A Lesson in Head Tossing and Humility
Like most amateur riders, I work under a fairly
tight budget; and because of it, I took my time in
choosing my second horse. After a yearlong search I
settled on a flashy three-year-old which I named
Katmandu, and he was well worth the wait. At 16
hands, big boned, and with three gaits to drool
over, Kat was everything I had hoped he would be.
Kat quickly settled into work, and I started
dreaming of finally having two horses to compete.
That dream was cut short when my main competition
horse pulled up lame and had to be pastured for a
year. Suddenly my plans to just 'play' with Kat were
put aside and now, instead of being the backup, Kat
was my new starter.
At first, all went well. Then one day while on a
hack, almost as an afterthought, he tossed his head.
At first I didn't think much of it, it was more like
a bug had flown up his nose than a act of
disobedience. However, by the fifteenth toss, I
began to think otherwise. Figuring that he was just
bored and being evasive, I put him on the bit and
put my leg on him, which seemed to work as we
finished the hack in peace. Then, the next day, the
head tossing began again.
Having had our hack of the prior day ruined, I
quickly made up my mind that I wasn't going to put
up with any more disobedience, evasiveness and head
tossing. We went back to the barn, and he went into
a set of draw reins. Satisfied that I was now able
to win the battle, we went to work.
After an hour of what can only be called 'a
spirited altercation,' I dismounted dejected and
dripping in sweat. Something was terribly wrong with
Kat. I called my coach and arranged a lesson for the
Under a light rain, my ever-sympathetic trainer
listened patiently to my tale of woe, and then began
the lesson. Much to my chagrin, Kat performed
flawlessly, not a head fling to be seen.
"Mike," she said, "I don't see any
head tossing ... have you fallen off the wagon
again? Are you having the DT's?" This joking
became the springboard for a serious discussion
about alternative causes of head tossing other than
disobedience, specifically pain from wolf teeth or
muscle spasms or allergies. Based upon her
experience and knowledge of Kat, she ruled out
disobedience and put her money on allergies. She
noted that Kat had tossed his head the day before,
while on this day, with a light drizzle, he was
quiet. Maybe it was the pollen. We decided to try a
While my trainer may have been right, the very
idea of running around on a horse wearing pantyhose
on his nose was too much for me. Since Kat had only
tossed his head while being ridden, but not while
turned out, I decided that it stemmed from either
disobedience or pain.
Over the following weeks, as spring blossomed in
all its glory, Kat's head tossing increased, and I
was completely absorbed in trying to resolve it. By
this time, I was so dependent on the draw reins to
keep him under some semblance of control that I
began to worry about what would happen when and if I
ever got him into a dressage ring.
My worst fears were realized at the first event
of the season when Kat flung his head throughout the
dressage test, and continued to fling throughout
each phase, almost flipping us over a fence. Again,
I returned to my trainer, who patiently repeated her
theory that Kat was reacting to allergies, and
repeated her suggestion of nylons. Pig headed as I
am, however, I ignored her advice and decided Kat
must be reacting to some sort of pain.
I was vindicated by the discovery of an
un-erupted wolf tooth. The taste of my victory was
soon soured when, after the removal of the tooth,
Kat quickly resumed tossing his head. Then, the
discovery of a horribly knotted neck muscle, the
result of a month in draw reins, offered yet another
hope of vindication. After $300 bucks and a masseuse
named Helga, Kat's neck felt so good that he could
fling his head even higher!
So, like any good engineer, I set up a
computerized data base to track his head tossing. I
recorded everything from the weather conditions and
the hardness of the ground to the number of flies
splattered on my car windshield. I experimented with
variables, such as the time of day I rode, the
movements I asked for, my saddles, and the bits
used. I even contacted a psychic animal hot line,
all to no avail. He continued to toss, fling, fling,
My vet, who was closely following the situation,
mused that Kat might be suffering from an attention
deficit disorder and recommend trying some
supplements. Of course, I took his suggestion a step
farther and started top dressing his feed with the
Ritalin that my wife had been slipping into my
coffee for the past year. The Ritalin did have an
immediate affect on Kat -- now he flung his head in
Finally, at wit's end, I returned, hat in hand,
to my trainer and dejectedly watched as she placed
one of her nylons over his snout. Kat snorted loudly
at the indignity of his fine and noble profile
swathed in pantyhose, yet, for the first time in
months, he remained still. At the conclusion of the
head toss-free lesson, she somehow resisted saying
"I told you so." Nevertheless, she had
pegged it right, and she had had it pegged right
from the beginning.
She figured Kat has a highly sensitive nose, and
his head tossing was in reaction to grains of dust
or small insects hitting his nose. The nylon, by
pressing down equally all around his nose, creates a
greater constant pressure that masks the minor
impact of any bug or dust particle. However, the
sight of the pantyhose expanding and deflating from
his moist breathing was a tad kinky. This was
resolved by cutting the nylon off about 4 inches
below his nose, but not before poor Kat was
ridiculed by all.
The next day, armed with a solution, I marched in
to the local drug store to stock up on nylons. I had
no idea that they came in different sizes, textures
or colors. I always thought nylons were nylons and
one size fit all. A little red faced, I asked the
clerk for help:
"How big is your wife?"
"Um ... they're not for my wife"
"O.K., how big is your girlfriend?"
"Um, no ... they're not for a
After a long, uneasy pause, she said, "Oh, I
understand. I think an A-Petite will fit you."
"No. You don't understand; they are for my
horse." I tried to explain why a horse would
need nylons, but the more detailed I got, the more
perplexed she looked. Finally, feeling like a
complete fool, I said, "Just give me the nylons
that fat ladies wear." With this, the clerk
pointed to 'Queen size' nylons. Grabbing an armful,
I turned and came face to face with all the store
customers who had gathered around to listen to my
conversation, all of them 'Queen sized' ladies.
accomplished, even if not with grace, Kat's head
tossing quickly became a thing of the past, at least
during schooling. Competitions still posed a bit of
a dilemma. As I warmed up at the next competition,
people gawked at Kat's nylon, but his head stayed
quiet and I rode on, mortified. Just before entering
the dressage ring, my wife removed the nylon. Voila!
As predicted, the feeling created by the nylon
apparently lasts for several minutes after it is
taken off -- long enough, thankfully, for a dressage
test, a cross country run, or a stadium round.
I've been riding with a nylon over Kat's nose for
several months now and his head tossing has become
only a bad memory. Unfortunately, I had one hell of
a price to pay for the months of using a draw reins
and other artificial aids. If only I had
listened to my trainer from the start . . .
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman