When I first started riding this horse I noticed that on the walk home on hacks he would throw his head around. Not in a twitchy way, but throwing his whole neck around.
Initially I thought it might be because the horse was tired, or that I had him in a long and low frame and, with his long neck, his muscles were fatigued.
But the behaviour continued in walking, some days worse than others, and I couldn’t put my finger on the cause. But as it didn’t improve on time I could cross fatigue off my list of causes.
I ran through my checklist
- Do his teeth need doing?
- Has his back been checked recently?
- Is his tack ok? Has it changed recently?
Everything was fine until I thought about his tack.
The horse has a small head for his size, but has comparatively big ears. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have donkey sized ears, but they are horse sized ears on a delicate head.
He wears an ear bonnet, and one day as I tacked him up I realised that the bridle was quite tight around the base of his ears when he was also wearing his bonnet. He also had more sweat around the base of his ears after exercise. After discussing with his owner we decided to see how he behaved in walk without the bonnet to see if there was a pressure problem there.
He seemed to be more comfortable and stiller in his head and neck so we thought about ways to make him even more comfortable and reduce the pressure even further. I checked the rest of his bridle and the bit is the correct height in his mouth, and the grackle is not done up tight.
The simplest change to his bridle was to replace his plain headpiece with a cutaway design to free up the base of his ears. If the bridle still seems snug to his ears then perhaps using a full size browband instead of a cob size will stop the headpiece being encouraged forwards.
I hope that once the new bridle moulds to his shape he will stop tossing his head, but we will see next week!
Interestingly the same subject came up at the riding club committee meeting. One lady said that her horse is so sensitive around his head he needs a sheepskin pad under his noseband, which cannot be tight, and has a cutaway headpiece. Someone else there is looking to try a Micklem bridle on their horse for similar reasons. The penny also dropped for me when someone commented that “there’s a link between horses scratching their heads after being exercised and nerve pain”. The horse I ride always rubs his nose on his foreleg after I ride. However he’s also usually very sweaty so I don’t know the ratio of causative factors.
I think in recent years equestrians have become more aware, as science develops, of the effect of tack on facial nerves. Reading the signs of discomfort in the horse and then choosing from the wide range of styles, sizes, designs that are available nowadays will only help the horse’s performance – it’s just a shame they can’t tell us where the pressure is because the mystery would be so much easier to solve!