dancing horses

dancing horses

Monday, July 13, 2015

Head Shaking

A few weeks ago Cynthia came out to ride Irish. I was working with Carmen when Cynthia asked me to look at Irish- he was violently tossing and twisting his head.

We readjusted his bridle, but it kept up. I told her to ride him along and see if it disappeared. It didn't. So I hopped on. It didn't feel bit related and it didn't feel like 'soreness'. He was quite willing to go forward but the head tossing/twisting/shaking continued. I hopped off and Cynthia took him down and sprayed him with flyspray in case it was the bugs. She got back on. The behaviour became more violent and she had to stop.

I had to do some thinking. The first thing that occurred to me was his teeth. But they were floated in April and it didn't seem to be related to the bit. I also have noticed no changing in his eating. Usually, if Irish needs his teeth done he starts dropping grain all over the place. Also, he was doing this on the lunge and running in the field.

I had a glimmer of an idea- I had read posts about 'head shaking' before on the internet but hadn't really paid too much attention. Google was my friend and I got a quick education:

  • Sudden, involuntary jerking up and down of the nose (exactly like a bug has flown up his nose) 
  • Sometimes it is more a violent shaking of the ears 
  • Hanging the ears out to the side (aeroplane ears)
  • Urgent rubbing of their nose on their leg, or dragging it along the ground, (sometimes forgetting they were cantering at the time!) 
  • Leaping around trying to ‘box’ their nose with their front feet
  • Pressing their head into you
  • General distress and agitation
  • Urine pH over 8
(from http://www.calmhealthyhorses.com/neuro/head_flick.html)

Other than the urine PH Irish and the boxing thing, Irish has all of these symptoms. Turns out that it seems to be related to an abnormal firing of the trigeminal nerve that supplies sensations to the face (http://www.thehorse.com/articles/23872/headshaking-triggers-and-treatment). This causes the horse to feel a stinging/burning sensation which leads to the behaviour. Turns out that it's not unusual for it to have a sudden onset.

So then what causes it? Well there seems to be lots of theories- allergies, sunlight, diet (hard to find peer reviewed references for that one so if you have some let me know) and idiopathic (which is science talk for 'who knows?'). It is made worse by exercise.

I'm sure that you are wondering why I haven't called the vet yet. The truth is, is that if I called the vet every time Irish caused me concern he would have enough money to buy his own tropical island. So when it's weird and seems to be not life-threatening I do my own research first.  I did some observations of Irish (I'm sure he noticed me stalking him more than usual) and my observations indicated that he was spending a lot of time in the barn during the day. This is not typical for him- he loves to be outside in all weather. I wondered if it could be the sunlight triggering it. One bright sunny morning  when I came in the barn for the morning feed I opened the door wide and the sun shone directly into Irish's face as he hung his head over the stall door. He immediately started shaking his head. I watched and then went over and closed the door to block the sunlight. He immediately stopped. Hmmm. Interesting.

 A little more research indicated that there were good outcomes with a UV Fly mask. that seemed to be a simple test. I purchased a Rambo UV fly mask- it was big and could fit over his bridle too. the next day Ed called me at work and told me that Irish was spending most of the day outside not in the barn (love that man). Yesterday, Cynthia came and rode Irish. We put the mask over his bridle. He was much much better. As the ride progressed the head shaking began but it never reached the level of violence it had before.

So keep your fingers crossed that this is also seasonal. As Ed says, 'if there's any horse that's going to get something it's that one'

when I took this I thought he was goofing around. Now I don't think so


  1. I believe Linda's horse Cowboy at the Beautiful Mustang blog experienced this problem. I remember reading about it years ago. I just went to her blog to see if I could search on the head shaking syndrome, but she doesn't have a search bar or links to it on her blog. Here's the URL, if you want to dig around or contact her: http://beautifulmustang.blogspot.com/p/our-journey.html

  2. That's so interesting! Sounds like you found a good solution without putting a vet's kids through college :P

    1. I'm keeping my fingers crossed...and my toes...and anything else that can be crossed.

  3. Pistol tosses her head in reaction to sunlight. We ride her with a mask in the summer. Its an odd syndrome for sure.

    1. it seems a lot more common than I thought.

  4. I hope that it is seasonal and am glad that the fly mask helps. These types of things can be so frustrating to diagnose and treat. It sounds like you're on the right track.

  5. Our pony has Head shaking syndrome. I wish more than anything we did have an answer to why he does it. I even wish it was caused by the sun, because at least then I would be able to help him. Its a frustrating thing to help him with. And I feel like I have spent so much money trying to help him. The UV fly mask, which didnt help him at all, and he hated it so much! The only thing that does seem to make a difference is a mix of a magnesium supplement and an allergy prescription supplement. This has cut his head tossing down to just a fraction of what it was. But he is not able to be ridden very much. Some days we can go have a good ride, but other days he is so uncomfortable and will toss his head up, and then while trotting or cantering hit the brakes and scratch his nose. Poor guy. I feel so bad for him...

    1. that is very frustrating. I have some more testing to do with the mask but he's definitely staying outside more now and I see very little of it in the field.

  6. Hi Teresa. I'm sorry I don't have a search function on my blog, but I've rounded up a few of the posts from that time in my life. We're on the other side of it now and have been for three years. Yay!! It was a horrible experience for me...and him.










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