I was teaching the other day and out of nowhere the student’s horse started to tip her head. You know the kind. One ear dips down and the horse’s muzzle slides out to the side.
If this happens to you keep reading because we can ‘fix’ that!
Symptoms of a Head Tilt
You will notice the horse dropping one ear and possibly dropping the contact on one side. It may begin as an evasion and show up when the horse is circling or performing lateral work. It may also appear on the long side or straight sides of your arena.
Cause of the Head Tilt
The most likely cause of the head tilt is stiffness through the horse’s poll. Other causes may be an injury or uncomfortable somewhere. To start, check all possible avenues of soreness:
- Teeth – wolf teeth can cause head tilt
- Bit – check to ensure the bit is sized correctly and the bit is not pinching
- Saddle Fit – unequal pressure or pinching of the saddle may result in a tippy head
- Soreness – we had a horse who had a bug-bite on her neck and as a result had a head tilt because it was painful for her to bend
Once you are satisfied there are no pain points causing the head tilt try this proved technique to correct the head tilt.
Correct the Head Tilt
To correct the head tilt start in the stable and do some light massages on the horse’s poll. Just behind the ears, massage the muscles gently. If your horse doesn’t approve of you touching his/her head there be patient and take your time. Just behind the horse’s ears you will feel two fleshy muscled ‘lumps’. Gently rub these with your thumb and finger. If these are hard and tense, then this may be where the head tilt is coming from.
Keep massaging until the horse releases and puts his/her head down. This will help release some of the tension in his neck. You will notice these ‘lumps’ get soft when your horse puts his head down thus relieving some tension in his poll.
The ‘Carrot Stretch’. This easy stretch will help to relieve and improve mobility in the horse’s neck and poll.
- Stand your horse beside a wall or fence.
- Take a carrot and show your horse the carrot (assuming your horse likes carrots) and bring the carrot to the side of the horse near the horse’s elbow, then rib cage, then hip. This is a gradual process and may take several weeks for this suppleness to develop. This increases flexibility and range of motion of the horse.
Correct a Head Tilt While Riding
Correcting the head tilt is first done at the halt.
- Have the horse stand straight
- Flex the horse left
- Use an indirect rein and aim the horse’s forehead slightly to the left, say 1 inch.
- Do not move the horse’s neck.
- Keep the neck straight and move the horse’s head slightly to the left. I like to say put the “horse’s left nostril in front of his left shoulder”.
- Too much flexion may result in the horse moving his neck. This will result in softening the neck rather than the poll.
- Watch to see just the corner of their eye and nostril comes slightly to the left.
Be aware of too much flexion which will supple the horse’s neck and not their poll.
The indirect rein is a subtle aid which directly affects the poll of the horse. The rein acts from the horse’s mouth to your hand which acts back toward your opposite hip. That means to say, to supple the horse to the left, the rein acts from the horses left side of his mouth, through to your left hand which is acting toward your right hip.
This can be done easily by using your left hand in a turning action as if you were turning a key in the ignition of a car, twisting your wrist so your fingernails turn up toward the ceiling. Then turning the ‘ignition’ back off again.
Be careful not to:
- Cross your hand over the horse’s neck.
- Hold your horse’s head there. Turn, then release.
- Ask for too much flexion. This will engage the neck and we want to supple the horse’s poll.
After completing softening of the left hand side, soften the horse on the right hand side.
Once you understand how to soften and supple your horse at the halt proceed to walk then trot and canter. Do not rush or progress faster than the horse will allow. Your horse will show you what to do next. If he is supple and relaxed at the walk then proceed to trot. Then to canter once you have mastered the trot.
What has been your experience with horses tilting their head? What have you done to correct it?