Controlling Head Shaking Syndrome

Controlling Head Shaking Syndrome

Horses are known to shake their heads from time to time, perhaps to remove some form of irritant or pest – such as a fly. However, sometimes horses shake their heads at times when there is no obvious reason for them to do so.

This behaviour is typically attributed to a condition known as Head Shaking Syndrome – but what is it exactly? And how can you stop it?

Horse Shaking HeadWhat is Head Shaking Syndrome?

Head Shaking Syndrome is a condition whereby horses engage in headshaking behaviour for no apparent physical or medical reason. Diagnosis of the condition is only made when all medical and mechanical causes of headshaking have been ruled out by a vet and it does not necessarily indicate that a horse is in poor health.

Common medical and mechanical causes of headshaking in horses which must be ruled out before Head Shaking Syndrome can be diagnosed include:

  • Disorders of the ear, nose or head (medical)
  • Infection/infestation of the ear, nose or head by parasites or pests including ear mites (medical)
  • Discomfort caused by poorly fitted tacks, rough handling in riding (mechanical)
  • Discomfort caused by dental problems including sharp teeth (mechanical)

How do you know if your horse has Head Shaking Syndrome?

If your horse shakes its head but does not suffer from any of these afflictions then they may have Head Shaking Syndrome.

Another tell-tale symptom is if the headshaking seems to follow a pattern or occurrence. This means that it may start or stop in accordance with seasonal changes, environmental changes or even weather conditions. Some experts even argue that the condition could be related to allergies and any associated irritation.

What are the treatment options?

Due to the nature of the condition, treatment options are fairly limited. This is because there is no medical or physical cause for the behaviour which means finding a suitable solution all the more difficult.

Homeopathic supplements may be used to treat the condition but it is important that owners research these options carefully. You should always check that the ingredients of the supplement are safe for horses and not classified as banned substances. If your horse is involved in competition then you’ll need to be even more thorough in your checks to prevent potential disqualification from events.

Other treatment types available include drug therapies, acupuncture and the use of nose nets and face masks to prevent particles from irritating a horse’s face.

Surgical treatment to complete caudal compression of the infraorbital nerve has also been suggested as another alternative in a study published in Equine Veterinary Journal but there are concerns it is only a short-term solution. The research found the surgery was initially a success in 63% of cases but that headshaking re-occurred in some of the horses 9-30 months later.

What should I do if my horse has Head Shaking Syndrome?

While the causes of the condition can be hard, if not impossible, to pinpoint, there are many ways for owners to control and manage headshaking in their horses.

Checking for medical or physical causes should be your first action with drugs, homeopathic therapies and other treatments only considered once all other causes or treatments have been ruled out. When checking your horse’s health and eliminating other causes of headshaking, you should:

  • Remove the tack or ride the horse in different styles (bareback) or with a new rider to determine whether it is the riding style or tack which is causing discomfort
  • Fit nets to nose muzzles to prevent flies and pests from irritating your horse’s face and consider switching to a flash or drop noseband to improve comfort and relieve pressure on this area of the horse’s face
  • Work your horse indoors or fit a face mask to establish whether light intensity is causing the problem
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