By ‘bitting boffin’ Lucy Nicholas
If your horse is head shaking during ridden work, it is firstly essential to distinguish whether the head shaking is behavioural due to issues like discomfort from the tack or the bit, or whether your horse is suffering with a sinus or tooth issue, or a serious neurological problem. If after a visit from your veterinarian they are unable to detect signs of major damage to the sensory nerves or a sinus problem, it may well provide you horse the comfort they require to alter the tack or the bit you use. Obviously head shaking is a complex issue with many causes and associated factors, but for the purposes of this article, we are solely looking at issues that can be aided by addressing or changing tack and equipment.
For more subtle sensitivities, ergonomically designed bridles like the Micklem Bridle are ideal as they aim to avoid pressure on the sensitive facial nerves or the cheek bones and upper jaw molar teeth. With the Micklem, the bridle aims to prevent pressure, both to facial nerves and the sensitive tissues lining the cheeks inside the mouth, which may be caused by the fit of a cavesson or flash noseband and a conventional bridle.
The designers of the Micklem (pictured left) were inspired to create the bridle after looking in-depth at the skull of the horse. They discovered that the top jaw is considerably wider than the lower jaw, and that the inside of the cheeks are therefore often squashed and bruised between the outer edge of the upper jaw teeth and the flash noseband pressing inwards. The Micklem bridle provides a great solution for the many horses that resist working on the bit due to discomfort and sensitivity. The style may suit equines who dislike tongue pressure, and try and get their tongue over the bit too!
Another reason for head shaking may be a sensitivity to pollen. If your horse’s head shaking behaviour is seasonal, it may be well worth investing in a nose net.
The nets may reduce the amount of pollen inhaled, will keep nuisance insects around the muzzle at bay, and in some horses, simply provide a different sensory experience that improves head shaking symptoms. An example is the Equilibrium net relief nose net, available from The Saddlery Shop, which is allowed under British Dressage and British Eventing rules. (See below).
Remember though, if the head shaking is actually a neurological issue, although pollen may be a trigger factor, it is not the main cause; the pollen is simply what creates the brain to respond with a pain response, i.e. a stimuli triggering one or more of the sensory nerve endings to send messages to the brain on how to respond. However, even in this instance, using nose nets, ear bonnets or fly veils can help to support horses suffering with the issue day-to-day. In regards to the bit, if your horse head shakes, it may be due to them having a large tongue, and literally not having enough room in their mouths for the bit you have chosen. Ask your equine dentist to assess the size of your horse’s tongue and palate, or try out a thinner bit, as this may be something the horse gets along better with.
If your equine has a low palate or is simply sensitive, they may headshake as an objection to the nutcracker action of a single jointed bit, such as the one with Fulmer cheeks pictured left. In this case a single jointed bit should be avoided, as this can jab the roof of the mouth, causing the horse to toss their head to try and escape the action. A double joint, ideally with a lozenge centre if the horse also has a large tongue, or gentle mullen mouth, could work.
“Please contact me, Lucy Nicholas, directly, if you have a specific bitting query.”
Lucy represents retailer The Saddlery Shop.