Do you have a horse or pony that shakes their head for no reason? In the field or when being ridden? Just out of the blue….jerking their head up and down? Side to side? Do they rub their head on you after being ridden? Rub their nose on their legs? Along the floor? Snort at the start of exercise and during exercise? You could have a Head Shaker.
Yes it’s a thing! I believe my pony to be a Head Shaker. Mature geldings are more prone to headshaking than mares or stallions. Although the condition can appear at any age, it usually first occurs when a horse is between the ages of 8 and 10. There is no indication that headshaking is a genetic disorder or more likely to occur in certain breeds.
I would say my pony started headshaking around 3 years ago which fits this time age group. I hadn’t heard of it at the time and didn’t understand why he was doing it. Just started out of the blue. Riding became a challenge….flicking, jerking, shaking head up and down. This causes him to spook at things…not lorry’s and tractors… he’s solid with those. Birds, pheasants, anything in a hedgerow. All the tiny stuff that he doesn’t see as he’s shaking his head…. When I’m riding he always wants to rub his face on his leg and when I get off he cant wait to rub his head on me…I just didn’t know why….he’d never done it in the past. I did a bit reading and discovered headshaking. I’d read that a nose net helps the symptoms. I got a nose net and yes it most definitely helped. Then about a 18mths ago he started bucking out riding…he’d never done that type of thing before. My solid pony had turned into a nightmare to ride. SO he hasn’t been ridden really since August/September last year…he’s a very pretty field ornament. He even shakes his head when lunging. Some days I get a good day…other days he is just a muppet.
Having a little more time on my hands at the moment, I decided to look into it further. I need to find something to help him. Something that makes him feel better. Something that means I can ride him again without fear of coming off, which causes so many other problems anyway…he feels my tension. So this is what I have found. I hope it helps . if it sounds like your four legged friends.
When working properly, the trigeminal nerve, the largest cranial nerve, transmits sensation to the face and provides motor function to the muscles used for chewing. A horse affected by trigeminal-mediated headshaking may suddenly and repeatedly flick, jerk or shake his head. Moving it vertically up and down is common, but he may also shake his head around or side to side. Other signs include
· obsessively rubbing his nose on objects or forelimbs
· striking at his muzzle
· twitching lips
· an anxious facial expression.
This behavior is a response to neuropathic facial pain caused by an abnormal or compromised trigeminal nerve. There is a functional disturbance of the nerve that changes how it processes sensory input and lowers its threshold for firing. “Branches of the trigeminal nerve are hyperactive to sensation and stimuli, which leads to clinical signs that may be interpreted as facial pain and discomfort. The horse may feel pain in the form of burning, itching, tingling or electrical sensations in his face.
There are many suggested causes of headshaking, It is similar to migraines in people: What causes migraines is different for each person, and treatments that are effective for one may not work for another. When and why headshaking occurs varies widely. It can be seasonal, flaring up in the spring and summer, or it can take place year-round. It may happen only when the horse is ridden or all of the time, continuous or intermittent. Triggers include:
· neck position
· wearing tack.
Approximately 50% of horses headshake only with exercise
Headshaking can occur with or without a rider and with or without tack. We have identified tack-associated headshaking-like behavior, but that is not a trigeminal nerve disorder and is much less common.
Exercise causes many physiological changes that occur via the autonomic nervous system, including nasal turbinate vasodilation (the blood vessels get bigger), vagal nerve changes (heart rate changes, sweating), etc. This may cause an unstable trigeminal nerve system to send inappropriate signals to pain perception areas in the brain. Hence, the horse percieves pain from normal, nonpainful activities. Because exercise is associated with pain in these horses, they may be reluctant to move forward as they have become conditioned to expect pain during exercise
Idiopathic - spontaneous headshaking occurs with no external stimuli.
Photic - Photic headshakers have a distinct hypersensitivity to light and their symptoms tend to decrease at night. Wearing a face mask designed to shade the eyes from ultraviolet rays. The photic sneeze response in humans could explain why this happens. People who experience photic sneezing feel a tingling or itching-like sensation and then sneeze in response to going from the dark to bright sunlight.
Some horses respond well to being exercised with a nose net, or something that dangles over the nose and muzzle. Nose nets give a sensory input into the trigeminal system and temporarily make the nerve not fire.
There are treatments that may help your horse. You could go down the veterinary route and have all sorts of test done to get a formal clinical diagnosis. They could offer a whole host of medication that could work
If your horse is a seasonal head shaker whose symptoms are typically worse in spring and summer Melatonin could be given all year-round. This tricks the body into thinking it is always winter by mimicking the naturally occurring rise of melatonin at the onset of early darkness in the winter.
Adding magnesium to the diet MAY help. Magnesium is an electrolyte critically involved in nerve function. Supplementing the diet with magnesium may help decrease the stimulation of the trigeminal nerve. If you are feeding a magnesium supplement already and it is going well, continue using that product.
There may be a deficiency. It is not a cure, but it may help stabilise the trigeminal nerve.
Maintaining a healthy weight is essential. As being underworked and overfed is a risk factor for headshaking
Having a period of lay-up (a period when the horse is out of work) may contribute to the onset of headshaking
Nose nets can be a useful option to offer relief to headshakers when ridden. A dropped noseband can be used over the top of the nose net for added pressure.
Eye UV masks when ridden, which attach to the bridle.
UV masks during the day in the summer may provide relief or keeping your horse in during the day and out at night
There is a surgical treatment, where the nerve has been cut, however, I have not read a huge success rate and some horses have been worse after the operation.
It really is a case of trial and error. Trying one thing at a time to see what helps. What may work for someone else may not work for you. There is lots of reading material out there if you google headshaking in horses.