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Overcoming Headshyness: Desensitizing the horse's ears

My 16-hand Anglo Arab has a real problem with anyone touching his ears. He came from a large farm, where they may have used his ears to restrain him for procedures. Whatever the case, at 5'4 I really need him to drop his head so I can bridle him. How can I desensitize his ear area so I can touch him there?

Amy McManus
Bismarck, North Dakota

Dear Amy,

“Earing down” a horse was a very common and abusive way of restraining an unruly horse. This is when the ear is twisted and pulled very hard. This was done so hard that it sometimes broke the cartilage in the ear (causing it to lie limply). I have seen rough stock handlers even bite the ear as it was being pulled and twisted. Couple this abuse with the fact that many horses are hit in the head if they act out at all and it is easy to see why there are so many headshy and ear sensitive horses. I would suggest having your veterinarian examine the horse before you begin any retraining process. Sometimes ear problems can be organic or medical in nature. A sedative may be necessary to fully examine the horse’s ears.

Bottom line for you to even begin to correct and heal this horse’s abuse symptoms is the level of trust and connection you have with your horse. I always suggest a horse owner/handler reflect and consider their overall relationship with the horse before they begin to heal, train or problem solve for the horse. Your role here is that of the great parent/leader and healer, if you will. Please reflect on this most important aspect of being with your horse before beginning to address any problems. The quality of your relationship (connection, communication, bond and trust) is your first consideration and will directly influence the outcome of the process.

What I would do first is to move the horse to a small paddock or large box stall. For equipment I would have on hand a soft, thick cotton rope, ample sized halter and leadrope. Stand by the left side of your horse near his head but not so close as to crowd him or make him feel any more claustrophobic than he may already be. Put your left hand on the center of the bridge of his nose (4-5 inches below his eyes and above his nostrils) gently supporting his head’s side to side and up and down movement. Do not try to restrain movement. Merely gently support the head. Take your right hand and place it half way up on the horse’s neck. Gently rock the horse’s head back and forth just a little bit (an inch maybe) with your left hand and exert very gentle downward pressure on the horse’s neck with your right hand. This is a request for the horse to lower his head. If he makes even the slightest effort to comply with your request, immediately remove any pressure and go into neutral (no) pressure mode and praise and comfort the horse verbally and with a brief gentle rub on the neck or shoulder (not his face). Repeat this process, gradually moving your right hand higher and higher on the horse’s neck until you are at his poll and right next to the ear. Be patient and do not go beyond the horse’s comfort zone. At some point you may use the thick soft rope positioned over the horse’s neck to gently ask him to lower his head (keeping your left hand on the bridge of the nose and your right hand holding the two sides of the rope under his neck). Your horse will eventually respond to your request for him to lower his head. Getting your horse to lower his head into the halter and bridle is a great ‘perk’ from doing this process. Once he lowers his head easily, let him drop it right into the halter and give him lots of praise. There is no magic bullet or quick fix for any of this.

Gradually, at some point, the horse will allow you to just touch his ear. Do just that, gently touch it for a few moments and then remove your hand. No rubbing or anything else until the horse shows you he is ready by how relaxed he is with each phase of this process. Very patiently and slowly you should be able to acclimate the horse to being touched on the ears, then gently stroked on the ears. Eventually, you will be able to lightly hold the ear and lay it down in order to accommodate the bridle.

A little while after that, you will be able to gently circle the ear a bit from the base. Many horses really develop a love for this move and circling the ear in this way has been documented to bring a horse out of shock and to relax a horse. Remember to always remain sensitive to your horse’s responses to determine his/her comfort level. If the horse keeps tossing his head go back to where the horse was comfortable and peaceful and begin the process again, with more patience. Be kind and compassionate always, your thoughtfulness will be rewarded. Remember that this is a process of healing and will take some time, the length of which will be determined by the horse.

Thank you for your question. I hope I have been able to help.

Aloha, Franklin Levinson

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