Some of the basic groundwork exercises are “Touch Exercises”. Head work is a very important component of these exercises. These consist of different types of touch to the head, such as stroking, massaging and grooming.
When we refer to the head, we include the neck, the ears (inside and out), the fore head, the eyes, the nose (inside and out), the cheeks (sides and undersides), the mouth (inside, outside and chin).
Your horse’s head is super sensitive
The head is the only part of the body where all the senses are present. Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch can all be found on the head. Naturally the horse wants to protect these senses as well as possible, and therefore the head as well. This explains why horses are so sensitive on and around their head (and the same goes for us humans!).
Cherish the sensitivity
We shouldn’t try and stop our horses from being sensitive. That sensitivity is to be cherished! But on the other hand, you do want your horse to get used to being touched on the head.
Because of their natural sensitivity, some horses don’t let you touch their head. Or they do allow it, but they can’t relax. They are tense and can’t enjoy it. They evade your touch by moving their head up and down or to the side. Some horses walk away from you, or they might try and make it clear that you should stop by pushing against you or getting angry.
Possible causes of this are:
- The horse doesn’t trust you yet, so it doesn’t trust your touch either.
- You are tense yourself.
- Your body language (posture, movements, position in relation to the horse) is confusing or frightening to the horse.
- Your touch is too “technical” without sensitivity to the horse.
- The horse has suffered trauma to the head (hit on the head, had an ear twitch used on him, has had his head pulled hard with a halter and rope, etc.) and has become head shy.
- The wrong training/wrong head work has caused your horse to evade your touch instead of allowing it.
- The horse has pain in or on his head.
- The horse is oversensitive and still has to learn to trust when his head is touched.
The goal of head work is
- Helping the horse to gain trust when his head is touched or when there are movements around his head.
- Increased body awareness.
- Overcoming past traumas to the head.
- Improving head shyness.
- Preparing the horse for day-to-day care like brushing, washing, cleaning eyes, deworming, etc.
- Preparing the horse for treatments from the vet, dentist, masseuse, osteopath, etc.
- Preparing the horse for the basic groundwork exercise “yielding for physical aids”.
- Improving/solving mouthiness with mouth work (touching in and around mouth).
Head work is a moment to enjoy
Once your horse trusts touches to his head, headwork becomes a moment of connection between you and your horse. With time, he will be able to relax and enjoy the head work.
That’s why head work is helpful for nervousness and lack of focus
As soon as your horse is used to and enjoys head work, you can help him relax when he becomes nervous. A calm horse can focus better. So if your horse has difficulty focussing during training, it can help to sometimes bring head work into training. His attention and focus will improve and he will find it easier to learn.
Touching with the lead rope, the brush, the whip, … is part of head work
When head work with your hands is going well, you can do it with a lead rope, a brush, a whip, a sponge, a towel, etc. With your chosen object, you touch, stroke, or massage the head, thus desensitizing your horse to something touching his head.
Skittish horses will benefit greatly from this. Daily care and medical treatments will be easier because the horse is not anxious about having his head touched with hands or objects.
As you can see, head work is truly an indispensable part of horse training because it can prevent a lot problems and stress.