Headshaking in horses

Strong headshaking in horses is partly a pathological behaviour. While headshaking is considered normal in some cases, for example to repel insects or when the horse is excitable or frustrated, this behaviour is not considered normal if it occurs uncontrollably during normal activities such as riding or feed intake.

Headshaking is an abrupt, jerky, extreme shaking of the head in all directions. The causes of this are not yet fully understood and in most cases cannot be determined. Accompanying signs can be an extreme agitation, sniffing of the nostrils, violent trembling or twitching of the head or neck as well as wiping the nose on the floor or on the legs.

However, it is assumed that it is an inflammation of a cerebral nerve (trigeminal nerve) in the horse’s face. Similar to the clinical picture in humans, one imagines that the horse suffers a short, electric shock-like pain and begins to hit its head in response.

It can be difficult to identify the cause of head shaking in your horse because there are many different causes. The trigger of such a shake can be the touching of the head (by insects, or even stroking), in sunlight, when chewing or for example also by wind and stress.

However, it is assumed that it is an inflammation of a cerebral nerve (trigeminal nerve) in the horse’s face. Similar to the clinical picture in humans, one imagines that the horse suffers a short, electric shock-like pain and begins to hit its head in response.

It can be mild or lead to the complete unridability of the horse with a high risk of injury for horse and rider.

The diagnosis serves to rule out all other possibilities that lead to head shaking. For this reason, a general examination of the horse is carried out first and then an examination of the nerves.

The horse should also be pre-ridden and lunged, the individual weather influences should be taken into account in the examination – it does not make sense to examine a horse that shows headshaking in strong sunlight in rainy weather.

X-ray examination of the head, cervical spine and back can also provide valuable information. In addition, an examination of the eyes, the oral cavity and the respiratory tract are useful to rule out possible other causes.

If all these examinations do not lead to a result, the diagnosis headshaking can be made.

The therapy is extremely difficult and often unsatisfactory. Different drugs have been used to date with varying degrees of success. In addition, so-called nosecovers or UV light-inhibiting facial nets are used.

Surgery can be attempted to compress the affected nerve by inserting a spiral around it and to reduce the transmission of stimuli.

Even this therapy option does not always lead to satisfactory success. More recent experiments with stimulation current to the peripheral nerves in the horse’s face, on the other hand, more often promise an improvement of the symptoms.