Dealing With a Head Shy Horse

Have you ever known a horse that hated having its head and ears touched? This term is known as head shy, and there are many horses throughout the world who demonstrate this behavior. If you have a horse that jerks its head up any time you touch its ears, this article will list detailed steps you can take to help your horse overcome head shyness.

So, how do you teach your horse to let you touch its ears? Here are the steps I would take:

  • Understand why your horse may not want its head or ears touched
  • Teach your horse to lower its head when pressure is applied
  • Start by rubbing the horse’s neck and slowly working up to the ears
  • Be aware of where you’re positioned next to the horse
  • Be patient and set under-achieving goals when it comes to touching your horse’s ears


Working to get a horse over being head shy usually does not happen overnight; it can take months of patient and consistent work to help your horse understand that it’s alright to have their ears touched. As the horse owner, you must be willing to put in the hours it takes to help correct this behavior.

Understand Why Your Horse May Be Head Shy

Horses may not want their heads touched for a number of reasons:

  • The horse is not unfamiliar and unsure of human interaction
  • A head injury that causes pain to the horse when touched
  • There’s a problem in the horse’s mouth. (Horses have nerves running from their teeth up into their heads. If there’s a problem with the gums or teeth, the horse might have pain in its ears.)
  • There’s a bug or wax stuck in the horse’s ear, causing discomfort
  • The horse was abused (I’ve seen this a lot in head shy horses.)
  • By nature, flight animals feel protective of the part of the neck closest to the head, as this is where many predatorial animals would bite to take them down.


And the list could go on and on. The majority of the time when I’ve worked with or heard about a head shy horse, the horse was head shy due to either pain or a bad experience. Since this is usually the cause, it’s important to approach this delicately and patiently.

The last thing you want to do is add to the horse’s distrust of humans be getting impatient and rushing the horse before they’re ready. You also want to be careful with the sensitive areas of the horse’s head if they’re in pain.

While you may ask why is it even necessary to force a horse with a head injury to let you touch its head, just remember that if there’s an injury to the horse’s head, it will need to be treated. Teaching your horse to let you touch its head will make the vet visit and treatment much easier compared to not doing anything about it.

Teach Your Horse to Lower Its Head

Groundwork Guide for new Horseback Rider

Something that will make touching your horse’s head much easier is if your horse knows to lower his head when asked. This is known as softening. A horse should soften, or give their head, towards pressure that is applied.

This will be useful for when your head shy horse jerks their head up and away from you. You can apply pressure and ask your horse to lower their heads back down.

Horses learn by pressure and release, so if you apply pressure any time your horse is trying to move their head away from you and release when they bring their head back down, the horse will soon learn that allowing you to touch their head is the right thing to do.

To teach your head shy horse to lower his head, start by using a lead rope and halter on your horse. Simply grab the lead rope at the base of the clip and apply a light but consistent downward pressure.

If the horse tries to fight the pressure and brings its head up, keep the pressure consistent. The only time you release the pressure is when the horse drops its head towards the ground, even if it’s very slight. When that happens, let go of the rope and praise the horse.

Work on getting your horse to lower its head to the ground. If your horse is head shy to the point that you can’t get a halter over their head, you can do this exercise with just a rope around the horse’s neck.

Maybe your horse isn’t necessarily head shy, but they do like to jerk their head up when you go to put their bridle on. If that’s the case, check out our article Why Won’t My Horse Let Me Put His Bridle On?

How You Should Touch a Head Shy Horse’s Ears

Once you can get your horse to lower its head, now it’s time to start desensitizing the horse to you touching their head or ears. (To learn more about my desensitizing techniques, click here.)

Hold the horse’s lead rope in one hand and with the other hand, pet your horse’s neck. Slowly work your way up your horse’s neck to where you can pet their face. Spend time petting their neck and face and casually try and pet your horse’s ears as you do this.

If at any time the horse tries to jerk its head away, keep your hand on the area they’re trying to jerk away from and ask them to lower their head back down. As soon as the horse lowers its head back in your direction, release the pressure and take your hand away for a few moments. This will let the horse know that it responded correctly.

I find that talking quietly to your horse and maintaining a calm composure while doing this will help the horse to see that this isn’t something they should get worked up about. Remember, horses feed off of your emotions; if you are getting frustrated, the horse will most likely get frustrated as well.

Be Aware of Your Position Next to a Head Shy Horse

Before you attempt to work with a head shy horse, it’s important to be aware of the danger zones that these type of horses solicit. One time I was trying to put a bridle on a head shy horse (without knowing that she had this problem) and she swung her head around and clocked me right in the face! 😳

Head shy horses may swing their head, strike out with a front hoof, jerk their head up violently, or even rear. You want to avoid standing in front of them or at their head, as this is where you could potentially get hurt.

The safest place to be as you work to desensitize your horse to having their head touched is standing right next to their shoulder. From here, they can’t hit you with their heads or try to kick you.

Just to put your mind at ease, I’ll tell you that I never worked with a head shy horse where I felt like I was in danger. Now, I’ve heard stories of people who have. It’s just important to remember that when you’re working with a 1,000 Lbs animal, you’re just going to have to be more cautious about your safety.

Be Patient and Set Under-Achieving Goals When Working With a Head Shy Horse

When it comes to horses who are in pain or have experienced something traumatic, like most head shy horses, it’s important that you exercise patience and set under-achieving goals when working to desensitize them. If you want to teach a horse that human touch is good, you don’t want to give them any reason to doubt that.

Keep your training sessions to a minimum time limit. We tend to overwork our horses mentally and physically by demanding a very long and tiring training session. Horses have short attention spans, so if you overwhelm them with the amount of time you spend on something, it usually ends with a frustrated and angry horse.

Part of training horses means giving them a break when they’ve done well. Keep your desensitizing session to about 20 minutes at a time. You can have sessions throughout the day, but allow the horse time to rest and process what you’re trying to get across.

You should not walk into your first head shy desensitization session thinking that your horse will be perfect by the end of it. You’re setting your expectations too high and you’ll get frustrated with the horse if it doesn’t work out. Setting under-achieving goals will keep pressure off the horse and yourself.

I hope this article will help you with your head shy horse! We having many articles covering training techniques that will help to correct some unwanted behavior in your horse. Check out the latest one, My Horse Walks Off While Mounting: How to Correct It.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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