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Why Does My OTTB Tilt Her Head?

By Steve Reed
Q. My off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) retired from racing three months ago and has started retraining for dressage. Overall, she’s being a good girl, but she’s difficult to bridle—she tilts her head when I’m pulling the bridle over her right ear. She’ll do the same head tilt when she’s turned out and during riding, always to the right. At first I thought it was an odd behavior leftover from her time at the track, but now I’m concerned it could indicate a pain-related issue, possibly her ear or jaw. A friend commented that she “looks like she has a headache.” Also, for history, I have not had her teeth done yet. Do you have any insight into head-tilt behavior like this and what could be causing it?
A. Dealing with an off-track Thoroughbred can be challenging, because the horse and new owner have to get used to each other. That means learning about each other’s idiosyncrasies and working to identify any medical issues the horse might have. The difficulty placing the bridle on the filly could be related to a change in the bit to which she might not be accustomed. But it could also indicate some problem, either in the mouth, skull, or ear.
If the horse has a true head tilt, this means the poll is deviated from a straight line down to the muzzle. To evaluate this, place the muzzle on midline. If the head is tilted to one side, that is a true head tilt. This exercise might be a little simple, however, because compensate by using their vision, making head tilt less obvious. To determine if a true head tilt exists, place a blindfold on the horse—this will exacerbate the signs. If you see a head tilt it indicates a vestibular nerve or inner ear problem.
You say you would like to have your veterinarian perform a dental exam, including examination of temporomandibular joints (aka, “TMJ,” which are located on either side of the horse’s jaw and allow the mouth to open and close). You should have this done. Also, having your veterinarian examine the ear canal would be helpful.
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