Has your horse or pony recently started tossing their head up in the air when you are riding?
When horses start head tossing behavior, it often indicates one of a few things, which we will discuss in this article.
Because head tossing can have a few causes, it may take some detective work to figure out which is the correct solution for you and your horse: Keep an eye on your mount when the behavior is happening – and maybe even watch a video of it happening shot by a friend or family member on the ground. Notice what happens just before or just after the head tossing behavior. Playing observer can help troubleshoot this and many other behaviors. Horses rarely do something for no reason. What is it that your horse might be getting from, or avoiding via, the behavior of head tossing?
“Diagnose” before you “Treat” Head Tossing
Many devices exist to prevent head tossing, and it’s a natural first response to turn to tie-downs or martingales to “fix” the problem immediately- but imagine if you visited urgent care limping from a broken ankle and your providers gave you crutches and sent you home- without ever asking where it hurt, how much it hurt, or taking x-rays. That nightmare scenario is a bit of what a horse experiences when they are tossing their head due to pain or discomfort and their rider responds with a tiedown or martingale. These quick fixes don’t address a cause, and may lead to alternative and much worse behaviors from a horse trying to avoid pain.
Does the horse toss their head while not wearing tack or in turnout?
Pay particular attention to whether the head tossing behavior happens only when you are mounted and riding or if the horse also tosses their head in their stall or when turned out in a pasture or paddock. If your horse tosses their head while untacked and grazing, you need to call the vet immediately. This kind of head tossing can be related to neurological causes (or sometimes, believe it or not, even allergies!) The horse should not be ridden until medical causes can be resolved.
Reconsider your bit you use and how you use it
Does your horse toss their head if ridden in a halter or hackamore?
If your horse or pony only tosses their head when they have a bit in the mouth, there is a possibility that the bit or another piece of the tack that you use on your horse is uncomfortable or painful.
The bit, or how the rider holds the reins that connect to the bit, are often the culprit behind head tossing.
Saddles, girths, and Saddle Pads as a Cause for Throwing their Head
Does your horse toss their head if ridden bareback?
Head tossing can occur when a horse is ridden with an improperly fitted saddle. While getting a professional saddle fitter out shouldn’t be the first line of response to this particular issue, if your horse doesn’t toss their head in the pasture or at rest, but does toss their head when being ridden with a bitless bridle or hackamore, it may be worth calling a saddle fitter out to be sure that the saddle you use isn’t hurting your horse. Another option, if you are in a shared facility like a boarding stable or horse training facility, is to ride your horse with borrowed saddles and see if the behavioral worsens or gets better.
Tomb Thumb Bits
Does your horse toss their head if ridden in a snaffle bit?
Most often, horses that toss their head do so because they are bothered by a bit that doesn’t fit, hurts, or is being used improperly. In my experience, one of the most common reasons for a horse or pony tossing their head is the Tom Thumb bit. The tom thumb bit is an incredibly popular bit, particularly in the Midwest. It is often promoted as a mild bit, and gives that appearance to novices due to the snaffle type mouthpiece, but in actuality, bit becomes a nutcracker on a horse’s jaw when pressure is put on the rains and the bit is folded around their jaw. While the jaw is crushed, the joint of the mouthpiece pokes sharply into the top of the mouth- and both actions are amplified by the leverage of the long curb-type shanks.
Most horses are good-natured and tolerate this pain with mild head tossing. But if your horse is sensitive, or the pain becomes intolerable, this pain can – seemingly suddenly- become a cause for head tossing or even more dangerous behavior.
If you’re using a Tom Thumb bit and your horse is tossing their head enough to cause a problem, try a different bit. If you or someone else who rides your horse tend to ride with contact in your rains (that is, some tension in your reins between your hand and the bit) you’ll need to switch to a bit that does not use a curb to create leverage. Curb bits are not meant to be used with tension in the reins, instead, you want to switch to a snaffle type bit designed to be ridden with rein contact.
Does your horse toss their head if ridden by a more skilled rider?
If your horse keeps tossing their head after their bit and saddle have been checked and they been medically cleared, your horse may be particularly sensitive to your hands and how you hold and use your reins. One way to test this is to, again, have a video taken of you riding and pay attention to when the head tossing occurs and what happens just before the. Another option for troubleshooting is to have an accomplished rider or an expert horse trainer ride your horse for a few minutes. If your horse continues to toss their head with an expert rider, you’ll know that it’s not something about your particular riding that causes your horse or pony to toss their head.
Lastly, if all else fails, it may be time for your horse to have their teeth floated. Horses need normal dental work – called floating – in order for them to comfortably wear a bit in their mouth. Without dental work on a regular basis, the horse’s head tossing may continue and even get worse as their pain increases. Equine dental specialists are available in most areas but most vets are well equipped to do this work.
In summary, if your horse tosses their head you should:
- observe when the behavior happens
- call your vet if it’s happening at liberty (while the horse is loose)
- check your saddle fit
- reconsider the bit you use
- Analyze how you use your own reins
- let a professional rider ride your horse
- and have your horse’s teeth examined