Head Tossing in Horses: What's the Root Cause?
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Apr 26, 2023
By: Ryan Pfouts, 4-Star Senior Parelli Professional & HDS
Does your horse toss their head at the worst time? Imagine how frustrating it could be if you’re stopping at X, putting on the bridle, touching their head, trotting a straight line, etc., and your horse tosses their head during those critical moments. Head tossing is one of those behaviors where there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, there are many possible reasons for your horse’s head tossing, and it is up to us to find the best antidote. Parelli Natural Horsemanship empowers you to read and understand horse behaviors like this one. By adopting a few simple principles, you can resolve these behavioral cancers before they become more significant.
To solve the problem of head tossing, we must first understand what we want. It seems obvious, but we must consider our entire goal. We do not just want our horse to do something (like trot along the fence line). We want them to do it with connection, relaxation, harmony, and responsiveness (trot along the rail with rhythm, head down, soft back, positive expression, and light aids). Obvious, right? Most of the time, when riders are focused on a particular outcome, we become direct line, and don’t consider the overarching elements that create good partners, we often just consider the physical yield versus the mental and emotional components to the yield.
Head tossing would be considered an opposition reflex or even a displaced behavior. The horse is opposing the yield by reacting and tossing its head in the air. The reverse would be a positive reflex, the horse responds appropriately and has its head down, not pushing into pressure, with relaxation throughout the body. There are four main reasons you’d encounter an issue such as head tossing or any other form of opposition reflex: fear, dominance, confusion, or pain. Knowing that there are four main root causes for opposition helps us to create a more effective approach to solving the puzzle. It is also why there is not a straightforward answer to repatterning this behavior.
Before we continue to the root causes, we need a short disclaimer - behavioral challenges such as this require a great deal of skill and understanding to resolve. As you’re reading this, consider that the support in this blog is generalized in order to provide you with an overarching approach. I encourage you to take the next 30 days and learn the Parelli Program through the FREE Discover Parelli Program in the new Parelli Network or by viewing The Ultimate Horse Behavior Series. Both programs will give you deep insight and specific resources to help solve these behavioral issues and more! Peppering in these principles for 30 days will train your eye and open your mind to new possibilities for resolving challenges like this.
Fear is one of four main categories of opposition reflex. When you see a horse throwing its head with fear, you’ll often notice a great deal of tension in the neck, eye staring, and tossing is fast and reactive. In these reactive situations, people often resort to tools like a tie down to mitigate the head tossing. Head tossing indicates a great deal of emotional stress that needs to be considered before resulting to mechanical devices to suppress the behavior like tie downs. This horse is tossing their head to avoid suppression, and they’re running through steady pressure and fleeing. Often when you’re seeing this behavior, you need to slow down, you’re pushing the horse over its emotional threshold. There are likely other areas to address by building confidence and understanding.
Head tossing doesn’t have to be rooted in fear, it might stem from your horse’s confidence and desire to lead the herd. Head tossing from a more confident or dominant Horsenality might indicate dominance. In this situation, the head tossing is often slower and paired with a neck twist. You will often notice this happening when your horse is turned out with other horses or when you’re playing with your horse on the ground, and you ask your horse to do something. This “ringing of the neck” is your horse’s version of horseplay. When you notice this behavior, you need to be careful not to push more. You’re already getting a response from your horse, so don’t add more pressure, instead focus your horse on responding to the yield. For example, if your horse tosses their head when you ask it to send during the Circling Game, ask the horse to go, stop, and resend. If you focus on the number of laps, you’re not focusing on the moment of the push, which is when your horse swings their head. Ask them to go, stop, and start again until you can ask your horse to go without the head tossing, then allow your horse to continue circling.
Confusion, or lack of understanding, and pain are two other potential causes of head tossing that should be considered. Confusion may happen when your horse doesn’t know the goal, which can trigger stress responses like head tossing. This might not be as obvious as the others, but in all cases, our primary course of action is to simplify our request by focusing on how our horse feels throughout the whole process of learning and yielding. The Parelli Program prioritizes our horses’ mental and emotional state more than just getting the job done. When you’ve taken the time to address these main areas, and maybe you’ve even sought support from one of our Parelli Professionals around the world, and you’re still having challenges, consider consulting your team of horse healthcare professionals. Pain could also be triggering this sort of response.
No matter when your horse is tossing their head, or why they’re doing it, we don’t resort to a mechanical resolution like a tie down, but instead, we take the time it takes and use the proven methods in the Parelli Program to puzzle solve the problem. Most often displaced behaviors like this will resolve themselves, just by shifting your focus and prioritizing your horse’s needs.