A comment that’s often seen on dressage score sheets is “head tilting.” If your horse tends to tilt his head, you will be marked down in a test situation each time that he does it. So, what causes the evasion in the first place, and how can you correct the fault?
In this article, we look at why your horse may be tilting his head, and we give you some top tips on how you can cure the habit.
What is head tilting?
Head tilting is commonly seen in dressage horses, usually when on a circle or making a turn. Some horses tilt their head when performing lateral movements or making a downward transition.
When a horse tilts his head, he usually tips his nose to the outside with his inside ear dropping lower, causing his head to tip over to one side, or tilt.
Whichever is the side to which your horse tips his nose, that’s the problem side.
For example, if your horse tips his nose to the left when you’re riding on the left rein, there is most likely an issue with the left contact, or the horse may be experiencing some physical discomfort on his left side.
Is your horse tilting his head?
Some riders mistake head tilting for flexion. So, how do you tell if your horse is tilting?
Start by watching the horse moving toward you. His ears and eyes should remain parallel with the ground. If the horse has his nose pointing to the outside and his inside ear is lower, he is most likely tilting.
When the horse turns his head to the side, he should not lead with his jaw or nose.
Try this test yourself to get a clearer understanding of what we mean:
- Turn your head to the left with your chin leading. Notice how your right ear drops down, and your spine is pushed out of alignment. That’s a head tilt!
- Turn your head to the left again, this time keeping your chin parallel to the ground. This will fell more comfortable and you’ll feel less tension in your neck. It’s the same for your horse.
It’s much easier to see a head tilt from the ground than it is to detect it from the saddle. So, if you’re still struggling to identify if your horse is tilting his head or not, you can either video yourself riding and/or ask your trainer to watch.
What causes head tilting?
There are several different reasons why a horse tilts his head.
Tilting can sometimes be indicative of some sort of physical problems, such as discomfort in the neck, teeth, or head. So, your first job is to make sure that your horse is not in pain by asking an equine dentist, physio, and your vet to check the horse over.
Physiological causes of tilting include:
- Vestibular disease, such as infection
- West Nile Virus (WNV)
- Neurological disorders
- Spinal subluxation
- Dislocation or another injury
- Dental issues
- Mouth or tongue lacerations or abscesses
A bit or badly adjusted noseband that is causing discomfort in the horse’s mouth can cause head tilting, so remember to check that the horse’s tack fits correctly too.
To determine if the cause of the horse’s head tilt is physical, observe the horse while he is in his stable at rest, when he’s eating, and when he is turned out. Usually, if physical discomfort is the root cause of the problem, the horse will continue to tilt or shake his head even when he’s not being ridden.
A common cause of head tilt is the rider’s overuse of one rein. That impacts on the horse’s head position, as well as affecting the animal’s overall balance and paces.
If the head is tilting, the horse won’t be able to travel straight. Most likely, his stride will shorten, and he will lose engagement and fall onto his forehand.
Problems with straightness, and therefore suppleness to the bend, usually cause the horse’s hindquarters to swing out and his hind legs to cross over when he negotiates a turn or small circle.
Often the issue arises because the rider is trying to establish a connection to the outside rein so that the horse’s energy travels from behind, through the back and neck, into the contact. Sometimes, the rider will use too much hand, creating a false inside flexion in the horse’s neck, which in turn rotates and twists the spine, especially at the poll.
As a consequence, the horse is heavier on one shoulder, overbent in his neck, and develops a head tilt.
The problem can be corrected by riding the horse forward and keeping him straight into an even contact. If the contact feels heavy on one side, the rider must proactively ease and relax her hand on that side, while taking up a slightly stronger supportive contact on the other rein.
Try this exercise to correct the problem:
- Ride a 20-meter circle in trot.
- On the open part of the circle, ride a transition to walk, and then leg-yield away from your inside leg.
- When the horse connects to your outside rein, pick up the trot again, and soften the inside rein.
Your horse should become steadier in your outside rein, and you should be able to turn right and left with equal ease, changing the horse from one outside rein to the other without resistance. You will find it easier to keep the horse straight, and the head tilt should disappear.
Stiff at the poll?
Some horses can be stiff through the poll, again due to poor training methods or sometimes because of tension.
Here’s a useful exercise to make the horse more supple through the poll, which can sometimes help to correct head tilting.
- Begin by halting on the track so that the horse’s body is absolutely straight and parallel from nose to tail.
- Keep the horse’s neck parallel to the fence. Remember that the horse can bend his neck and still stay firmly locked at the poll!
- Use an indirect rein aid to move the horse’s face an inch or so to the left and then to the right so that you can just see his inside or outside eye and or nostril.
- To use an indirect rein, close your fingers gently around the reins. Turn your wrist smoothly as though you were unlocking a door. Throughout the movement, your hands should remain side-by-side, and your fingernails will be on top.
- Don’t vibrate the reins. That will only flex the jaw and tighten the angle at the throatlatch.
- Once you’ve turned your wrist, return your hand to its starting position.
- Don’t cross your hand over the horse’s withers, and remember to maintain the opposite rein contact so that the horse doesn’t bend his neck. Check that you are doing the exercise properly by looking to see if the horse’s neck is still parallel to the fence.
You can check to see whether the exercise is working by giving one hand forward toward the horse’s mouth, allowing a small loop to form in the rein as you do so. The horse should stay flexed in that direction.
For example, flex the horse to the right, and then give him the right rein. The horse should stay flexed to the right without your hand holding him there.
Once you’ve achieved that in halt, try the same exercise in the walk, and then in trot. When you’ve suppled the horse’s poll in walk and trot, ride the exercise in canter.
As with any schooling exercise, if you encounter problems in one pace, go back to a gait in which you managed to carry out the exercise successfully and start again.
Head tilting is a common fault that is seen in dressage tests.
The problem can be caused by a physical issue, in which case intervention by an appropriate professional is in order. However, more usually, a horse tilts his head to avoid some problem that has been created by his rider, and a good trainer should be able to help you identify and correct what you’re doing wrong.
If you have any other questions or tips that you would like to share, please do so in the comments box below.