled by others.
- EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE ON THE SAME PAGE. You will need to train anyone who handles your horse in the new way of doing things. It just has to be.
- You will also need to find new ways to halter and bridle your horse. I highly suggest a breakaway halter that has the crown attached on both sides. That way, you can latch it on the offside of your horse without sliding it over his ears.
- Same for the bridle. You can put it on and attach the crownpiece via the cheekpieces. It’s a bit cumbersome, but try it on the offside.
- Use all of those triggers and patterns that you figured out earlier to modify your own behavior as you work on conditioning the new one.
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