11 Nov Why Horses Toss Their Heads (And What to Do About It)
Horses display many behaviors ranging from annoying to dangerous. While some of these behaviors are due to physical ailments, others are simply bad habits that the horse has developed over time. One such behavior that a horse may exhibit consistently or on an infrequent basis is head tossing.
Why do horses toss their heads? Horses toss their heads for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common reasons are dental problems, physical ailments, biting bugs, improper bit or saddle fit, too much energy, or poor handling on part of the rider. It is important to determine the cause of head tossing so that you can take the steps needed to prevent this behavior in the future.
So, how do you know what is causing your horse to toss its head? Is this behavior really that bad after all? In this post, we will take a closer look at the many reasons why your horse may be tossing its head. We will also share some of the dangers of this type of behavior as well as steps to take to remedy the situation.
What to Do About Horses That Toss Their Heads
Whether you are new to the equine world or an experienced rider, you are likely to experience new behaviors in horses on a regular basis. Head tossing is a fairly common behavior for horses to exhibit and, in moderation, is not something that should cause alarm. However, if your horse tosses their head with great frequency or at a dangerous rate, it is wise to conduct further investigation.
Reasons Your Horse Could Be Tossing Their Head
There are seemingly countless reasons why your horse could be tossing their head. It is important to determine if this behavior appeared suddenly or if it seems to have increased over time. This factor can provide you with tremendous insight into the underlying cause of this behavior.
Dental Problems Causing Discomfort
One of the most common reasons why horses toss their heads is dental problems. As you are well aware, horses can have a wide variety of dental problems ranging from uneven wear, scrapes to the oral tissues, extra teeth, or teeth that are suffering decay.
It is important to have your horse’s teeth checked by a professional at least once each year, although some horses benefit from bi-annual dental checkups. If your horse is tossing their head throughout the day, regardless of the activity they are engaged in, dental problems could be the culprit.
Discomfort Due to Size, Shape, or Metal of Your Bit
Bits are not one-size-fits-all. In addition to size, horses prefer bits made of different metals, weights, and shapes. If your horse is tossing their head when you are riding them, try using a different bit for a few days. Make sure the bit is not pinching your horse or fitting improperly.
Even if your horse didn’t mind their bit at one point, the bit may have begun to rust or wear down, causing discomfort to your horse. By trying bits made of different metals, shapes, weights, and sizes, you can find the perfect bit for your horse.
You can learn more about the different types of horse bits by clicking here.
Reacting to Annoying Insects
It comes as no surprise that insects of all kinds are a great nuisance to horses. Some horses are so bothered by biting insects that they become frantic and begin to toss their heads. Head tossing due to annoying insects can become incredibly dangerous on trail rides or when riding in a big group of other equestrians.
If you think biting insects may be causing your horse to toss its head, try using insect repellant or ear covers during your rides. If the problem persists, try riding indoors or during times when biting insects are less active.
Physical Problems Causing Back Pain or Stiffness
In addition to dental problems, there are countless other physical problems that could cause a horse to toss its head. If a horse is tossing its head routinely during rides, consider sources of physical pain or discomfort. In some cases, back pain, minor lameness, or back stiffness could be causing your horse to toss their head in an effort to relieve the pressure.
Improper Saddle Fit
A saddle that is not properly suited for your horse could be causing them to toss their head. Additionally, poor saddle fit could cause a variety of other bad behaviors that could not only harm the horse but also the rider. It is important to check the fit of your horse’s saddle routinely as your horse may require adjustments to their saddle as they mature.
Pent Up Energy During Beginning of Ride
Horses that don’t get enough physical or mental stimulation during the day, they may have pent up energy during the beginning of your ride. If the head tossing behavior begins to decrease throughout the course of the ride, consider adjusting your horses’ schedule to allow for more opportunities to release energy.
Mishandling of The Reins
Many times, horses’ bad behavior is contributed to a mistake on behalf of the rider. If you have ruled out all other causes for head tossing, consider your riding and handling techniques. Oftentimes, horses toss their heads due to the mishandling of the reins.
It is important to use light hands following the movement of the horse while riding. Doing so allows you to work in coordination with the horse while building trust. Over time, this will eliminate the head tossing behavior in your horse.
Overstimulation or Anxiety
Horses, like humans, may experience anxiety or overstimulation when they are put in stressful environments. When they become anxious, horses may begin to display a variety of behavioral issues including, but not limited to, head tossing.
Additionally, recent studies have shown that certain horse breeds are overstimulated by sunlight. In the same way that a human may sneeze in direct sunlight, a horse may toss their head in response. This problem generally presents itself seasonally and may decrease as the cooler winter months arrive. If head tossing is due to overstimulation from sunlight, your horse may benefit from a prescription designed to counteract this condition.
Why Head Tossing Presents a Problem for Riders
So, why is head tossing a problem? Isn’t it something a rider can workaround? Although some forms of head tossing are simply an annoyance, others can pose a serious safety threat to the safety of both the horse and the rider. In addition to posing a safety threat, head tossing can also prevent you from participating in enjoyable activities with your equine companion.
Rider Has Poor Control of The Horse When It’s Tossing Its Head
When the horse is tossing its head, the rider has poor control of the horse. When a rider is not in control of their horse, they may cause harm to the horse, the rider, or other riders in the area. It is important to prevent head tossing behaviors in your horse so that you can maintain control in all situations.
Head Tossing Can Prevent Good Performance in Shows & Events
If you participate in showing or events with your horse, head tossing can cause you to be disqualified or eliminated from the competition! Competing requires great time, money, and effort. It is important that you take the steps necessary to ensure success in this environment!
Head Tossing Can Create a Disturbance to Other Horses
Horses that display bad behaviors such as head tossing can cause a disturbance to other horses. It is important that you have the ability to control your horse if you choose to ride with other equestrians. This is especially important if you participate in trail riding or other group riding activities.
How to Eliminate Head Tossing Behaviors in Your Horse
If your horse has recently started to toss their head, it is important that you take steps to eliminate this type of bad behavior. Here are some steps you should take if you find yourself in this situation:
Determine the Underlying Cause of The Head Tossing Behavior
As mentioned previously, the first step to eliminating head tossing behaviors is to determine the underlying cause. First, consider every source of physical illness or injury. From dental problems to muscle stiffness and more, bad behaviors are often one of the first signs of a serious ailment that needs medical attention. If you suspect that a dental or physical ailment could be the cause of your horses’ head tossing behavior, contact your equine veterinarian to conduct a thorough checkup.
Seek a Second Opinion From an Equine Veterinarian
Whether you suspect that a physical ailment could be causing the head tossing behavior or not, it is wise to seek a second opinion from your veterinarian. Ask your veterinarian to observe you riding the horse to see the head tossing first hand. An outsider’s opinion can be helpful in determining the cause of a horse’s head tossing behavior.
Adjust the Fit of Your Bit & Saddle If Necessary
If your veterinarian does not determine that a physical or dental ailment is the cause of your horse’s head tossing, it is time to adjust the fit of your horse’s bit and saddle. Even if you have owned your horse for several years, the fit of their saddle or bit may have changed over time.
Systematically work your way through each piece of tack, trying new fits to determine what piece of tack is causing the discomfort. If you need help measuring a horse saddle for your horse, check out our article Measuring a Horse Saddle: Everything you Need to Know.
Assess Your Riding & Handling Techniques
Finally, it is important to constantly evaluate your riding and handling techniques, regardless of how long you have been riding. We can all have a tendency to develop poor riding and handling habits over time. It is wise to schedule a few riding lessons each year to have a more experienced rider provide you with advice and guidance on your technique.
Owning and riding a horse is an incredible responsibility and privilege. Many bad behaviors are a sign of a serious physical ailment that requires professional attention. It is important to constantly observe new behaviors such as head tossing to properly care for your horse’s health and wellbeing.
Head tossing can be caused by annoying biting insects, improperly fitting saddles or bits, physical and dental problems, or even a lack of exercise or mental stimulation. When trying to determine the cause of head tossing in your horse, do research to determine the underlying cause. It will also be helpful to think carefully about when this behavior began to display itself.
While some head tossing is merely an annoyance, more extreme forms of head tossing can pose a serious threat to both horse and rider. By taking steps to correct and eliminate this type of behavior, you can ensure your safety as well as that of your horse.
Why isn’t a harsher bit a solution to head tossing? There are many approaches to correcting head tossing in your horse. Some equestrians may recommend that you implement a harsher bit to correct the head tossing behavior. While a harsher bit may provide a temporary solution, it will only mask the problem. Additionally, it could mask a serious health problem that your horse is reacting to by tossing their head.
Why do horses shake their heads while resting? Horses often shake their heads while resting because of annoying biting insects. However, head tossing at rest could also be caused by overstimulation or anxiety. Finally, head tossing could be the result of a sensitivity to light that could be remedied by a variety of prescription medications if needed.
Can you reverse head shaking in a horse that has exhibited this behavior its whole life? In the past, horses who exhibited head tossing were regarded as worthless. Many times, they are sent to pasture, given up on by their owners. Fortunately, even horses who exhibit head tossing for their whole life may correct this behavior. It is important to carefully determine the underlying cause and look for ways to rebuild trust with your horse. In doing so, you may be able to minimize or eliminate head tossing in your horse.
I hope this article will help you get to the bottom of your horse’s head-tossing problems. Your horse may use head tossing to communicate to you that they are in pain or that they are annoyed. You can learn more about how your horse communicates to reading our article How Horses Communicate: Complete Horse Body Language Guide.
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I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.