equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Head shy? Some thoughts on touching your horse’s head

Putting our heads together, and what can come of it…

Everyone loves horse heads. The horse head must be the most photographed part of the horse. We love their big soft eyes, their flowing forelocks, the curve of their neck.  Think of all those little girls in math class doodling on their pages. What do they draw? legs, backs, tails, no..it is always the head..rows and rows of horse heads.  If you talk to a number of horse people, they will all have an opinion on horse heads. I was taught that horses don’t actually like you to touch their head, they prefer their neck. I have met people who think they like to be rubbed up between their eyes, others rub around their eyes or nostrils.  Everyone seems to have an opinion and everyone seems to want to touch their horse’s heads.

I don’t know what got me thinking about horse heads. Maybe it was an ongoing frustration with Willy who still has nippy days. Maybe it was a lot of reading I had been doing. But suddenly it seemed to me that horse’s heads are really important, and not just because they are beautiful. They are an important piece of the work that I am trying to understand with my own horses. I have horses with physical and mental issues, and then I have just plain green horses that are learning how to work with people, bridles and lead ropes for the first time. A lot of early work with green horses involves teaching the horse what to do by controlling his head.

But what do the horses think of this?  Do you think most horses enjoy having their faces touched?  How well do you really know your own horse?  There are some horses that will bring their heads up to you and rub you, or nudge you. Are they looking for food or attention? It’s hard to say. Others are decidedly head shy and don’t want you anywhere near their heads.  My yearling didn’t want his head handled at all as a foal, and I understand that this is typical. Foals are very protective of their heads and since most of them learn haltering and leading skills as their first formal interactions with people, these early lessons can set up the pattern for later life. But even with my foal who was haltered very gently, we had to work through a lot of head and mouth issues.  Since I already had some horses with issues involving their heads, I started to think about horse’s heads beyond the basic handling.

My first clues that it might be worth spending more time with my horses’ heads was when I noticed that a lot of trainers have one or more exercises that involve manipulating the horse’s head.  Some are just meant to desensitize the horse to your touch, others are meant to actively manipulate a horse that is holding tension in his jaw or poll. Some exercises use the head and neck to access the rest of the spine and body.  I recently read about a series of exercises that Peggy Cummings does with horse’s heads. Bettina Drummond shows how she uses contact with a young horse’s head to help her settle down in her videos. She places a hand on the bridge of the nose to back the horse up and get it to release its back.  Linda Tellington-Jones also spends time on horse’s heads.  With all these exercises available, I decided that it was worth spending some time working with my own horse’s heads. I had done some work previously, but mostly it was limited to teaching the horse to accept my touch and that biting me was not acceptable. 

When Willy came to me 10 years ago, he was just generally grouchy. He came to me after a racing career and then passing fairly quickly through several other owners. He was very suspicious of another new owner.  He didn’t particularly like being touched on his head, although he would tolerate it. He also hated pressure on the lead rope, which showed itself by his unwillingness to be tied. If he was tied up, he would set his weight back and just lean until something broke.  If I was leading him and put a lot of pressure on the line, he would fly back.  Over time, and with some re-schooling, he learned to tolerate having his head handled and I learned that he had quite a fondness for head games, as long as he instigated them. He loves to use his lips and mouth and is very careful and deliberate. I have many times seen him take his teeth and hold someone’s watch in his mouth (yes, while it is still on their wrist). This is not something I ever encouraged, but other people seem to think it is funny. I have seen him take someone’s jacket collar in his teeth and hold it. He did try this once with me and I made him let go.  That was a little too close for my comfort.

Anyways, the point of this is that while he had his own head games that he liked, he was not truly comfortable having me in his space, especially around his head. He was no more comfortable with me being near his head, than I was having him near my head. For years, we just watched out for each other, and I was certainly able to perform all the routine horse care that he required.  But recently as I started to think more about the importance of how we handle horse’s heads, I realized I wanted him to be very comfortable with me all over his head.  This started when I learned that I could use his reaction to my proximity to his head as a clue to his state of mind. I had noticed long ago that on some days, he would be a bit nippy. I originally just put this down to high spirits, but as time progressed, I realized that he was nippy on days when it was cold, windy etc.. He seemed to be nippy on days when he was nervous or not as comfortable in his body. So I started using the nippiness as another way to evaluate his mood.  And while I can respect Willy’s wishes for me to leave his head alone, I decided that in the long run it is better for him to learn that a touch on the head is no different than a touch anywhere else, and that he can trust me to come into his space and help him through direct physical contact.

Then I decided that I could go beyond that.  Alex says that you can change a horse’s emotional state by changing their physical body position. She uses “head down” to settle a horse and make them calm down. I have used this a lot with Willy, and I have to say that it really does work. I decided that, as an experiment, I would see if I could make him so comfortable with my handling his head, that I could make it comforting to him. Now of course, this involved a lot of stroking and rubbing. He does have things he enjoys and I learned them. I now know where he is itchy and where he is ticklish. I also spent time teaching him to lead with my hand on his head. It might be under his chin, or under his nose, or even on the front of his head. I directed him by putting my hand directly on his head, instead of on his halter, whenever I could.

In the beginning, he was clearly unhappy with the whole business, but I have to say that he has become very accepting now.  And he has become a lot less nippy. Maybe it is just because he is more used to my hands being near his head and has become desensitized.  But what I have decided is that it doesn’t matter. If you are going to lead and ride a horse, you want him to be really comfortable with you around his head. You are going to attach reins and leads to his head, and while they are less of a direct connection than touching the head with your hands, you want them to be welcomed too. 

I spent weeks working on teaching him that every time I touched his head, it meant something, and there was a possibility for reinforcement if he just listened to what I was asking.  I then went on and did this with my other horses too. Since I keep my horses at home, I have many chances to interact with them and I tried to spend as much time touching their heads as I could. I would rub their ears, rub under their jowls, stroke their faces, lead them by their chins, move them around their stalls by a hand on the head. Any time I could, I used their head to direct them.  And they got happier about it. With a soft touch,  I could direct them anywhere.

I think some of this idea for training came from work I had done with both my young colt and with my mini. When my mini came to me, he had a biting problem. He had been cared for by a woman in a wheelchair and they played a lot of mouth games since she was limited in what she could do.  With small children, I didn’t want him biting at anyone and I used clicker training to teach him to hold his head and lips still when someone’s hand was nearby. I got to the point where I could hold my hand next to his mouth and he would hold his lips very still. I also worked on the idea of being able to put my hands on his chin and just hold his head steady by cupping his chin.   This idea of “stationing” came from work with other animals where the animals are taught to rest their heads in the trainer’s hand as a way of marking the location or position that the trainer desires. So, rather than just having a horse that allows you to hold his halter to steady him, I wanted a horse that would rest his head in my hand so that my other hand could do something else. This has already been useful for looking at eyes, applying medication etc.. Somehow when the horse is concentrating on keeping  his chin in your hand, he is much stiller than when you are just holding on to him.

My young colt also liked to explore things with his mouth, as is typical of horses this age. But with two horses in my barn who had come with nipping and mouthiness problems, I was determined that he would not be like that. My first goal was to teach him to allow me to touch his head without biting at me. I found that pressure and release was not enough to communicate this to him, as it was too easy for him to turn it into a game. So I waited until he would eat treats (grain or carrots) before teaching him. Then I spent hours (in tiny intervals) teaching him that I could put my hand anywhere on his head and he needed to just hold still and keep his mouth quiet. In the beginning, it was quite a challenge as young horses do love to play with their mouths and explore everything. But over time he improved to the point that I could hold my hand under his nose and he would not even try to nibble at it, or look for a treat if I hadn’t clicked. Visitors are always surprised that he does not lick them, or look for a treat. I have to confess that I am surprised at how many people go up to a strange horse and offer their hand. Plenty of horses like to lick hands, but plenty of horses also like to take a nibble here and there too.

Since then I have continued my work on Willy’s head. Most recently I have started working him with one hand on his halter and the other on his shoulder, using my feel on the halter and sometimes my hand directly on his face to communicate what I want. I use this position when we are working on liberty work in the round pen and I am trying to adjust his position or direct him.  It is a very different feeling that working with a lead. With a lead, if he is in a nippy mood, I try to be lighter and stay out of his space and if he is feeling tense, he might bite at me every now and then. This usually improves as the session goes on, but I really wanted to figure out why he felt so threatened and come up with a way to help him work through it.  With that in mind, I started working directly on his head.  I had originally started by holding the halter so that I was less likely to get bitten and so I could really feel what he was doing with his head and neck. Then I decided that I rather liked having my hand directly on his head. I could really feel when he started to get tense and when he was soft and accepting. I do have to be careful about holding him if he gets upset, as I don’t want either of us to get injured or set up a situation where he thinks he can just blast through and I will let go, so I usually have the lead looped around his neck too.  But most days he seems to eventually settle and allow me to manipulate his head and neck with my hands. In this way, I can use the head handling exercises as both a way to get him to relax and accept my touch, and also as an indicator of how his body is feeling that day. 

Rosie was a different story. When Rosie came, she was not comfortable with people at all. She would not come up to you, or if she did, it was with teeth bared and ears back. When I handled her, I was very respectful of her space and didn’t push her beyond her comfort level. That’s not to say that I let her do whatever she wanted, but if she didn’t want to be touched somewhere, I left it alone for a while. I didn’t feel like I had a positive enough relationship with her to tackle some things, and they were not crucial to her daily well being, so we left them alone.  Once I had caught her, she was actually ok with her head, but she certainly didn’t seem to like it. And because she had some aggressive tendencies, I spent a long time teaching her to stay out of my space and to keep her head away from me. Back then I was worried about mugging behavior so I was really strict about not letting her put her head too close to mine. We worked along okay for a while and then one summer I realized that since I had reinforced her so much for staying out of my space, she was not comfortable being in my space, even when I invited her in.

So this started a whole new series of exercises. I had to teach her that it was ok to come up to me and I could pat her head and ask her to come closer.  It was pretty clear that she was nervous when she was too close, as if she thought she was doing something wrong.  So then I started reinforcing her for letting me touch her and move her head around. I reinforced her for coming politely into my space. There is a fine line here. I found with all my horses that there is a very narrow margin between a pushy and in-your-face horse and a friendly and affectionate horse.  Not only that, what I consider appropriate might not be the same for someone else or with a different horse. With clicker training,  I find it easy to communicate with the horse so they know what is allowed and what is not, and I can do this without getting negative. I think it’s so important not to be negative with a horse’s head.  Not just because a horse who is head shy or ear shy is difficult, but because I think that if they give you their head with total softness and trust, then that is the key to being able to get to everything else.

And last but not least, spend some time just stroking your horse’s head with love.  Sometimes when I was doing these head handling exercises, I got caught up in treating the head as just any other body part and that was fine. But I found that it was nice to take a quiet moment and really just enjoy spending time with my horse.  I would gently rub those favorite spots and tell my horse just how special he was and how much I enjoyed spending time with there with him.  And, you know what? They look like they enjoy it too.  Rosie now drops her head and relaxes her eyes and I can just feel her giving a big sigh of relief.  And I give a big sigh of relief too because it’s so nice to know that we can share this peaceful moment together and that she enjoys it as much as I do.

Katie Bartlett, 2003