Some of the basic groundwork exercises are “Touch Exercises”. Head work is a very important component of these exercises. These consist of all the touches 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
It is the only part of the body where all the senses are present. Sight, hearing, smell, taste and sense of touch (though of course this is present throughout the body) are located on the head. Naturally the horse wants to protect these senses and therefore also the head as well as possible. This explains why they are so sensitive on and around their head (and the same goes for us humans!).
It’s important to cherish that sensitivity
In other words, don’t try and stop them 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 even getting angry.
Possible causes of this are:
- The horse doesn’t trust you yet, so it doesn’t trust your touches 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..) and has become head shy.
- The wrong training/wrong head work has caused your horse to evade your touches instead of allowing them.
- 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 is movements on or around his head.
- Increased body awareness.
- Overcoming past traumas to the head.
- Solving 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, masseur, osteopath etc.
- Preparing the horse for the basic groundwork exercise “yielding for physical aids”.
- Improving/solving mouthiness (with mouth work = all touches in and around the mouth).
But headwork is especially a moment to enjoy
Because once your horse trusts the touches to his head, it becomes a moment of connection between you and your horse. The horse will become very pleased to receive them from you and will visibly relax and clearly 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 the head work, you can help him relax when it becomes nervous. A calm horse can focus better. So if your horse has difficulty in focussing during training, it can help to sometimes bring head work into the training. His attention and focus will improve and therefore 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…. You touch the head with it, stroke or massage with it. Like this, the horse gets used to having these objects touching his head.
Skittish horses will benefit greatly from this. Daily care and medical treatments will go better because the horse is not anxious about having his head touched with hands or objects.
As you can read, head work is a really indispensable part of horse training because it prevents a lot of stress and problems!
For videos about head work and other groundwork exercises, check out the online Horsefulness Groundwork Programme.