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 A Lesson in Head Tossing and Humility

Michael Hillman

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 following day.

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 nylon stocking.

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, toss.

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 slow motion.

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 girlfriend."
"Err, no."

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.

Mission 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 . . . 

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman