Ear-shy horses are man-made according to Dr. Bonnie Beaver (Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, Texas A&M). The horse is remembering a bad experience and doesn’t trust anyone to touch his ears.
“To keep a horse from becoming head-shy or ear-shy, move slowly around the head. If you have to touch his ears, start and end in a positive way. Even if bad things happen in the middle (such as treating a medical problem), when you are finished go back to something that’s positive and not upsetting to the horse,” she explains.
Credit: Tyler Stockton
This may mean stroking the forehead, massaging the neck or face—something the horse enjoys. He won’t totally forget the bad thing, but he won’t associate ear handling with a bad experience, thinking that every time a person comes close to the ears something bad will happen.
Any work you’ve done toward easing his fears is lost if you have to fight with him; you have to start all over again. “It’s always harder the next time. The horse gets a fixed idea that it’s a bad thing, and he refuses to cooperate.”
Avoid touching the ears until you can gradually get him over his fear. For a while, you may have to put a bridle on without touching his ears. Some bridles can be unbuckled on the side and you can put the headstall around behind the ears.
“To work on his phobia, start by just rubbing the neck. Move your hand closer to the ear and then back again, then a little closer to the ear, and back. Gradually keep working up toward the ear,” says Beaver.
Do it many times a day. “Eventually you’ll get your hand right up behind the ear and then retreat, repeating this several times,” says Beaver. Finally, the horse will realize you are not hurting him when you briefly touch his ear.
“He may become tense as you touch the ear, but you want him to relax again. So you never end the session when he’s tense. Quit when he is totally relaxed, even if this means stroking the neck at a safe distance from the ear,” she explains.
Then the horse won’t remember it as a tense situation. Repeat this lesson, several times a day. “Eventually you can touch the ear and back right off again, and keep doing this. Advance and retreat—about 3 to 5 times, then try a little closer to the ear and repeat that 3 to 5 times,” she says. The horse becomes familiar with and comfortable with the repetitions and realizes he’s not being hurt.
“Some horses take longer, because people have inadvertently taught them that if they keep resisting, eventually the person will quit trying to touch the ears. The horse has always won—because the person gives up. So go slowly, and always in a relaxed mode,” says Beaver.
Do these re-training sessions more than once a day. Add it to your daily grooming routine, and any other time you handle the horse. “He’ll get over his fear much faster if you do it often,” she says.
“For the next session, don’t start where you left off the last time. Start a little bit before that (lower on the neck) and gradually work up again,” says Beaver. You want the horse to be completely relaxed as you start, so he won’t be tense, fearful or suspicious.
Horses can become ear-shy/head-shy for many reasons. A phobia may have started when the ears were handled roughly during bridling, or the horse needed medication for an ear problem, and the frustrated owner had to fight with the horse to get the job accomplished. Perhaps the horse wouldn’t stand still and the person became angry and hit the horse.
“If it’s a horse you bought, you may never know the cause. Sometimes you’ll get a horse that had a bad experience and gotten over it, but some little thing triggers the memory and now the horse is being ear-shy again,” she says.
“Any time you work with a horse, make sure he’s comfortable and trusts you. Start by rubbing the neck or forehead, working toward the ear. Even if you are clipping the ear, this is how you start. If it’s something new he hasn’t experienced before, go slowly and take baby steps to get there, so he learns you won’t hurt him,” she explains.
Think of it as training, and that you need to do it in small increments, rather than just assuming he will tolerate it or already know what you want to do.