I have a mare named Lee Lee who has a few odd tendencies–I don’t ride her anymore (thanks to a suspensory ligament injury), but when I did, she would often sling her head up in the air, especially while at a trot. I tried multiple bits and bitless bridles, but the problem never fully went away. Thinking there might be an issue in her mouth, I had her teeth checked multiple times, but no one could seem to figure out why she tossed her head. I now believe the problem was due to TMJ pain.
I also now recognize that Lee Lee’s behavior could be classified as headshaking, though some would argue it’s not “true” headshaking since it only happened while she was being ridden. Nevertheless, headshaking is a real problem for many horses, and one which leaves many people scratching their own heads.
What is Headshaking?
Horses shake their heads in many instances and for many different reasons, but the condition known as headshaking occurs when a horse flips its nose into the air or shakes its head from side to side on a frequent basis–for seemingly no reason at all. Like Lee Lee, some horses may do it only when being ridden; others may do it at any time. Sometimes, headshaking also involves rubbing the muzzle on the ground or other objects and sneezing. Some horses may even become obsessive and violent with their headshaking, making riding dangerous or near-impossible.
Headshaking can start at any age and may begin suddenly. It might be seasonal (usually in the spring and summer) or it may last all year long. Some horses may have the problem for a lifetime (especially if untreated), while others may outgrow their headshaking with no treatment at all. It can truly be a frustrating problem, as many can attest to.
Causes of Headshaking
Headshaking can arise from a myriad of causes, some easier to treat than others. Possible causes include: ear mites, ear infection, head or neck trauma, guttural pouch infection, allergies, and sinus infection or other problems affecting the sinuses. From a chiropractic standpoint, the cause could be joint dysfunction in the upper neck, poll, and/or jaw (including the TMJ).
What most people think of as true headshaking, however, is typically classified as one of two things: photic headshaking, which is triggered by sunlight or trigeminal-mediated headshaking, which is related to the function of the trigeminal nerve that provides sensation for the nostrils and muzzle.
Because there are so many possible causes for headshaking, it’s important to have a full veterinary (and chiropractic) examination performed before looking at treatment options. One should never assume headshaking is just “bad behavior” on the part of the horse.
At one time, a common treatment for headshaking was to block the infraorbital nerve with a local anesthetic, which desensitizes the inside of both nostrils. If this helped horses being exercised outdoors, they were considered a candidate for infraorbital neurectomy, a surgery which basically cut the nerve, resulting in a permanent lack of sensation in the nostrils. This surgery did appear to help some horses, but others, not so much. It’s no longer recommended as it can be quite painful, make the headshaking worse, and has a somewhat low success rate.
Current treatments for headshaking are aimed at targeting the individual horse. Since not every headshaking case is the same, not all horses can be treated the same. But treatments can be classified into five categories:
If sunlight is a trigger, using a UV-blocking masks with a “nose net” or keeping your horse stalled during daylight hours may help. Other physical treatments include: increasing exercise or using nose nets or other devices which dangle over the nostril or muzzle area. Some horses even benefit from ear covering or forehead dangling materials.
Changing the diet to achieve mild weight loss appears to help some horses. Reducing processed feeds and carbohydrates can also reduce inflammatory proteins in the body, which is beneficial for a number of conditions, including headshaking. There are also several supplements which have helped some headshakers:
Melatonin resets the horse’s internal seasonal clock back to winter and seems most effective with horses whose symptoms appear in the spring. According to Dr. John Madigan, DVM, DACVIM, who’s studied headshaking in depth, 12-18 mg of oral melatonin should be started November 1st and be given daily at 5:00 PM (the onset of darkness in the wintertime). For best results, the treatment should be given all year round, and because they may not shed their winter coat after treatment begins, horses may need body clipping.
Spirulina is another supplement which may decrease stimulation of the trigeminal nerve and appears to help some horses.
Magnesium is critical for nerve function and supplementation appears to help quite a few horses with headshaking as well.
Several drugs, including cyproheptadine, carbamazepine, hydroxyzine, fluphenazine, and phenobarbital (anti-convulsant), have shown promise in alleviating head shaking symptoms The downside is that these drugs come with the risk of potentially severe side effects.
I don’t really like the term “alternative”, but I’ll just go with it here. While many vets may not recommend these treatments (simply because they aren’t aware or don’t know much about them), chiropractic, acupuncture/ acupressure, and homeopathic remedies have all reportedly helped some horses with headshaking. It should be noted, though, that chiropractic alone may not be as helpful as combining the treatment with acupuncture or acupressure. This makes sense since the problem would not only affect the joints, but surrounding muscles and ligaments as well.
Combination therapies are exactly that: a combo of several different tactics to help control or eliminate your horse’s symptoms. It may include some trial and error, and determining the cause of your horse’s headshaking will be an important part in finding the right treatment(s).