What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Head Tossing or Shaking, while Ridden


This is an inappropriate and sometimes dangerous behavior that should be resolved. It is a very different behavior than head shaking without the presence of tack and a rider.

Horses are often taught to shake, toss or bob their heads in the same way that they are taught to engage in many other unwanted behaviors. They perceive the behavior to be easier and more rewarding than alternative (desirable) behaviors. In many cases, there is a subtle release unknowingly being given to the horse when they engage in the behavior. If this can be reversed consistently, the behavior will disappear or change.

Like many other undesirable behaviors, head shaking can also be a response to pain or discomfort. A variety of physical problems may cause a horse to engage in this behavior including mouth problems (irritating wolf tooth, mouth wound, a snaffle that pinches the corner of the mouth), ill-fitting tack, or lameness due to undiagnosed injury.

  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If you want to rule out any physical issue being a factor in the behavior.
    • If this problem seems severe and has come on suddenly.
  • Code Yellow

    Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment
    • If you want to rule out any physical issue being a factor in the behavior.
    • If you consider this a chronic and relatively mild problem that is not changing rapidly.

your role


What To Do

Assess the horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to the back, jaw, throat and neck. Do you notice swelling or sensitivity here? Assess as well as you can for lameness. Check the corners of the mouth for sores. Assess fit of bridle, bit and saddle.

What Not To Do

Do not use gadgets to solve this problem. They are never the solution. Running and standing martingales become a crutch and do not solve the problem.

your vet's role

Your vet can help you determine whether this behavior is a result of physical pain. They may want to assess your tack and watch the behavior with you riding the horse. They will check the mouth and perform a general physical exam. If a physical cause is ruled out, look to yourself, your own riding technique and others who have handled your horse as both the cause of the problem and the solution. Engage a trainer who knows how to stop this behavior. Learn why it developed, and avoid or correct the same stimuli in the future.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Have you changed tack or type or degree of work lately?
  • Do saddle fit, girth and tack look OK?
  • How long have you been riding the horse?
  • When did you first notice this behavior?
  • Do you notice the behavior at all when the horse is not being ridden?
  • Have you changed tack or technique?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • Has your horse had a dental exam performed by a vet or dental tech working with a vet?
  • Did you attempt to look in the horse's mouth?
  • What did you see when you looked in the horse's mouth?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
more diagnoses

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP