The process to fix head tossing is to first discover why the horse feels the need to toss his head.

Start by ruling out any physical causes with a vet and equine dentist. Though this can definitely be a factor, it’s typically not the most common cause of head tossing. Usually it’s because of a disconnect with the rider and poor rein management.

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Get The Feet

In many cases, a horse tosses his head to evade or find relief from pressure. The solution is to make sure the reins are connected to the feet. In other words, when the horse feels rein pressure, he understands that as a signal to do something with his feet. And doing something with his feet causes the rein pressure to go away.

Clinic Example

At our clinics, a rider may come in on day one with a horse that tosses his head. I tell them to ignore the head and see what happens. And then we work on better rein management and getting more refined control of the horse’s feet. Typically, before we even break for lunch on the first day, the head tossing has disappeared.

Habitual Head Tossing

If a horse has gotten in the habit of head tossing, one solution is to make doing that become difficult. Position your hands forward, wide, and low with only 2 inches of slack in each rein as you ride around. Keep your arms stiff and your wrists locked. Now when the horse throws his head, he will run into a brick wall. He will run into his OWN pressure. The horse will realize that the way to not run into pressure is to not toss his head.

Head Tossing When Backing

Suppose your horse tosses his head when he is asked to back up. That is typically because the rider’s timing is off. Sit down in your seat, swing in smoothly with back pressure on the reins, hold your pressure firm and steady and wait for a change. When the horse’s weight tips back, or better yet if he moves a foot, immediately release all rein pressure. The goal is to teach him that the way off the pressure is not to toss his head, but to move his feet backwards. Then build on that.

Read Backing Your Horse.

Pushy Head Tossers

Head tossers are often in the category of a ‘pushy’ horse that braces against the bit or hackamore. The reason that horses get pushy is always linked to bad timing.

The horse may initially try to yield to rein pressure and the rider fails to provide any relief. Horses learn more from the release of the pressure than they do from the pressure itself. If a horse is not given that release when he yields, he will try random things, like tossing his head.

When you practice proper rein management (and you should) work on improving the timing of your release. See if you can feel what the horse is doing. Pay attention to how the reins feel when they barely contact the horse’s face. Practice knowing when each of the horse’s feet take a step as you ride around. Become more aware of all that’s going on. When you’re riding a horse, there is always something happening. 

One of the best examples of poor rein management would be someone riding around with constant pressure on the reins. If a horse is ridden with a tight rein all the time, there is no room to increase the pressure when needed. Even with a young colt, you should never hang on his face. Have just a little slack so that a slight movement of your hands would create light contact. 

Constant pressure on the reins forces the horse to look for relief. Head tossing is one way they find it.

Watch my Rein Management video.

A Different Path

Another technique to try is to give the horse something to do instead of tossing his head. Have a spanker or the end of a split rein ready. When the horse BEGINS to toss his head, use the spanker to tap his hip and  jump him into trot. Then again offer him the good deal of walking along without tossing his head.

Headgear Experiment 

To find out if the horse’s headgear is causing an issue, ride the horse in a rope halter. If the type of bit you were using is a major cause of the head tossing, you will see a marked difference when riding in the halter.

Watch this detailed video about Headgear.

Head Tossing Is Not Normal

Head tossing is not normal behavior. If you look at how a horse travels without a rider, that is how he should also travel with a rider on his back. If the human can learn to clearly present an idea, and then get out of the way while the horse executes that idea, head tossing will never enter the picture.

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Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.