Archives MAIN PAGE

Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

Professional support for you and your horse!

Head throwing when stopped

I am buying a 10yr old Quarter Horse. I rode her today and I like how she rides, except for some reason when you try to stop her she starts throwing her head. She doesn't do it as bad with a tie-down, but I don't like tie downs, I don't think it is the solution, just a patch. Can you help?


Hi Sandy,

Head tossing is a very common problem for a lot of horses. It can happen for a variety of reasons, all usually related to pain. A tie-down is a Band-Aid. Head tossing is the horse's way of trying to get away from or a reaction to some sort of pain. The source of the pain can be a saddle that is pinching her withers or hurting her back somehow. Perhaps the horse has a sore back. You should check that possibility. It could also come from (and most often does) a horse being ridden with too heavy a bit in hands that are not sensitive enough. Most folks think a bit is for stopping a horse and use it as if it were a set of hydraulic brakes. If a horse doesn't stop well people go to a heavier bit thinking that is what is needed. Actually, a horse's mouth is just as sensitive as ours is. A cue for a horse to stop should come from the rider's whole body, seat in particular, then legs and finally and least of all, hands. It sounds like the horse you are looking to buy has had too many poor riders on it with heavy hands and heavy bits (unless you can determine another source for his pain, such as poor saddle fit or a bad back).

The good news is that rehabilitating this behavior is one of the easier issues to address. It just takes a bit of time and patience. You need to go back to some of the horse's basic training to recondition her. A round pen or small enclosed paddock would be helpful. You want to be able to ride the horse in the small enclosure with just a halter for a while. Tie the lead up like it was a rein. You can begin to develop a soft stop on the horse in this way; ask the horse to move off gently. If she goes too fast, let her. Do not try to grab her by the rope to slow her down or stop her ( you won't be able to anyway).

The first goal here is to set the horse free. You need to be able to let the horse move around the pen with you not using the rope at all. Try to steer her with your legs and body and not even use the rope for that. She may canter fast around the ring. Let her, merely guide her direction. Horses do not want to tire themselves out too much, which really works to our advantage. After a few minutes (which may seem a lot longer) of the horse moving (trotting or cantering) around the ring, ask for a stop by lifting, not pulling, the rope, sinking down or hunkering down in the saddle and saying a soft but definite "whoa!". If she doesn't stop let her keep going. After a few more minutes, offer her a break by asking for a stop again in the same way. If she doesn't, just let her keep moving. I promise you that the horse will want to stop within a fairly short period of time. When she does stop give her a lot of praise and a nice little break as a reward. Then ask her gently to move off again. Go through the process again and again until the horse begins to get the idea that stopping is a good thing and she doesn't have to be afraid of being hurt.

After a bit of time, begin to ask the horse to back up a step or two just as she stops. This would be great if she could softly back for you. You can reinforce all of this with ground work in the round pen or on a line by asking the horse to stop forward movement and back up softly with gentle cues. Once your horse stops easily in the enclosure with a halter and rope, put a very light snaffle on her and only use that. Unless you are going into reining or some other competitive practice, the snaffle should be all you need for trail rides and pleasure riding. She'll probably stop her head tossing as soon as she gets that she is not going to be hurt and there is no pain.

I do not know how experienced or competent a rider you are. Riding a horse with a rope and halter this way has an element of risk and should not be undertaken by a novice rider. If you do not feel proficient or confident enough to do this safely, ask a more experienced person to help you. I teach bridle-less riding and this is a bit of the first stages of that. You must be able to set the horse free and have what you want become what the horse wants too. It is not about dominance or "show them who's boss". It is more like ballroom dancing where both partners know the dance and there is one agreed upon leader. In the horse/human dance we humans should always the great leader, or as good as we can be anyway. This is a time tested procedure and works. Its still all about trust. The horse is always asking; "Can I trust that you won't hurt me and am I safe with you." Is she?

Thank you for the opportunity to offer some suggestions. I hope I have been able to help. Please let me know how it goes. I am most interested.

Aloha, Franklin

Look for: