Monday, May 24, 2021


 I had an interesting text convo with a reader from the old days, one who pretty much hung around and made it to the new days with me. 

We were talking about her head shy horse and what to do with him. She certainly didn't create the mess this poor horse is in, but she's dealing with it now, and it's one bitch of a problem. He's so afraid of anybody handling his head or face he's potentially dangerous, although he doesn't have a mean bone in his body. 

In some ways, a good minded horse that becomes so frightened he'll crawl a wall to get away from you is more dangerous than an angry, touch-me-and-I'll-kill-you, evil-minded bastard. The bad-minded horse will engage, where the good one might kill himself, or you, in a blind panic.

This particular horses is stalled at night with daily turnout at his new home. This is perfect for a mind reset. For most of his prior life he never came out of his stall. Did his owners create the problem through ignorance, or cruelty? I don't know, and it doesn't particularly concern me. 

My concern with a horse like this stems from his complete inability to cooperate. A horse who doesn't understand the need to cooperate with humans ends up at auction, or passed from one bad situation to another until he's dead. It's that simple. 

I get cooperation through mutual respect. I want the horse to be clear with my expectations and in return I acknowledge their mental and physical needs.

A great example is my dun gelding, Scrub (aka Odin). As a foal, he did not want to be touched by humans, anywhere, any time. So, I didn't. I handled his mama, gave her scritches, checked her feet, doctored a nasty puncture, all the usual stuff I do with a broodmare on pasture. As time went on, his curiosity overcame his distaste and he began to sniff me and pull at my shirt. I ignored him until he almost crawled up my leg trying to get my attention. Then, I scratched his butt, right above the dock of his tail, and quit right when he started to really get into it. 

Fast forward to his three-year-old year. He still preferred minimal handling, but he tolerated what I needed to do with him. I could halter him out in the field, lead him away from the herd, he stood for the vet and farrier, loaded in a trailer, and then rode quiet. He never raised a leg in threat, bit, or shoved into me. When it came time to ride him he was soft and easy. 

Through all this, he came to appreciate being groomed, liked people to find his scritchy parts, and would come to visit periodically of his own accord. He absolutely hated having his ears handled, or a hand placed between his eyes. So, I didn't. He would spook and blow if a person walked up to us and extended a hand to pat his forehead, so I defended him and always asked for space.

There was no reason to do anything else, as long as I didn't need to doctor him or put on a bridle. Then, I expected him to tolerate me, and he did. The rest of the time, I respected his need not to be crawled all over. 

These days, many years later, I can scratch his ears, rub his face, mess with his forelock and whatever else I can think of, he is the friendliest booger you could ever want to meet. I waited for him to choose contact and it paid off. 

Can I kiss that soft part between his nostrils? I don't know, I'm not all that kissy. 

I want a horse I'm working to do my definition of his job.  That's pretty much all there is to it with me as a trainer. The rest is up to them. I give them choices, and find when a horse knows there are choices to be made, they try harder to sort out what I want. They also know some things don't come with choices, and when I tell them it's time to listen, they snap to. They also think. If there is an obstacle that worries them, they know I'll give them a reasonable amount of time to sort it out. It helps save us from complete shut downs, spook and bolts, or tossing me on my head.

Anyway, back to the head shy horse.

There are a few things about this horse that tells me he's going to be an easy fix. The first is he will approach his new owner in the field and ask for attention. The second is, as long as he's wearing a halter, he will come to the front of the stall and allow her to attach his lead. This tells me he is indeed a kind and forgiving horse. It tells me he knows that accepting the lead is his ticket out to the field. It tells me some bonehead really effed him up, but I digress. 

What I recommended is that she stand outside his stall and offer him the halter. Hold it open for him to stick his nose in and wait. Wait as long as it takes to sort out what he has to do to get outside and let him choose to be haltered. It's his job to accept the halter. She might be waiting a while (sometimes days) but it always works. No halter, no field. The key is to be still, to wait, to ooze horseaii. Probably no eye contact. The important part of this is no cooing, no reaching toward him, and no quick movements to grab him, because 'good grief, his freaking head is right here and I've been waiting a year and if I can just throw the leadrope around his neck...' because now, whether you catch him or not, you took away his choice. He has you pegged as yet another sneaky bastard and won't fall for that again. 

I'm just realized I'm going to have to change my advice a bit. Since he already makes the connection between the lead and going out, she might want to try standing at the stall door with it (as she does now) and a second halter and lead hanging on her arm. Wait until he comes in for the lead and take him out. Then, add to his job description daily, maybe rubbing him with the second halter a bit, then the next day, draping it over his neck, etc. Eventually, he will let her put the second halter on and understand his job. No sneaking, open communication, just making it a little easier for them both and building on what he already knows.

I respect the space of all horses in stalls. It's their safe place and I want it to stay that way. I don't punish them by tying them in the stall. I don't give shots, vet them, pick at them, play with them, none of the stuff we humans think of while they are trapped in a small space with no way out. When I clean their stalls I try to maintain a friendly, business like attitude, and get out. I'm the same when I feed. I expect the horse to be quiet, get out of my way, no aggressive anything, no bumping me, and no pawing or banging the stalls at feed time, or ever, for that matter. It's my job to feed, clean, and respect their space, and theirs to give me mine. 

Don't get me wrong, I talk to them like we're doing coffee at Village Inn, but the rules stay the same.

When the head shy horse accepts the halter without fear it's going to be an enormous step forward in their working relationship. It will show up in every future step they take together. 

If you're wondering about friendship between them, well, that will come later, all she has to do is wait.

P.S. Back to the blue Corriente next time...


  1. Love this. I have a sensitive Appaloosa that doesn't like to have his head touched unless he wants to have his head touched. Many years ago you wrote about not doing something a horse doesn't like just because you want to and instead respecting their needs and it really stuck with me. As a result, I rarely touch my horses face unless I need to or he asks. It just makes sense.

  2. As always, great advice and a pleasure to read.

  3. Great advice! Good to see you posting again!

  4. I’m curious how she approaches him to bring him in from the field...

    1. Sometimes he let's us approach in the field sometimes he won't. He will let you walk up and catch him if he is in the yard outside the stables so we call in his field mate and he comes too if he's not up for being caught on the grass


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