Why Your Horse Is Tossing Its Head

Horse ridden in standing martingale with rider in English gear.

Paul Keleher/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Is your horse tossing its head while you ride? Head tossing can range from annoying bobbing to dangerous head throwing and shaking. As your horse is throwing its head, you may have poor control. In the show ring, you’ll be passed over by the judge if your horse is tossing its head in many performance classes like equitation and pleasure. 

Why Horses Toss Their Heads

Horses toss or bob their heads for a number of reasons. It’s important to find the cause before resorting to a harsher bit, martingale or tie-down. It’s very unfair to your horse if you’ve tied its head into place, so it can’t escape pain or discomfort. So, let's look at the reasons: 

  • Dental: Often a horse's teeth wear unevenly and can form uncomfortable hooks and edges that cause the horse to scrape his cheeks or tongue while he chews. Dental problems like this can make holding a bit very uncomfortable. Most horses need their teeth checked and rasped (called floating) at least once a year, while some horses may need to have their teeth checked as frequently as every six months. Dental issues are the first thing to look for when trying to solve head shaking or tossing problems. Extra teeth that grow in front of the chewing teeth, called wolf teeth, can also cause problems with the bit. Your vet can advise you on how to deal with this. 
  • Bits: Check to see that the bit fits comfortably in the horse's mouth. Is it too narrow and pinching, too thick, or too much of a mouthful? Is the curb strap too loose allowing a curb bit to rotate too far in the horse's mouth? Is it too high and tight against the horse’s gums or lips or too low and clanking on its front teeth? Is the bit too harsh, or does it have harsh edges or rust and the horse is trying to avoid it? Some horses might object to the taste of certain metals or the weight or shape of a bit. Try different bits to see if there is one your horse accepts without the head tossing.
  • Insects: Some horses toss their heads because they get frantic about insects around their ears. This can be a big problem on trail rides with a horse trying to rid itself of annoying bugs. Consider using ear covers and insect repellent. Some horses go absolutely loopy about biting bugs, so try to ride when insects are less prevalent or ride indoors. For some horses, the head shaking problem might not go away completely until cooler weather, when the bugs are gone.
  • Saddle fit: An improperly fitted saddle that is pinching your horse's back can cause a number of unwanted behaviors, including head tossing. Saddle fit is a very common reason for "bad" behavior. Check your saddle and how it fits your horse periodically, as the fit of your saddle can change over time. 
  • Improper rein aids: Often horses toss their heads in response to the rider mishandling the reins. The first thing a rider needs to learn is how to have light, sympathetic hands that follow the movement of the horse, while still maintaining enough contact to control the horse. This is probably the most common reason for head tossing, and the solution is to take a few lessons with an instructor who can help the rider learn to have a soft, dynamic connection with the horse's mouth. Heavy hands in conjunction with a harsh bit can cause some horses to throw their heads violently. Some horses may have to be re-schooled so they trust the rider not to hurt their mouths.

Solutions vs. Masks

If you are tempted to 'solve' the problem by using a harsher bit, tie-down, or martingale, consider the possibility that you might only mask the problem and not solve it. Always view any unwanted behavior as your horse reacting to what you (or someone before you) has done to it. When a horse tosses its head, it is trying to tell you something. This is how it is speaking to you. It's always more important to be a 'horse listener' than a 'horse whisperer'.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.