The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

14.6.2021 How To Resolve Ear Shy Behaviour

‘Her frustration rose each time he jerked his head away from her. Why did he have to be so annoying? It wasn’t as though she was asking much of him. She just wanted to clean the mud from behind his ears. They couldn’t go to the lesson looking like this.’

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Veterinary Dermatology was titled “Imiquimod treatment for Equus caballus papillomavirus infection in equine aural plaques.” The background of the study states “Aural plaques are a dermatopathy associated with Equus caballus papillomavirus. This disease affects horses of all ages, genders and breeds, and causes sensitivity of the ears.”

Does it though? Do aural plaques cause sensitivity of the ears? I’ve done a bit of looking through the research on the Internet, and I haven’t yet found anything to convince me. I’m cynical of the statement. I’ve heard it repeated by too many owners, who’ve been told by the vets that aural plaques cause their horse to be ear shy, only to have the statement later retracted by the owner when the ear sensitivity is resolved, although the aural plaques are still there. I wonder if the ear shy behaviour of these horses has nothing to do with the aural plaques. In which case, perhaps it could be resolved? As always, I’m open to education, so I’d love to hear your experiences.

My understanding is that hypersensitivity of the ears, generally known as ear shy behaviour, is there because the nerves that supply sensation to the ear are misfiring for some reason. This is most likely to be due to irritation of the nerve, caused by muscle spasm, bony changes, or inflammation, at some point along the pathway of the nerve. The most likely place for this to happen, in relation to hyper sensitivity of the ears, is at the poll, or within the soft tissues that sit between the skull and the top of the neck.

Therefore, in my experience, there is a lot we can do to reduce ear shy behaviour. Traditional behavioural desensitisation approaches may work through desensitisation, but they may also work through relieving the physical issues, i.e. the muscle spasm, or the inflammation. Physical therapy works to reduce stiffness and improve freedom of movement, reduce pain and improve comfort, and to relieve restrictions and improve range of movement. All of these things help to reduce the hypersensitivity.

What’s your story? Have you helped a horse to overcome being ear shy? Drop me a message, I’d love to hear from you.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion