Excessive Head Tossing Help

3 yr old OTTB recently put into a regular program (consisting of 90% ground work and 10% riding at walk with occasional trotting due to facility limitation and the head tossing) begins head tossing after about 5 or so minutes and progressively gets worse the longer the ride, to the point of almost hitting me with her head. She had her teeth done in early September and then had some time off as she had 2 baby teeth and 2 caps come out. She is currently being ridden in a padded leather halter, though I have a few bridles and she has also done the same in those.

Chiropractor is scheduled for the 29th and we are on day 5 of a losing dose of MagRestore. She gets 24/7 turnout (albeit in a smaller paddock as that’s all that we have at the moment), free choice alfalfa hay, and low NSC “grain” (Coolstance + beet pulp). She does not do it while doing ground work or lunging (or in the paddock/ stall/ when tied) but DOES do it while being ground driven, which makes me think it is a resistance type behavior.

I’m looking for suggestions as to other physical things to rule out before moving on to correcting it behaviorally, as well as ideas on how to correct it.

In my view, it’s always worth trying a nose net for a headshaker (once you have ruled out other obvious physical issues) My reformed headshaker only ever demonstrated it under saddle, so we also thought it was simply behavioural since there were no other signs of allergies, sensitivity etc; however, putting the nose net on literally stopped the behaviour from one minute to the next. It’s such a cheap piece of equipment that you basically have nothing to lose by trying.


My head shaker only did it during warmer, humid weather. He did it both under saddle, and while I was simply leading him in or out. And it didn’t matter if it was daylight or dark. And for some reason, he did not do it at shows in air conditioned indoors (coliseum-type indoors.)

It could be a few things:

1)The bit may be the wrong size, or thickness.

A single jointed bit may be hitting her palette .

  1. It could be something in her neck or back. You are having a chiropractor out soon so that possibility will be addressed.

  2. You are doing something with your hands that creates tension.

If she tends to go above the bit, which a young horse will tend to do, you may be trying to lower her nose by pulling on the reins.

A better way is to give a little leg aid to ask the horse to move forward. The horse will lower its head . Or you can ask for a bit of lateral work, which will also do the same thing.

What you dont want to do is get into a pulling contest.

Are you in a lesson program?

If so, talk to your instructor or a trainer. They may be able to see what is going on as you ride. They can also direct you in how to correct this problem.

Good luck.

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Good on you for following through with a chiropractor. That was one thing I was going to suggest. I also second all of what AnastasiaBeaverhou said.

The other thing it could be is lack of bit acceptance (Ie, tension). I’ve worked with a couple horses like this that toss as a way to get out of contact pressure. It takes time and a very kind hand until they become comfortable enough to relax into the bit and/or rein contact. Like AnastasiaBeaverhou stated, you want to use leg to push the horse towards the bit. To add on to what they said, you do not necessarily want to focus on the horse framing up/ putting some weight in the reins, but rather their straightness and responsiveness to your seat. Is your horse pushing a shoulder in or out? Is your horse drifting in one direction or the other? Does your horse listen to your outside aids? Will stilling your seat or using your abs cause your horse to ‘pause’ in stride? These are all things you should be able to check off before your horse will attempt to ‘frame up’. So many people get caught up in contact and forget that if a horse’s body is aligned in the correct way, then eventually they will reach for the bit. Your horse should be able to be comfortably ridden on a longer rein too. You can’t rush this process or you will just slap a bandaid on an issue that will reappear with time.

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I second the nose net. I ride a horse that is a head tosser (so bad I would get dizzy halfway through the ride) but only in the summer, a nose net stopped all tossing.

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Thank you for the suggestions!

It isn’t a bit issue as she is currently being ridden in a halter (no bit there!). To clarify, I am not asking for her to work on contact or in a frame. She is very green, however I expect her to walk quietly on a loose rein and steer / stop. That’s pretty much all we are doing currently, occasionally we throw in short bursts of trot. I am introducing the concepts of lateral work on the ground in hand, but am not going to approach that until we can walk/ trot quietly.


Could she dislike the nose pressure? One of my mare will always throw her head non stop if her halter is too low. She hates anything on her nose.

Does she do it with a bit?


I was recently reading about an osteopathic vet who has had a lot of success with head shaking. I imagine the chiropractor will have a similar approach.

A halter may not be the best choice for riding or ground driving.

If you dont want to use a bit, you may want to consider using a bitless bridle. The headstall and noseband are configured for riding whereas a halter is meant for groundwork.

Actually, doing work in hand will help with lateral work in the saddle.

Good luck.

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She does do it with a simple snaffle and plain bridle as well (leather loose ring, leather D ring, Myler comfort snaffle are the bits we have tried with the least offensive being the leather loose ring. Bridle is padded and cut back at the ears - tried regular cavesson, figure 8 and no cavesson at all, all fitted loosely). I suppose we can go back to the loose ring and headstall sans noseband and see if there’s any improvement there.

So I’m hearing she does it when being ridden or ground-driven, but not in-hand or on the longe - is that right? In which case, I’d tend to think back or neck discomfort. Hopefully the chiro will find something fixable.

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Have you checked ears? I’ve seen horses with sarcoids or warts/papilloma in their ears get very head-tossy. It’s a relatively easy thing to rule out, at least. :slight_smile:


@kaya842 I just took a recently restarted OTTB on trial who had the exact same issue and it could get pretty rude at times. A month later it’s gone after I fixed an obvious saddle fit issue which was like 50% of it and the other 50% was just riding with a very, very following hand and getting the horse to accept the contact.
I got lucky because there was a dressage clinician coming to my barn on the first week of my trial who pretty much diagnosed that her head tossing was just her getting neurotic over an unsteady rein and not really getting the idea of contact. I was prescribed a properly fitting eggbutt snaffle that wouldn’t move around in her mouth, a thick dressage cavesson with a flash (not loose) and a half a pound of contact on both hands at all times of riding. Basically - it was about making the horse comfortable rather than shying away from the contact. Once these pieces all fell into place the habit went away in more or less a weeks time. She quite honestly looks like a different horse (you can see week 0 vs. week 3/4). Good luck!


@tohorse Holy cow! She looks much happier in the week 4 video. Week 0 is about where we are. At her worst, she will do it almost non stop. I see that your horse was originally in a Micklem but it looks like that wasn’t necessarily helping which is interesting since they are supposed to hold the bit steadier (I think?).
After playing around with some things this week, we had some improvement with the PS Pioneer bridle I have and a leather Mullen mouth D ring, though she still isn’t 100% (I would say maybe 50% better). I am wanting to try a baucher and an egg but after a few rides in the D ring to see which she likes best. I did lunge her in the new setup first and she was lovely and perfect, then I clipped the reins on (they are barrel racing reins with metal clips for ease of use). As soon as they were on and started moving as she moved the tossing started. She doesn’t like the “excess” movement - noted. However there will be times when I need/ want to ride with loose reins so how do we go about learning that is ok?

Thank you! Hopefully she stays happy :slight_smile: I’d say there were points not captured in that first video where she was doing it non-stop especially when I first got on and then as I asked her to slow down (i.e. half halts). Yes, the Micklem piece is quite interesting, because the seller was pretty particular about the bridle she was going in. I rode and still ride her in a $25 Silver Fox bridle from ebay, since I didn’t want to put my fancy bridle on the line with a horse I didn’t know :smiley: I did order a used Horze dressage cavesson which marginally improved things, but by the time it had arrived we were 80% there anyways…

The bit piece is actually quite important. She was in a happy mouth at the time of that first ride, and since I for no particular reason really dislike plastic bits, I started off riding her with my KK Ultra (horses seem to love it), and while it was a marginal improvement it was also too large and thin for her. I ordered another KK Ultra but now both of them sit gathering dust, because the said clinician suggested something non-loose ring so I gave a hail Mary to the simplest $20 eggbutt. D rings are also non-loose, so perhaps there you might have an answer as to why she likes it?

Are you riding western? I am probably not an expert in that case. Generally in English (or, better said, in the way I was taught) you’d ideally aim to maintain a contact at all times however feather light and even with a long but not loose rein, so technically your training should condition the horse to reach into the bridle/bit at all times, even on a free walk. Now we obviously don’t always follow it, but the idea is that you always feel the horse’s mouth. From a less philosophical standpoint my answer would probably be that you should teach a horse to go in a steady contact before you decide you are ready to ride without that aid. My mare is very sensitive, at this point I can ride her with 2 fingers and frankly don’t use my rein all that much, but when I do she is no longer frustrated and I think that’s ultimately the goal - to have the aid at your disposal when you need it.

Having said all of that, what confused me about my mare’s case was that in fact, it wasn’t any pain that caused the head tossing, but the frustration about stuff randomly bobbing in her mouth and not knowing what she’s supposed to do and when. Nobody wants to hurt their horse, so of course having inherited the issue I tried to ride her with a loose rein and apply pressure only when needed through half halts. Most at this stage don’t get the subtler aids of seat and frankly if the horse is not balanced/on the bit it’s very hard to ride just off of seat - at least for me, so I do ultimately end up using the full half halt to guide the pace. From a horse’s standpoint half halts without the contact are probably super random - there’s no real way an untrained horse can see it coming - they feel nothing at some point and quite a pull the next. I mean, if someone did that to me I’d get neurotic too, especially if I just wanted to go faster and or balance my unfit butt :smiley: Even if you just try to keep a still hand on a light contact, they probably anticipate pain of a sharper intervention which is why the hand needs to follow so that there is even pressure on both hands at all times. I.e. it doesn’t matter if she is bobbing, pulling or whatever - the key is to have her believe that a continuous, light and steady pressure in her mouth is normal and in fact comforting. And that is just a matter of consistency…


I skimmed so I’m not sure if this was mentioned before… I had a chronic head tosser that did it whether riding in a halter or any type of bit, we had extensively ruled out any sort of pain with my vet, etc. When head-tossing “season” (April through September in the northeast) was in full swing, she would also get borderline neurotic about lip flapping and head tossing on the crossties as well, and sometimes in the stall. Tried all sorts of antihistamines and everything we could think of with absolutely no improvement. Nosenets and bonnets did very little, if anything at all.

The horse at that time was mainly stalled with an hour or two of group turnout a day plus riding. Moved her to a barn where she lived out full time and the head tossing stopped entirely. I’m still not sure if it was an allergy thing in the stall, an excess of neurotic energy, or some combination thereof, but if you could try full time (or at least extensive) turnout, I think I might be worth a shot.

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Nosenet!!! You can use a hairnet if you don’t have one. Have a 28 yr old tb now retired was a winning hunter started Head shaking in 1998. Spent all kinds of money at all kinds of vets/ universities/ nuclear scintigraphy/ you name it nothing worked except the nose net. And there were days he was so miserable you had to just get off. I showed him up until 2014 winning little derbies etc he wore the nose net all the way to the ingate then it was removed. Through the years I’ve encountered 4 other head shakers not as fancy as him nor as severe but NOSE NETs always worked. And not trimming whiskers.

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What happens if you let her trot for a few minutes and really send her forward? Being stuck at the walk can make a young hot horse a bit anxious and the head tossing could be a manifestation of that. If the ring isn’t suitable but she lunged I’d see what happens moving out on the line. The fact that it seems to be tied to length of time makes me curious to at least cross it off the list.

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Try this. It works!