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Headshy - Trauma vs. Abuse

I found your website while searching the internet on tips and tricks about how to concur head shyness in my colt. "Jake" is 15 months old and is headshy as a result of an eye trauma at birth which led to about eight different eye surgeries (so far). For each surgery, he had his head/eye/neck shaved. He still has a way to go, but he is turning out to be a fine horse with the funniest personality I have ever worked with. What a goofball! I am absolutely loving the challenge of a partially blind horse as it challenges my knowledge and forces me to step out of my normal training techniques. I have trained quite a few horses (and riders) and fixed more bad habits then I care to count, but will always consider myself a student when it comes to horses.

I have no problems with haltering or putting on his fly mask or anything like that as I use a lot of patience and he is receptive, but cautious. The problem I am having is with clippers. He will be competing next year so I have planned a lot of ground work for him and have started the basic clipper routine. I have switched to a small battery operated hand clipper and am slowly working on the pole. I usually work with him 4 times per week, but only for about 10-15 minutes for his clippers and grooming. When I get positive results, I give praise and stop and transition into other work routine items (picking his feet, small circles etc). I won't start on his ears until he is confident with having his pole clipped. I am not sure how long this will take, but we are working on his time clock. I believe that he is associating the clipper noise with the pain of the surgeries. As I stated, each time he was to have a surgery, they clipped his head/neck/eye area. I need to break this process for him to know that clippers aren't a bad thing. If this problem was from abuse, I would normally start back at square one and start the "back to kindergarten" retraining steps. I have tried this, but am having limited success. His last surgery and recovery was completed this passed March-2005. This leads me to two questions about tackling head shyness:

1. Are there other tips or ideas to get him through this?
2. Are traumas more difficult for horses to overcome than cases of abuse?

I have read a lot of your other responses and I put some of your suggestions to good use. Love the information about affection from a horse. Any information is greatly appreciated.

Regards, Susan

Hi Susan,

Thanks you for your question. Sounds like you have already helped many, many horses in your life with them. Thank you for this as well.

Question 1. Are there other tips or ideas to get him through this? You may already know these suggestions....leave the clippers running near him a lot. Feed, groom and saddle him with clippers running. Hold clippers in your closed hand and pet him with the hand and when he is quiet about them, give a treat. I generally don't use food treats much, but in this case I would try it. When he tolerates the clippers at all, give a food reward (something like Equine Senior). Taking him way back and resacking him out may develop more confidence with the clippers. Old habits are hard to break and he is very habituated to his behavior now.

Question 2. Are traumas more difficult for horses to overcome than cases of abuse? I think the horse does not really distinguish between trauma and abuse. They are the same to the horse. It is all 'pain.' Pain creates fear. So, what you are dealing with is fear. Overcoming fear, a habitual feeling and associated reaction to the expectation of pain or danger, frustration, confusion and the like, varies from horse to horse. Just as with humans, some rebound well and some don't. Your horse may never get over the fear of the clippers. Likewise, he just might. There is no quick fix. I always suggest going as far back as possible in the basics of a horse's training to try to solve serious fear problems (most problems are fear based). Using a food reward (with some food the horse would climb a wall for) can be effective. But 'fear' is a basic survival emotion and, as you know, is a major driving force in a horse's life. Sounds like you understand patience and compassion very well. If anyone can get this horse over this problem, it is you. Good Luck.

Sincerely, Franklin

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