Head Shaking in Horses
Hope for Head Shakers
Head shaking (head-shaking or headshaking) is a distressing condition, that generally renders affected horses unrideable. Horses that head shake are suffering quite severe distress; it is not 'bad behaviour'. There was a time, hopefully now outdated but quite recent, when such horses were brutalised by having the nerves in their faces cut (neurectomy). I had the misfortune to see such horses with their denerved muzzles caked with food and I even saw one hung up on a barbed wire fence by his denerved muzzle, causing horrendous injury. When you consider what a sensitive instrument the horse's muzzle is and how it is integral to his normal behaviour, it is amazing to think that this sort of barbarism was ever contemplated.
Head shaking is not a 'behavioural' problem and something has to be tried, to alleviate the condition. Happily, homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic and aromatherapy, properly integrated, carry an approximately 75 - 80% success rate.
N.B.: A nose veil is very effective in most cases, for relieving symptoms. However, not every horse can tolerate one and some sporting activities disallow the use of a nose veil. While you are seeking a cure, the use of a nose veil can be a welcome welfare consideration for your horse.
Common triggers for headshaking episodes
In our experience, there appears to be a wide variety of triggers for headshaking episodes in horses. Some will do it when approaching a cloud of midges on a track. Some will do it in response to raindrops or snowflakes landing on their faces, some will be triggered by bright sunlight, whereas others may be triggered by pollen allergy. We have even seen some cases triggered by painful saddling and by neck arthritis. Diet can play a part in some cases. One case recently seen responded adversely to the brow band and nose band of the bridle.
Natural medicine treatment
ACUPUNCTURE - HOMEOPATHY - HERBS - DIET - CHIROPRACTIC - AROMATHERAPY - MASSAGE
Head shaking horses (head shakers, headshakers or head-shakers) can be treated with combined and properly-integrated homeopathy, acupuncture, massage and aromatherapy, with a reasonable chance of success or very good control. 75 - 80% of affected horses can return to being rideable. Of course, because such therapies are holistic in nature, chiropractic manipulation, diet and lifestyle must also be addressed, for each patient.
The accompanying images show a horse in deep relaxation, during acupuncture treatment.
The reason that this success rate is not higher is, in my belief, because there is such a variety of ways in which different patients manifest their problems. Different horses appear to react to different triggers, e.g. different pollens, rape fields, flies, snow flakes, rain drops, direct sunlight, dust and ammonia (shavings are not good bedding material, for this reason). Some horses may be responding to neck pain. Some may be triggered by saddling faults, by bitting, by nose band, by brow band or by other bridle design features. Almost all appear to be triggered or worsened with exercise or work. Some are found to be 'high' suffers and some 'low', depending upon findings at examination. This tends to refer to whether the frontal sinuses or maxillary sinuses are the main site of the problem. This immense variation in every aspect of the condition makes it difficult to tie down.
Some horses seem to respond favourably to being ridden with a muzzle, but that is not acceptable for dressage competition and certainly cannot pass for a lasting solution.
Each patient that is seen by the AVMC is given facial realignment (equine chiropractic), massage, acupuncture if there are indications for this (i.e. 'active' points), aromatherapy if there are indications, homeopathic medication, aromatherapy and sinus drainage. In the case of the latter, some patients drain huge quantities of watery mucus, in response. Teeth, saddling, neck and back assessment are also vital components of examination and treatment. This necessitates a truly holistic and exhaustive approach to assessment and treatment.
If you have a head shaker, it is neither wise nor humane to 'ride him through it'. That approach will tend to reinforce the reaction and deepen the memorised psychological component, which inevitably accompanies such a distressing problem. Furthermore, the horse is suffering when showing these signs and should not be further stressed.
We recommend a species-suitable natural diet for all our patients. Helpful advice may be found at Natural Feeding website - information only
We have found it to be very important to remove all manufactured feeds and supplements from the diet, as the horse owner has no control over such products. Unsuitable ingredients are included in most proprietary horse feeds and supplements, resulting in the horse having reduced healing and re-balancing capability.
Headshaking horses are suffering, they are not just misbehaving.
Headshaking may have a great variety of causes and triggers, including neck pain and allergy.
A good proportion of cases can be controlled using an integrated alternative medicine and holistic medicine approach, including homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic and natural feeding. A combined acupuncture vet/homeopathic vet/herbal vet should be able to outline your options.
The author is independent of commercial interest or sponsorship and cannot endorse any products or advertising material attached to this lens.
For more information, visit AVMC's information website (over 600 pages).
Chris Day - holistic vet - runs the Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre in Oxfordshire (AVMC) in Oxfordshire, UK.
Headshaking is distressing and worse. While we are sad that we currently do not succeed in every case, we are glad that relief for many can be found.
This lens is now adorned with a Purple Star. It's amazing when one of these things suddenly turns up out of nowhere. I am deeply grateful to all who had a part in engineering this lovely surprise.
My Equine Health Lenses
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- Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre website
Information site on alternative and holistic medicine for horses, ponies and other species.
- AVMC equine disease information.
Description of many horse diseases, including headshaking.
- Equine Acupuncture website
Information on acupuncture for horses and ponies
- Veterinary homeopathy lens
Brief overview of homeopathy for animals
- Veterinary acupuncture lens
Brief overview of acupuncture for animals
- AVMC's page on horse diseases
Equine diseases, description, treatment etc.