Horse and Pony Questions: Head Games

Why does my Thoroughbred tilt his head to the side when I'm riding?

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Young Rider Magazine LogoQ: I have an OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred). When he gets anxious, he grinds his teeth and tilts his head to one side. It’s extremely annoying when I’m trying to ride. Any suggestions?

A: Young Thoroughbreds are taught to carry a rider before they head to the racetrack. Unfortunately, most don’t get much training when it comes to responding to the bit. The jockey only has to turn the horse left and right and pull back on the reins to stop (more or less). As a result, quite a few OTTBs have strange mouth, tooth grinding, and headset quirks.

Horse tossing head under saddle

Tooth-grinding can sometimes signal that your horse is in pain. An example would be during an episode of colic. Under saddle, if your horse grinds his teeth, it usually means that your horse is feeling stressed or nervous, although you should have his teeth and saddle fit checked for any pain points to be sure.

If he checks out OK physically, think about your training sessions and your lessons. Be sure that you’re not asking too much too soon of your green horse. While he may never stop grinding his teeth completely, as he gains confidence and relaxes, it should happen less and less.

Fixing the head tilting problem requires even more patience on your part. When your horse tilts his head to one side, he’s avoiding correct contact with the bit. Don’t switch to a harsher bit.

Instead, use the mildest snaffle possible. One with a jointed mouthpiece, like a French link, or even a rubber snaffle might be good options. Both invite your horse to take hold of the bit. Then focus on trotting lots of large circles. Be very clear—yet soft—with your hands as you guide him. Press your inside leg against his ribs so he bends throughout his body on each turn. This should help with his teeth grinding and head tilt problem.

Don’t fight him if he continues to tilt his head. Remain calm and keep asking for a bend in the proper direction. Eventually, your OTTB will have his head on straight.


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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Cindy Hale
Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.

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