Why Do Horses Nod Their Heads?

Horses nod their heads for a number of reasons.  In fact, their use of body language to communicate is quite well known.  You can read about it in our other article, Are Horses Intelligent?

What is it they are trying to tell us?  Are they agreeing with us?  Are they getting down to the beat of the stable radio while you muck out?  Read on to find out…

Horses nod their heads for many reasons

1.  To show excitement

2.  When they are in pain

3.  To draw attention to themselves in the hope they get a treat

4.  When they are eating to help them chew

5.  To show they are irritated or annoyed

6.  To release endorphins when they are bored

7.  When they have an ear infection

8.  When they have a tooth infection

9.  When the are being bothered by insects

10.  As learned behavioural issues or Vacuum Activity

11.  When walking it can be a sign they are lame

12.  When being ridden it can be a sign of dental problems

13. Poor saddle fit

14. Excess Energy

Horse Care:

Understanding why your horse nods can tell you a lot about its health and mental wellbeing

Catriona and Ella the clydesdale

It’s up to us to interpret what is going on and take action.

We have made a list of possible causes and diagnoses below to help you:

Reasons horses nod or bob their heads. Is it bad behaviour?

1. To show excitement:

Horses may nod their heads when they are excited or eager, such as when they see their owner coming to feed them or when they are about to go out for a ride. This can be a way for horses to express their enthusiasm and communicate their feelings to their handlers. This is perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about. Your horse is happy to see you!

2. When they are in pain:

Horses may nod their heads as a way to relieve discomfort or pain. This can be seen when they have an injury or an infection, such as an abscess or a toothache leading to pain in the horse’s mouth. It can also be a sign of lameness, particularly if the horse is favouring one leg.

For example, a horse could have a swollen tendon in one of its legs, which would cause it to experience pain and discomfort. The horse may try to alleviate this pain by nodding its head, as this movement can help to release endorphins and provide some temporary relief. The horse may also favour the injured leg and avoid putting weight on it, which can cause it to limp or have an uneven gait. This can be a sign of lameness, and the horse should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible to determine the cause of the injury and provide proper treatment.

Horse’s Head Tossing

Another example is an abscess in the hoof. An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms in the hoof as a result of an infection, usually caused by a foreign body such as a small stone or a piece of straw that has become lodged in the hoof. The horse may experience pain and discomfort in the affected hoof, and may nod its head as a way to alleviate this pain. The horse may also favour the affected hoof and avoid putting weight on it, which can cause it to limp or have an uneven gait. The abscess should be treated as soon as possible by a veterinarian or a farrier, and the horse should be kept in a clean, dry environment to prevent further infections.

3. To draw attention to themselves in the hope they get a treat: Be careful it doesn’t become bad behaviour

Some horses may nod their heads as a way to signal to their handlers that they are hungry or want a treat. This can be a learned behaviour that horses develop when they are rewarded for nodding their heads.

We have many horses in our stable who know exactly who dishes out the carrots, and as soon as they see them coming they poke their heads out and nod to say “Pick Me Carrot Lady!”

Rewarding bad behaviour can lead to behavioural issues in horses

Be careful with rewarding this as it can lead to learned bad behaviour such as biting and lunging at people or horses as the pass

Why do horses nod their heads when they eat?

Horses Grazing in Scotland

4. To help them chew

Horses have a natural instinct to chew their food, and once the food is in the horse’s mouth, they may nod their heads while they are eating to help them grind up their food and swallow it more easily.  We often see this when we give them something crunchy like a polo mint. Nodding could also indicate pain in the horse’s mouth.

5. To show they are irritated or annoyed:

Horse’s head tossing may be a sign of irritation or annoyance, such as when they are being bothered by flies or other insects. This can be a way for them to signal to their handlers that they are uncomfortable and need help getting rid of the insects.

What can horse owners do: Recommended Horse Care

Flies can be a major annoyance for horses, and they can cause a lot of discomfort and distress for the animal. In addition to head nodding, horses may also swish their tails, stomp their feet, and even roll on the ground in an attempt to get rid of the flies. To help keep flies away from horses, there are a few different things that horse owners can do:

  • Fly repellents: There are a variety of fly repellents available that can be applied to the horse’s coat, either as a spray or a lotion. These repellents often contain ingredients like citronella, eucalyptus, or cedar oil, which can help to repel flies and other insects.

  • Fly masks and sheets: Fly masks and sheets are designed to cover the horse’s face and body, providing protection from flies and other insects. These can be especially useful for horses that are particularly sensitive to flies or have a history of insect-borne diseases.

  • Fans: Placing fans in the horse’s stall or in their turnout area can help to keep flies away by creating a breeze. This can be especially effective in hot weather, when flies are more active.

  • Stable and pasture management: Keeping the horse’s stall and pasture clean and free of manure can help to reduce the population of flies and other insects. This can be achieved by regular cleaning, using fly predators, and using fly traps.

  • Keep the horse moving: Keeping the horse active, whether it’s by riding, training or turnout, can help to keep flies away as they prefer to land on stationary objects.

  • Avoiding sweet smelling feed: Flies are attracted to sweet smelling feed, so avoiding using sweet feed, fruits or sugary treats can reduce the flies attraction to the horse.

What do horses do when they are bored?

6. They nod to release endorphins when they are bored:

Horses toss their heads when they are bored or feeling stressed, as a way to release endorphins and alleviate their anxiety. This can be a learned behaviour that horses develop when they are kept in stall or with limited space or stimulation.

Behavioural Issues

Horses are intelligent, social animals that need proper care and attention to thrive. When they are kept in a stall or with limited space or stimulation, they may develop behaviour patterns such as nodding their heads as a way to cope with the boredom and stress. To stop this behaviour, the following steps can be taken:

  • Provide adequate space and turnout: Horses are meant to roam and graze, so providing them with adequate space and turnout is essential for their physical and mental well-being. This can be achieved by using a larger stall or paddock, or by providing them with access to a larger pasture.

  • Implement a varied and stimulating environment: To keep horses mentally stimulated, it is important to provide them with a varied and stimulating environment. This can include toys, obstacles, and other interactive items to play with, as well as varied and interesting feed.

  • Provide companionship: Horses are social animals, and they thrive on companionship. If possible, consider keeping horses in pairs or groups, as this can help to reduce boredom and stress.

  • Provide regular exercise and training: Regular exercise and training is essential for a horse’s physical and mental well-being. This can include riding, lunging, and ground work, as well as other activities such as jumping, dressage, and trail riding.

  • Provide regular grooming and attention: Grooming and attention can help to strengthen the bond between the horse and its handler and provide the horse with a sense of security and comfort.

  • Consult with a professional: if the behaviour persists despite the above steps, consulting with an animal behaviourist or a veterinarian can help identify the root of the problem and provide additional guidance on how to address it.

Stopping horses toss their heads

It’s important to note that the process of stopping horses toss their heads may take time, patience and consistency in the approach, but with proper care and attention, the horse can learn to cope with boredom and stress in healthier ways.

Too much excess energy

We had an Ex racehorse at the yard a few years ago, and he often nodded and weaved in his box.  It was a sign that he had past trauma from spending too much time in his box as a racehorse.  The only way to deal with it was to maximise his turn out.  He had to go on “box rest” for a few days once and became very agitated after 24hrs in his box, to the point where he became a danger to himself and his handlers.  Be very wary if you have a new horse who displays this behaviour, you never know how they will become after a few days inside.  Make sure they get out enough to burn off their excess energy

7. When they have an ear infection: This can also lead to head shaking

Horses toss their heads as a sign of an ear infection, as the pain and discomfort in the ears can cause them to shake their heads.

Try to undestand the underlying cause of head shaking or nodding in your horse

Horses can develop several types of ear infections, including:

  • Otitis externa: This is an infection of the external ear canal, often caused by bacteria or yeast. Symptoms include itching, redness, swelling, and discharge. This type of infection can be treated with topical or systemic antibiotics, along with cleaning the ear canal with a solution.

  • Otitis media: This is an infection of the middle ear, which is located behind the eardrum. Symptoms include head shaking, ear discharge, and difficulty hearing. This type of infection can be treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and sometimes surgery.

  • Otitis interna: This is an infection of the inner ear, which can cause balance problems, head tilt, and difficulty walking. This type of infection is often caused by bacteria or viruses and can be treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. This can often be an underlying cause

  • In general, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian as soon as an ear infection is suspected, as prompt treatment can help to identify the undeyling cause and prevent the infection from becoming more severe and causing more serious complications. A veterinarian may diagnose the ear infection by inspecting the ear canal and taking a swab or culture of any discharge present. They may also take the horse’s vital signs and examine the horse’s overall health.

  • It’s also important to keep the horse’s environment clean and dry to reduce the risk of ear infections, and to be cautious when cleaning the horse’s ears to avoid causing any damage to the ear canal. Preventive care, such as regular ear cleaning, may also be recommended to reduce the risk of infection.

Ear covers

Ear covers for horses can be particularly helpful in preventing ear infections caused by flies and other insects. Flies can be a major source of irritation and discomfort for horses, especially around their ears. When flies bite or swarm around the ears, they can cause painful sores, scabs, and even infections.

Ear covers can act as a physical barrier to keep the flies away from the horse’s ears and prevent these issues from occurring. In addition, ear covers can also help to keep dirt and debris out of the horse’s ears, which can also contribute to ear infections.

By protecting the ears from these external factors, ear covers can help to keep horses healthy and comfortable, which can improve their overall performance and well-being.

These are different to Ear Bonnets, which are used in competition to reduce noise for the horse.

8. When they have a tooth infection:

Similar to ear infection, horses may nod their heads as a sign of a tooth infection. The pain and discomfort in the mouth can also cause head shaking.

Horses can develop several types of tooth infections, both in the front teeth and molars, including:

  • Periodontal disease: This is an infection of the tissues surrounding the tooth, including the gums, ligaments, and bone. Periodontal disease is caused by a build-up of plaque and tartar, which can lead to inflammation, pain, and tooth loss. Symptoms include head shaking, difficulty eating, and weight loss.

  • Abscesses: These are pockets of pus that form in the tooth as a result of an infection, often caused by a deep cavity or a traumatic injury. Abscesses can cause severe pain, difficulty eating, and a fever.

  • Fractures: A fracture of the tooth can occur due to trauma, which can lead to an infection. Fractures can cause pain, difficulty eating, and sensitivity to cold or heat.

  • Root infection: This can be caused by decay that goes deep into the tooth, reaching the root and causing infection. Root infection can cause pain, sensitivity to cold or heat, and difficulty eating.

  • Resorptive Lesions: Also known as cervical line lesions, these are the most common form of tooth infection in horses. These are caused by the loss of enamel and dentin, that exposes the underlying tooth structure and causes sensitivity, pain, and difficulty eating. If this is in the front teeth, the horse will have trouble biting. In the molars it will have trouble chewing

9. As a learned behaviour or Vacuum Activity:

The phrase “vacuum activity” comes from the Latin word “vacuus,” which means empty or void. In the context of animal behaviour, “vacuum activity” refers to repetitive, non-functional behaviours that animals engage in when their environment lacks opportunities for natural or instinctual behaviours. This can include activities such as pacing, nodding, or weaving. The phrase implies that the animal is trying to fill a void or emptiness in their environment with these behaviours, as they lack other outlets to express their natural instincts.

Vacuum activities, also known as stereotypic behaviours, are repetitive, non-functional behaviours that are seen in animals, such as horses, that are kept in captivity. These behaviours can include nodding of the head, pacing, weaving, cribbing, and stall walking. Vacuum activities are thought to be a coping mechanism that animals use to deal with boredom, stress, or frustration caused by a lack of stimulation or opportunity to engage in natural behaviours.

Vacuum activities are typically seen in animals that are kept in small enclosures or in environments that lack opportunities for social interaction, foraging, or other natural behaviours. These activities can have negative effects on the animal’s physical and mental well-being, as they can lead to injuries, weight loss, and other health problems.

Some examples of vacuum activities in horses are head nodding, cribbing, stall walking, and weaving. Horses toss their heads also. These behaviours are often associated with horses that are kept in confinement for long periods of time, with limited space and/or lack of opportunity for physical and mental activities.

To prevent and reduce vacuum activities, it’s important to provide animals with appropriate and stimulating environments, opportunities for social interaction, and opportunities for natural behaviours. This can include providing larger enclosures, toys, and interactive items, providing regular exercise and training, and providing opportunities for social interaction with other animals.

10. Why do horses nod their heads when they walk?

Nodding of the head while walking is perfectly natural in all horses, its just how they walk, but if you notice it is more pronounced, particularly when they are weight bearing on one front leg it can be a sign of lameness. This can indicate that the horse is in pain and may need to be evaluated by a veterinarian. It’s important to get to know how your horse walks so you can see any changes.

Here is a video of Clydesdale Kirsty walking across the field. Her head nodding here is perfectly normal.

Clydesdale Kirsty walking through the field. Her head nodding here is perfectly normal.

11. When being ridden it can be a sign of dental problems

Nodding of the head while being ridden can be a sign of dental problems or ill-fitting tack. This can be caused by pain or discomfort in the mouth or head,  and can indicate that the horse needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian or a farrier.

Extra teeth in horses

Have you had a look inside your horse’s mouth recently? are they a youngster? it’s just possible they have some extra teeth called Wolf Teeth. Not all horses have these extra teeth, its estimated only 70% of horses have them. Unfortunatley for us, they usually sit exaclty where the bit sits so these extra teeth are usually removed in ridden or driven horses. Don’t worry though, it’s a fairly straightforward procedure and is best perormed when the horse is young.

12. Poorly fitting Tack

Poor saddle Fit

Poor saddle fit is a leading cause of muscle injury in horses. If you suspect this could be an issue, try riding your horse in walk in a bareback pad and see if you notice a difference. If you having been riding with a poor saddle fit for a long time, your horse may need to see a physio. Make an appointment with a good saddler to fix any sadlle fitting issues.

Bit too strong or bridle wrong size

Using a bit that is too strong or a bridle that is the wrong size can lead to various issues and discomfort for the horse. If the bit is too strong, it can cause pain and even injury to the horse’s mouth, tongue, and gums. This can result in reluctance to accept the bit, head tossing, and resistance to cues. It can also cause the horse to lean or pull against the bit, making it difficult for the rider to control the horse.

Using a bridle that is the wrong size can also cause discomfort and pain for the horse. A bridle that is too tight can put pressure on the horse’s sensitive facial nerves, leading to pain, rubbing, and even nerve damage. On the other hand, a bridle that is too loose can slip and shift around, causing irritation and rubbing on the horse’s skin. It can also affect the rider’s ability to communicate with the horse effectively, leading to confusion and miscommunication.

In addition, using a bit or bridle that is uncomfortable or painful for the horse can cause the horse to develop negative associations with riding and training, leading to anxiety, fear, and avoidance behaviors. Therefore, it is important for riders to select the right size and type of bit and bridle for their horse’s individual needs, and to regularly check and adjust them as necessary to ensure the horse’s comfort and well-being.

Read about the parts of the bridle here


Why does a horse nod?  As you can see there are many reasons why a horse nods.  It could be nothing to worry about, and just be as simple as they saying hello or trying to get a treat from you, or it could have a much deeper more urgent meaning such as an injury or infection.  It’s all part of the fun of owning a horse, trying to communicate with them and find out what’s on their mind and how you can help them.

If you are interested in leaning more about horse and horse riding, why not check out some of our other blogs here

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