Some Horses Anxiously Nod Their Heads, Do You Know Why?


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My granddaughter and I were walking a shedrow, she stopped and pointed out a gelding continuously nodding his head as we approached. Of course, with her curious nature, she turned and asked me, “why do horses nod their heads?”

Horses nod their heads as a signal of energy, excitement, or irritation. They also nod when bothered by ear infections and insects. Horses that lower and raise their heads in a calm, controlled manner may be showing a sign of submission to convey a simple hello.

Horses have developed body language to communicate not only with each other but also with us. They use their ears, mouth, feet, tail, head, and neck to let us signal their intentions. It’s up to us to interpret the signs.

Horses nod for attention

Horse nodding in a stall

Horses nod their heads at different times and in different locations. Horses nod their heads while in a stall to get noticed. It is a method for them to say hey look at me.

Horses often get excited when they see someone approach their stall close to feeding time or when its time for a ride. They get antsy cooped up in a booth all day and are excited to spend time in the free world.

Nodding is also thought to be a method horses use to release endorphins. If a horse nods, during periods when it is alone in a stall, this could be the case. Installing a camera in its stall is an excellent way to confirm your suspicions.

If you find he is nodding all the time, the horse is probably getting some pleasure from the activity. The behavior is creating a stimulus similar to the relief cribbing gives some horses.

Tooth and ear infections can also lead a horse to shake its head. Head shaking and nodding are early signs of ear problems. Insects or tumors can cause ear irritation. If you suspect an ear problem contact your veterinarian to treat the condition as soon as possible.

Horse nod when experiencing pain

If your horse violently jerks its head without any visible stimuli, except exposure to sunlight, it likely has a condition known as photic head shaking. Horses with photic head-shaking experience painful nerve sensations in their muzzle and shake their heads uncontrollably. 

The pain is so intense a horse will react as if it’s been stung by a swarm of bees. Besides head-shaking other symptoms of photic head-shaking syndrome include snorting, sneezing, and rubbing its head.

Symptoms of photo head shaking syndrome may decrease in the winter and reemerge in the spring. Horses with severe cases are unrideable, while others are treated successfully with a sunshade mask. If you suspect a horse is suffering from photic head-shaking syndrome, your horse needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian to confirm a diagnosis.

Some horses suffer from vitreous floaters in their eyes. Floaters are retinal fragments floating in the jellylike substance of the eye. The horse perceives the floater as a threat and takes evasive action by suddenly throwing its head up.

What does head bobbing mean in horses?

When we were trail riding my daughters horse started bobbing his head. We decided it was best for her to dismount and check out what could be causing this.

Head bobbing is different than head nodding, head bobbing occurs when a horse is in motion, walking, trotting, galloping, or running. It is a typical sign of lameness. Lameness is a gait abnormality caused by pain. 

One sign of lameness is the bobbing of the head when traveling. Even for a trained eye, it is difficult to determine which limb on a horse is lame by the horse’s head bob, especially in mild cases.

Horses bob their head when they’re sore

A horse shifts the weight of its head and neck from its sore leg when moving. Horses’ that bobs their heads upward more than downward are likely suffering lameness in the front legs.

Have someone trot the horse toward you over a flat surface. Keep your eyes on the horse’s head; when the bad leg hits the ground, the horse raises its head. Watch the video below and see if you can tell if the horse is lame.

Lameness Lab #1: Is this horse lame?

Why do horses toss their heads when ridden?

Just like head bobbing, when our horses toss their head during a ride, we typically dismount and check the horse. My daughter wanted to know what problems we need to look for.

Horses toss their heads when ridden because of a physical problem, a tack problem, or a rider problem. It’s typically caused by a problem with their mouth

Bad teeth cause a horse to toss his head

The most common physical issue that leads a horse to toss his head is bad teeth. A horse needs his teeth floated down periodically, failure to properly maintain its teeth leads to mouth pain and head shaking.

Next, check your horses’ ears for signs of infections and insects. After you’ve ruled out obvious physical causes for head shaking, check your tack — ill-fitting bits commonly irate a horse.

Horses toss their heads because of improper fitting tack

Bits should extend at least a quarter of an inch on either side of the horse’s mouth. Now check inside the horse’s mouth, specifically the gums where the bit rests. This spot is called the bars, and it is the space between the molars and the front teeth.

Run your hand over the gums and feel for rough or tender areas that could be irritating. After you have ruled out the bit as a cause for your horses, head shaking, check the fit of your saddle.

Check the condition of the bit to ensure there are no sharp edges are excessive wear, which would make it uncomfortable in the horse’s mouth. If the bit’s in good shape, next make sure you are using the right sized bit. Correctly adjusted bits should create one or two wrinkles in the side of the horse’s mouth.

A saddle that doesn’t fit your horse correctly can cause back pain and result in your horse tossing his head. Saddles with a small amount of bar contact result in concentrated pressure and pinching or rubbing.

The bar angle in a properly fitted saddle matches the angle of the horse. The saddle will have maximum contact and clearance between the wither of the horse and the swell of the saddle.

A British study confirmed musculoskeletal pain as a cause of head shaking. The researchers examined six horses suffering musculoskeletal pain with associated head shaking. They treated the pain and noted that five of the six stopped shaking their heads, and the sixth showed improvement.

Poor riding techniques can cause a horse to toss its head

Physical and tack problems are eliminated as sources for the horse’s head tossing, so now it’s time to examine riding. Horses learn to toss their heads in the same way they learn other bad behavior.

Through poor training methods. Now they need to unlearn the bad behavior, and you need to learn proper rein control. Good riders work with light but firm hands that follow the horse’s movements.

Fighting and pulling against a horse will only exacerbate the head tossing problem. You have to spend time in a round pen working on stopping the behavior before your horse hurts you.

There are various training videos and articles you can read to give you the proper instructions to fix the problem. Just take your time and move slowly, your horse didn’t learn the lousy behavior overnight, and you won’t fix the problem in one day.

How do you bridle a horse that throws his head?

Bridling Problems with the head / ear shy horse with Mike Hughes, Auburn California

There usually are two reasons a horse is head-shy, 1) the horse is green and hasn’t been handled, 2) the horse had a bad experience. The head issue has to be fixed.

Horse owners need to be able to work with their horses’ heads safely. Not only do you have to put a halter or bridle, but you also need to administer oral medications, check their teeth, and clean their eyes.

Training a horse that has an ingrained fear of being touched around its head takes patience. Start with small steps; try to pinpoint the fundamental problem.

Is he lifting his head any time you reach for him or only when trying to put his bridle on? If he is raising his head any time you get close, then start by rubbing his neck.

If he raises only when he sees a bridle, then you need to focus your training on getting him to lower his head. Try rewarding him each time he lowers his head. Work on this exercise in a quiet area, until he is comfortable.

In the above video, he uses pressure and reassurance to get his horse to lower his head. You can reward him with a treat or a reaction that shows appreciation.

Soon he will associate lowering his head with a good feeling. Horses can remember bad experiences for a long time, and it will take time for them to replace these bad memories with good memories. Working with your horse consistently will bear fruit.

Additional Information

  • Click here to read our choice for the best brand of cowboy boots for riding.
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  • If you want to know what it means when a horse pins its ears, then click here.
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Miles Henry

I love animals! Especially horses, I've been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn't make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines. Miles Henry

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