Head Tossing: Causes & Solutions

Head Tossing can be one of the most frustrating habits a horse can have. To start, it’s just plain annoying! One minute your horse is working nice and forward and then BAM the head comes flying up and all the work you’ve done is gone and you’re back to square one. But mostly, it’s frustrating because it’s generally a sign that your horse is in pain and there are so many potential causes. 


What can cause head tossing in horses:

  • Teeth problems
  • Back pain
  • Saddle issues
  • Bitting issues
  • Rider error

For the sake of this post I’m going to talk about my experience with Coco.

For the first few months that I had Coco I didn’t ride her too much as she had a pretty nasty saddle sore from before I bought her. I mostly kept her to lunge work and would only ride once or twice every two weeks. About 2 months into owning Coco she started head tossing. I quickly realised that any time I picked up the contact she would throw her head in the air so first thing I did was book the dentist. I had a 2 week wait for the dentist to come out so I decided not to ride her for those 2 weeks as she seemed so uncomfortable.

The dentist did her check and found that Coco had a sharp tooth which was cutting her gums. After some work from the dentist and a few days off I hopped up and the head tossing had stopped! Once Coco’s saddle sore was all healed up I started schooling her properly. Within a few weeks her head tossing had started back again. It was just as bad as the first time, if not worse. So once again, I called the dentist out and she found that Coco had lost some baby teeth and had some more sharp teeth which were causing her some pain. We fixed her up, I gave her a few days off, hopped up, picked up the contact and her head tossing had stopped…but only for the first 10 minutes of our riding session. Now it seemed Coco would start throwing her head when she was fed up and wanted to stop working. To be sure, I ran through the list above I had a quick check of her back, her saddle was fine, I ride her in a rubber snaffle that fits perfectly so the last thing to do was to get a professionals opinion. So I decided it was time to start lessons.

How to Break the Head Tossing habit:

Once you’re confident your horse isn’t head tossing out of pain there are a few things you can try to break the habit. Below are some different methods I was given to try during lessons with qualified instructors.

  1. Give her a loose rein and let her relax

The first thing I tried was giving Coco a loose rein to let her relax. The intention was to show her that I wasn’t asking her to work on the bit or to move a certain way. Unfortunately with Coco being a spooky and speedy youngster this just meant that I had minimal control and she had free rein to do whatever she wanted. Not really what I was going for.


  1. Ask her to move forward into the contact while keeping a long rein

Next I tried encouraging Coco into the contact on a long rein by keeping a bend in the knee and squeezing on every stride. This also did not work.

  1. Correction when she head tosses

The last thing to try was correcting the behaviour. There were two different ways of correcting the behaviour the first was giving her a smack on the shoulder every time she tossed her head but that just seemed to wind her up and make her more anxious. The last thing I tried was giving her a quick chug on the inside rein every time the head went into the air. As soon as she softened in the contact I would give with the inside rein to reward her for keeping her head still. Out of everything I tried, this was the only thing that worked.

Head Tossing_2

After one week of doing this, Coco had completely stopped her head tossing in trot. She did it in canter for a few more weeks but eventually it dwindled out. I have come to realise that Coco is more comfortable being held in a constant contact. She wants to feel that you’re there with her and this is why the first two methods didn’t work. Giving her the lighter contact seemed to make her more anxious whereas when I have a steady contact I can hold her together. Coco now works comfortably and happily in a positive contact and she only starts head tossing when she’s jumping or when she’s really wound up and looking to get her own way..while it has become a lot more manageable, I put this down to her being a youngster so eventually she’ll work out of this habit.

Have you ever had to deal with a head tosser? What did you try to fix it? Let me know in the comments!


Keeping them Busy & Getting the Stride Right ~ Lessons with Coco

(I didn’t get any pictures or videos from this lesson so enjoy some old images I have of Coco which help to demonstrate what I’m talking about 🙂 )

Where we left off

In our last lesson, I was left with 3 things to work on with Coco; her head tossing, getting her to stretch down in walk and get rid of the bunny-hopping in her canter. We had made some headway in 2 out of 3 issues!

  • Her head tossing had completely stopped in walk and trot but was still an issue in canter
  • She rarely bunny-hopped anymore in the canter
  • We still have some work to do in getting her to stretch her neck down

So..on a rainy Friday evening, I kicked off my second private lesson with Sue Byrne. Being a proud mammy, I was looking forward to showing our progress since the last lesson.

We started off with getting the fizz out of Coco (as per usual) so I went for a few laps of the arena. Once that was done we started on some flatwork exercises…

Trotting Circles

I put Coco onto a circle at the C end of the arena. In trot, we worked on gradually bringing her in on a tighter circle and then gradually pushing her back out to a larger circle. This helps improve her balance and also gets her listening to my leg aids.

Trot on Circle

Standard Flatwork Exercises

We then moved on to doing a variation of different schooling exercises; large 20 metre circles, figures of 8, transitions and walking on a long rein. I found the long rein particularly useful as the aim was to encourage Coco to really stretch herself out over her back.

A Basic Dressage Test

Eventually we put it all together to make a basic dressage test. Sue called the movements out to me as I rode and we found that Coco really enjoyed herself! The variation of exercises kept her sharp and it meant that she couldn’t anticipate what I was going to ask her so she had to listen to me. We were then tasked with finding a dressage test which we would have to practice and then show to Sue in our next lesson.

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Part of the dressage test I’ve chosen to learn for our next lesson


Next we moved onto some trot poles which were set up in the middle of the arena. We trotted over them on each rein, changing rein each time she did these much better than last time! Sue then removed the middle pole to make it a canter exercise. When we started this, Coco’s head tossing came back into play as it always did with canter work. The exercise was then elevated to a jumping exercise…

Check out our blogpost about this exercise


Sue set up a jump using the current set up a small upright and placing poles either side of the jump. Coco always gets a bit fired up when it comes to jumping and her head tossing gets A LOT worse although we discovered that she was tossing her head when she was unbalanced so Sue advised I should pick her up and move her on which did help. Once we fixed this however, our next issue was me..I just couldn’t place her to the jump. 

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Getting the Stride Right

As I’ve mentioned before, this is something I have always struggled with. I have days where I can get it right nearly every time and days where I just can’t pick it. It’s incredibly frustrating and even more so when it’s a youngster I’m riding. They rely on us so much to get it right so I end up feeling really guilty when I mess it up. 

Anyway, to help with my problem Sue suggested the age-old solution of counting the strides out loud. Of course this is something I have done so much in the past but for some reason, when I count 1, 2, it completely throws me and I end up missing the stride completely. So instead of counting 1, 2, we counted 1, 2, 3, 4 (I’m not entirely sure what the difference is in my own head), and it worked a treat. As soon as I started doing this Sue could see the difference. As I counted, I was subconsciously able to keep Coco in a rhythm by slowing her down when I felt her get fast which meant I could read my stride and place her perfectly to the jump. And with that, we finished the lesson for the day. 

What to work on for next time:

  • No more laps of canter before a session
  • Learn & practice a preliminary dressage test nail that walk on the long-rein
  • Head Tossing in the canter

Despite the weather I had a good, productive lesson with plenty to keep both of us busy until our next lesson with Sue.

Make sure to keep an eye out for my blogpost on Coco’s 3rd Private Lesson…it’ll be an interesting one!!