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Head Tossing & Bucking

15 August 2011 No Comment

Head Tossing & Bucking
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

I have an eight or 9nine-year-old TB off the track . In the pasture he is fine. When I start longing or riding him, he starts to toss his nose, almost like a nervous twitch. He tosses it so violently that he loses his balance, and stumbles. It doesn’t stop until I turn him back out. He also starts bucking as soon as he is asked for a lope. He is ok at the trot and he will lope in the pasture. Other than these things, he and I get along fine, and he is a joy. He is respectful of my space, and listens really well. I think I know what caused these behaviors, I just don’t know how to fix it. I only bought him a year ago, and he had all this when I bought him. Help.
Hi, I think that the first thing to do is rule out any physical problems before we look at possible psychological issues. I would have the vet out to do a full exam that would include a lameness exam, back and neck palpation to check for soreness in those areas, eye exam to check for “floaters”, cataracts or a previous eye injury that has left scarring and affects his vision, an ear exam to check for ear mites or ticks and a dental exam to check his teeth. Some of what you’re describing does sound like it could be physical, such as the bucking at the canter, which might be indicative of back soreness when doing organized exercise such as lunging and mounted training. When a horse has a head tossing issue, sometimes its something in the ears, a vision problem, or problems with the mouth and/or teeth, so it’s best to rule out the physical first, that’s why a thorough check of your geldings ears, eyes and mouth are in order. By ruling out physical problems first, you can then begin to work on training issues and you won’t be worried that there is something physically wrong.

Once you have gotten any physical issues checked out and corrected, then I would go back and re-examine how your training has progressed over the past year that you’ve owned your horse. You said that you bought him with these issues already in place, so it sounds like your horse was never correctly started in the first place, either at the racetrack, or wherever you bought him from. Because of his previous history of being at the racetrack, some of his behavior is a possible hold-over from that time in his life. The first thing that I do when I get a new horse in training, and it doesn’t matter what the horse has done previous to coming to my facility, is let them just hang-out for a week or two at least. We don’t ride or do organized exercise. We just turn the horse out, groom them and just generally hang-out and spend time with them.

Depending on where they have come from will determine how long this “down-time” is. If a horse has come off the track, the hangin’-out period of time can be up to two months in order to “let the horse down” from being fit and hyped-up at the track. When I do begin training the horse, it always starts at the ground level and we proceed at the individual horses mental and physical pace. “Lunging-with-Purpose” is a great training tool to utilize for any breed, age or past history of horse. It helps create steadiness and involves the horse making decisions on what happens as they lunge. They are in control of their own “comfort zone” and it avoids creating a combative atmosphere between horse and human. Here’s how it works: Lunging-with-purpose involves teaching the horse a set of cues that will then transfer to the mounted level later on. By starting at the ground level, we teach these verbal, sound and some physical cues that transfer later on to mounted training. This approach helps avoid stress/psychological problems with the horse, something that it sounds like may be manifesting as head-tossing, a “nervous twitch” and perhaps bucking with your horse. It also involves lunging with LONG sidereins and allowing the horse to “self-teach” giving to the pressure on their mouth that they themselves create. I usually start, and restart horses for my clients, using my lightweight western cordura saddle or my close contact huntseat saddle, a full cheek medium thickness snaffle or a frenchlink snaffle, and sidereins for lunging purposes only. I don’t use sidereins after I have a horse going under saddle in mounted training. I find that by putting the sidereins on the green horses that are just getting their start under saddle, and also on the horses that I am restarting because of manmade problems and big holes in their training, it allows them to work through some issues in a way in which they are the ones deciding on where their comfort zone is and how they want to feel. The sidereins are adjusted very long so that the horse has to really overextend up, down or out before they come into contact. As the horse tests the boundaries, they discover where they are most comfortable and they also learn that by yielding in their jaw and their poll and rounding their back slightly instead of trying to run through the pressure they are creating, they find relief and a comfortable spot. If a horse wants to overextend in any direction, that’s fine with me. If they don’t mind the discomfort of tension and pressure on their mouth or head, then they can carry themselves that way. By putting the sidereins on very long, they are in no way being restricted into a “frame”, they really have to overextend to come to the end of the reins. Every single horse that I’ve ever started this way (numbering in the hundreds and many, many horses off-the-track) have made the choice, or decision, to loosen their jaw and “give” at the poll, thus going to slack reins. The purpose is not the horse coming into “frame”, the purpose is for the horse to learn to go forward in a steady way, without head-tossing, twitching or bucking ( particular evasions for your gelding) and then “give” to the pressure they are creating and not fight it instead. Unlike humans, who may make errors in their timing of when to “give” when the horse gives, sidereins are either there (either in contact or tension), or they are not (when they are slack). “On the bit” is not my goal, the horse learning to go forward, loosen their jaw, “give” to pressure, relax at the poll, proceed in a steady way and round the topline slightly is the goal. The other nice thing about doing it this way is that there is no conflict or combat between horse and human. The person isn’t put in the position of being the villian if they accidentally don’t “lighten” their hands at the precise moment the horse “gives”. The horse has a chance to think things through and decide how they wish to feel. Once the horse has learned these basics and also understands the various sound cues for walk, trot, canter (going forward) and then the sound cues for the transitions back down through the gaits, then we are ready to add the rider, but without the sidereins.

If you take things slow and easy and you avoid putting undue psychological stress or pressure on your horse, by the time you get to the point of mounted training again, your horse should be going steady and smooth and there will not be bucking, head-tossing and nervousness of any kind. Many horses that have been “pushed”, abused or received rough handling that is too much for them because they are naturally more sensitive or high-strung will demonstrate some of the behaviors that your gelding does. My advice is to “go back to the beginning” as if your 9-year-old horse is a baby who doesn’t know anything yet. You will re-condition his brain into more relaxation, with no stress attached and your gelding will begin to associate training, whether at the ground level or the mounted level, with positives instead of the negatives that he probably experienced before you purchased him. After a training session, you can also utilize modified clicker training and praise and reward him profusely, with either a little food treat or scratches in his favorite spots, for a job well done. One other bit of advice for training your horse: make sure that the bridle and bit are fitting him properly. If its a browband bridle, pay particular attention that the browband itself isn’t riding too high and pinching the base of one or both ears. This can cause head tossing and head shaking in a sensitive horse, as can a bit that is too narrow because it is pinching the corners of the horses mouth. Also, make sure that you place his forelock under the browband. I’ve noticed with the more sensitive breeds that sometimes their forelock blowing back against, or into their ears, as they canter or work at more speed during organized exercise, will sometimes tend to tickle them and they will toss and shake their heads.

It can be a long road to re-condition an individuals way of thinking about training and interaction, especially if they have been rough-handled, abused or “pushed”, but if you stay focused on going slow and steady, and are consistent and clear, the journey will turn into a happy and rewarding one for both you and your horse.

Laura Phelps-Bell

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