Q&A Questions and Answers:
My 11 year old quarter horse has a big problem with throwing her head. My husband and I have tried just about everything. The tie down is useless and we've gone so far as to use a wire across her nose. I know this sounds cruel but after everything else we've tried it seemed like a good idea at the time. We bought her from a trainer who failed to disclose this information. We have had her for three years and in that time she's been pregnant and so have I. So, needless to say it's been a while since anyone has ridden her and the pockets can't handle the cost of a real trainer. I would appreciate any suggestions you may have.
Before you blame your horse or her former trainer, you'll want to make sure the problem isn't being caused by something other than the animal herself. Start by asking her about the problem. She can't talk, but you should be able to observe a pattern. Does she "toss" her head when she moves from deep shade into bright light? If so, it may be a matter of light sensitivity. A number of food allergies - such as certain types of milkweed - can cause a head-jerking reaction. Does she shake her head as if she were being attacked by an invisible swarm of insects? This may be a sign of a neurological condition. Your vet can help you eliminate these possibilities.
Talk to the former trainer. If she never exhibited this trait before, the problem could be with a new type bit, or the rider's handling of the reins. The vast majority of weekend riders are far too rough in their handling of the reins. If I put that same bit in your mouth and worked the reins like you do, would you also tend to fight the bit? As I've said several times before, a good rider on a well-trained horse should be able to wrap the reins around the saddle horn and direct the horse to do almost anything.
Okay, let's say we've eliminated physical problems, and she's comfortable with the bit and your handling of the reins. Where does that leave us? Assuming she has done this all her life, she may continue to exhibit this trait off and on for years. You'll need the patience to teach her that it's more enjoyable to not fight the bit than to jerk her head. I don't know how strong you are, but this may be an area you'll want to leave to your husband, because it can demand a fair amount of muscular and skeletal strength on the part of the rider (and a good pair of leather riding gloves).
Using a bridle with a full-cheek snaffle bit (this is a MUST), pull the rein tight on one side. (Let's say the right.) You want enough tension for the reins to be taut, but not enough to actually move her head. The point is that we want her to learn to yield to pressure, not fight it. Initially, she probably will fight it, so you will need to brace your hand against the pommel. Don't wrap the reins around the horn - that could cause a wreck if she really rebels. She may try any number of movements; the one we're looking for is a compliant move to the right. As soon as she does this, immediately release the bit pressure. It won't hurt to praise her a little so she clearly gets the message that she did what you wanted her to do. Move her around a little, reminding her what a good horse she is, then stop and repeat the exercise on the left side. After a while, she'll begin to learn that giving to the bit - instead of fighting it by jerking her head - is a pleasant activity.
I won't pretend that this compliance will come quickly or easily. But when it does, you'll be headed toward having a horse that your baby will someday ride.
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