How To Handle Headshaking

headshaking

My horse suffers each spring and summer from something that causes her to snap or toss her head and sneeze or snort/blow out through her nose very strongly and in succession. Sometimes she even rubs the inside of her upper lip on the ground. She doesn’t seem to have any control over the head snapping and does it even when I ride. In the winter these symptoms completely disappear. My vet says it has to do with air particulates/dust/pollen in her nasal passages. Do you have any ideas on how to manage this condition? – LK, Rhode Island

Dear LK,

Your horse appears to be displaying some signs of what’s known as “headshaking.” Here is a more complete list so you can see how closely what you describe fits the syndrome:

  • Flipping the head up and down in a vertical plane
  • Snorting and sneezing
  • Raising the upper lip
  • Rubbing the muzzle on the ground and other objects
  • Wiping or striking the face with a foreleg
  • Anxious facial expression

You’ve already taken the appropriate first step– contacting your veterinarian. Now it’s time for a thorough physical examination. Sometimes horses that shake their heads do have a problem in their ears or other places that can be treated and the shaking goes away. Other times, no physical problems can be found and the horse is dubbed a “headshaker.” Your veterinarian will carefully examine the eyes, mouth, head and neck, and perhaps even take an X-ray of the skull to check for fractures. Other possible tests include “scoping” or using an endoscope to visually examine the guttural pouches and upper respiratory tract.

If there’s no obvious reason for your horse to have pain or discomfort, your veterinarian may perform a test to determine if bright light is a trigger factor. Owners of headshaking horses often report that signs are worse in broad daylight, which is why you may notice signs primarily in the spring and summer. That is, when a horse is ridden indoors or at night, there is very little headshaking. But when the horse is worked outdoors in bright sunshine with the same tack, rider and level of exercise, the horse shakes its head or performs one of the other signs in the list above. The theory is that headshaking is a photic, or light-stimulated, response. Much like some people sneeze when they see a bright light, some horses headshake. This may have to do with stimulation of a nerve in the face called the trigeminal nerve. If stimulation of this nerve in horses is anything like stimulation of the nerve in people, experts believe horses feel a tingling, itching or burning sensation in their muzzle.

As you’ve probably figured out, keeping a journal of exactly what your horse does and when he does it can be very helpful in figuring out WHY he does it. And if you can figure out why he does it, you may be able to prevent it. For example, if you and your veterinarian determine that light does indeed provoke his headshaking, then you may want to ride him inside during sunny days or work him in the evenings. Or you may want to try a special fly mask that blocks UV rays or extends past his nose. Also, nose nets that just cover the muzzle have been shown to help many horses, probably because they physically touch the part of the horse that feels “funny” and distracts them from the nuisance. Sometimes wind or moving air can trigger headshaking so covering the nose with a long fly mask or nose net is helpful for this reason.

While there are no medications that specifically treat headshaking, some horses have improved on the pharmaceutical cyproheptadine. Lysine, carbamazine and fluoxetine have worked on other horses. Antihistamines, steroids, NSAIDs have not shown any benefit. Owners have also tried acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and other remedies, usually unsuccessfully. You may want to talk to your veterinarian about using melatonin, lysine or topical anesthetics. Finally, don’t be afraid to make changes in your tack or training methods, as some horses have improved when switched from a bit to a bitless bridle, and others have been able to be reconditioned or retrained not to headshake. I do want to make the point that if your horse is a true headshaker, this is an involuntary response and not something he should be punished for. Your job is to patiently and systematically eliminate any potential sources of irritation in the hopes the behavior isn’t triggered.

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet, Behavior

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7 comments on “How To Handle Headshaking
  1. Jackie says:

    I’m a littel confussed and I am hoping you can clairify why the article states ‘Antihistamines, steroids, NSAIDs have not shown any benefit.’ Yet recommend cyproheptadine which is an antihistamine? Thank you in advance for your time in clarifying this for me.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Jackie, thanks for your question. Cyproheptadine is a tricky substance, as we’ve used it for years in horses with Cushing’s Disease for its anti-serotonin properties (now we have pergolide, which has pro-dopamine properties and seems to work better). So some of us forget that cyproheptadine also has antihistamine properties, and when categorizing prescription medications it really should come under both to be technically accurate. Unfortunately, in trying to condense a complicated subject like headshaking into social media size, some generalizations had to be made that astute readers like yourself will question. But for the most part, researchers have found that–as a class–antihistamines aren’t as helpful across-the-board in these horses. – Dr. Gray

  2. Melanie says:

    My QH gelding suddenly developed some of the head shaking symptoms, only did it in bright light, in early spring, but it was bad….didn’t happen too much when he was ridden, but I could tell it bothered him alot. I had accupuncture done one him and was told to try Evitex by Emerald Valley. (my horse does have early onset cushings as well as other metabolic processes). Glad to say that the combo of accupuncture and Evitex have done the trick. No more head shaking.

  3. Nette says:

    My horse has always done this:

    Flipping the head up and down in a vertical plane
    Snorting
    Raising the upper lip
    Rubbing the muzzle on other objects, on me, or helping people pet her face.
    Wiping or striking the face with a foreleg this always happened when riding with a bit and bridle.

    She has done head pressing before but I found out she had strangles at the time she was doing this. I had read somewhere that this is a sign of a neurological disorder.

    These symptoms are better in the winter. In the springtime I thought about putting her on antihistamines because to me it seemed like she was having some kind of allergic reaction or something. People would just laugh at me and say it was just attitude, which she can be a bit of a pain at times. I have had a vet check her our before and every thing seemed fine to them. The chiropractor came out and the only problem he found was in her neck and head area and adjusted accordingly. Her wolf teeth have been pulled and teeth floated I have been using a bitless bridle for a while now or sometimes just her halter she does like this better. I do live in a place where there are a lot of shade trees and she doesn’t have the direct sunlight that we had at other places thing have calmed down quite a bit with the head thing. Thank You

  4. Angie Seabolt says:

    If we got a prescription for cyproheptadine, how much would our 750 pound pony need to be on each day?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Angie, thanks for your question! When you have the conversation with your veterinarian about the possibility of cyproheptadine for your horse with headshaking, your vet should also recommend a dose. We hope that through experimenting with some of these potential options, your horse will start feeling better! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  5. Karen Anderson says:

    I own a TB mare with classic headshaking symptons. She was unrideable in Spring and actually would stop at the barn door to resist going outside to her pasture. I tried all strategies mentioned with no real relief. Finally, I read an article that mentioned spirolina (blue green algae) and have been successful with adding this to every feed, plus being careful to turn her out in Spring in late afternoon–the times when the pollen count is lowest. The mare is now far more comfortable, but I still can’t ride her outside on some days. You are right, this is a condition outside the horse’s control and they are miserable with it.

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