Sophie Pickard Animal Therapy

North Yorkshire

Bodywork for head shy horses

Photo by kind permission of Jacqueline Sheedy

Can bodywork improve issues such as head shyness?

After working with several head shy horses, and finding similarities in the musculature of their poll, during the summer of 2019 I carried out a study to investigate pain and tension in the muscles of the poll and identify if there was a link between poll muscle tension and head shy behaviours. The horses I worked with all displayed one or more behaviours associated with being head shy such as; avoiding touch around their head or ears, being difficult to bridle or bit, refusing to be clipped around the head, upper neck and poll and resentment of grooming, pulling or plaiting the mane and forelock.


100% of owners reported their horse was more comfortable after a bodywork session


Pain and head shy

Many owners attributed historical bad experiences as a cause of their horses head shy behaviours.  

Certainly bad experiences, previous injuries and fear can cause a phobia like this to develop but the physical effects of these bad experiences can be long lasting.

Whilst working on these head shy horses I identified several areas around the poll and upper neck which were sore, tight and tense in nearly every one of these horses. 

Could the issues in these muscles contribute to the head shy behaviours? It would seem so......

The Facts

The muscles of the poll and upper neck

There are so many small muscles in the poll, which all contribute in some way to the movement of the head and or neck. 

.The area which appears to be most reactive amongst the head shy horses was the trigger point of the rectus capitis dorsalis major and minor muscles (Major and minor dorsal head muscles)

.The major dorsal head muscle links the tip of the skull (poll) to the 2nd veterbrae in the neck  This muscle extends the head

.The minor dorsal head muscle is a very small and relatively weak muscle but provides assistance to the major dorsal head in extension of the head. 

Investigating the muscles of Pegaso's poll in Spain. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Sheedy.

Why is it important to address these muscles?

Residual tension in these muscles probably feels like a never ending headache for our horses.....

and because head position is fundamental for balance, vision, correct jaw alignment as well as producing a nice outline in dressage or going clear around big courses, tightness in these muscles can have huge implications.

Though these particular muscles are small, they 'merge' with several of the larger neck muscles as well as the nuchal ligament which continues all the way down the length of the neck and merges in to the supraspinous ligament which runs the length of the back.

In effect...these tiny muscles at the very tip of the poll can influence movement, tightness and restrictions as far away as the hindquarters.

Bridle fit and design can increase tension and discomfort in the muscles of the poll

How would a horse show tightness in this area?

 . Demonstrating aversion to their bridles, grooming and touch over the poll area.

.Ridden signs of tightness or spasm in the poll muscles may include:-- poking the nose and reluctance to 'come onto the bit' or poll flexion.

.For hunters or jumpers, tightness in the poll may cause them to refuse fences as they attempt to avoid the extension of the poll created by the landing phase of jumping. When the muscles are very tight here the horse is unable to extend his head and neck to the extent required to maintain balance on landing.

100% of the horses had tension in one or more muscles in their poll area, most commonly the Rectus capitis Dorsalis Major and Minor

Overall, after the bodywork therapy, the head shy horses were reported to tolerate sprays around the face better, as well as clipping, grooming, trimming and pulling.

The red mark illustrates the location of the rectus capitis dorsalis minor whilst the burgundy represents the rectus capitis dorsalis major. The two muscles work together to extend the head.

60% of horses had tension in their temporomandibular joint

The green circle identifies the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The TMJ is the part of the skull where the mandible meets the temporal bone. It is a very tight joint, but fundamental in everyday activities of the horse, particularly eating. It is reinforced by tendons, ligaments and supported by an intricate array of muscles. It is common for horses to hold tension here, which can be referred to other area of the body

80% of horses had tension in their obliquus capitis caudalis

The purple area marks the location of the obliquus capitis caudalis

2/3rds of owners reported that the improvement in head shy behaviours lasted right up until the follow up appointment 4-6 weeks later.


Thank you to all the participants who worked with me to help their horses. It was wonderful to be able to work with you all and to be able to contribute to the wellbeing of your horses. They have all helped to verify the profound effect that bodywork can have on pain related conditions.

Addressing Luna's poll in Spain. Image courtesy of Jacqueline Sheedy

Is your horse head shy?

Or are they struggling with another issue which you think may be pain related?

Bodywork therapy is a gentle, holistic approach which can address your horses musculoskeletal system to improve their comfort, performance and physical health.

Contact me to discuss

Appointments available from January 2020. 

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Flies and other insects can be a real nuisance. But what effect do they have on our horses? No exposed flesh is safe with such a population of infection transmitting insects, and the bite of a horse fly can be extremely painful. In fact, my horse Elfine was once bitten by something right on a tigger point of her biceps brachii muscle, causing so much pain that her movement was inhibited. She went lame for 2 days.

They are also extremely annoying. For us, this means a lot of hand waving to swat them away, but for our horses, it can mean huge increases of muscular contractions whilst they twitch to remove them. Beneath the skin of the ventral abdomen of the horse is a thin sheet of muscle called the panniculus carnosus. The panniculus carnosus has muscle fibres which extend into the skin creating that generalised twitch response noticable when flies land anywhere on their under carriage. Of course, most of the muscles elsewhere on the horse's body can respond with a localised twitch response but the panniculus is especially sensitive. The muscle itself actually extends into the area where we position the girth of the saddle but also where we use our legs.

This muscle is sensitive in all horses, you only have to place a finger on your horse's belly to demonstrate this, but in some horses can be hyper sensitive and cause 'girthiness' issues and reluctance to tack up.

If your horse suddenly resents the girth being placed or touching in this area it is definitely worth investigating potential causes. 

- check tack fit, particularly saddle fit and saddle length, a saddle which has long flaps may rub or irritate your horse

- check girth fit and placement. Often tacking up issues are not just due to saddle fit and discomfort, the girth is a huge factor. Look at the width of your girth, does it trap skin folds? does it pinch your horse's elbows? or is it too narrow, placing a lot of pressure over a smaller area? What material is it made of? Cold hard leather? friction inducing webbing? 

- Do what you can to remove irritants and reduce sensitivity. Groom your horse regularly so they can learn to enjoy having their body touched, it helps build a great bond with your horse and helps you to learn what is normal for them. Use a good brand of fly repellant and provide plenty of shade/escape from flies.

The Panniculus carnosus in action