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Home:Equine Diseases:Headshaking

Equine Diseases - Headshaking


Equine h eadshaking is mysterious and very difficult problem and has to be one of the most distressing conditions a horse owner might have to deal with.  The condition and its attendant problems are poorly understood and just beginning to be properly researched. 

Equine headshaking is not simply a neurotic bad habit it is a response to an irritation.

Equine headshaking ranges from extremely severe to very mild. For example it can be a slight tic or a severe and upsetting jerking of the head. It can resolve itself, be diagnosed as a serious neurological disease or be a natural reaction and part of the horse's natural defense system to combat attacks by biting flies. Headshaking to remove flies is an automatic shake and can be seen mostly on the longer warmer days of the spring, summer and early Autumn, but will not occur in winter or in the dark.

Serious Equine headshaking is an involuntary movement and is mainly an up and down type movement but less frequently it can be side-to-side or a circular movement.

Headshaking is seen mostly in more mature horses with the average age of onset about 9 yrs.


The symptoms can be many and varied e.g.

  • Shaking the head from side to side
  • Shaking the head up and down
  • Behaving as if there is a bee buzzing up the horse's nose
  • Snorting or sneezing
  • Face/Nose rubbing on objects, such as his legs or the ground
  • Twitching
  • Sweating
  • Rearing or striking at the face.
  • High or low head carriage.
  • Nasal discharges
  • Seeking nostril or muzzle protection -such as in a stable corner, under the tail of another horse, in a water bucket
  • Nostril clamping after exercise
  • Distracted behaviour - loss of stride, stopping during exercise


There are multiple causes for Equine headshaking and they are very hard to identify.

The following list may be of help in determining what is causing your horse to headshake.

  • Pollen
  • Damage to the inside of the nose
  • Rhinopneumonitis vaccinations, which may activate the herpes virus
  • Over-Vaccination
  • A previous viral infection like equine herpes virus
  • Light or noise
  • Dental disease
  • Ear Infection
  • Ill-fitting bit and tack
  • General nervousness and worry not related to problems with the head


As you can see, the causes of equine headshaking can be very hard to identify so your horse is totally dependent on you to spend time trying to eliminate and identify the trigger factors causing the headshaking. Your vet will not be able to spend the requisite amount of time gathering the relevant information so you need to be armed with every relevant bit of information before taking your horse to the vet.

Keep a written diary of your horse's symptoms, outlining in detail the conditions under which the horse headshakes. Outline all your observations even if you feel they are not relevant. The process of research, elimination and, finally finding a solution which suits your horse, will take time and patience on your part.

Check the fit of your tack.  Back pain from an ill-fitting saddle could be reflected in pain to your horse's face.  The noseband should rest on the bony part of his nose and not below it. Horses have many sensitive nerves in their face, and poorly fitting bridles and even saddles have been known to cause horses to shake their heads. Take the tack off and lunge your horse to see if the problem is present without the tack. Try different tack.

Check if your horse's headshaking could be related to your style of riding by asking a friend to ride your hose and watch for reactions.

Try a blindfold on your horse when riding and see if the absence of light stops the headshaking. If light plays a role, then keeping the horse out of bright sun will help.

A change of environment has been known to be beneficial to some head shakers.

When you have checked out all the above, consult your vet with your findings.

If the cause has been identified, your vet can then suggest appropriate treatments. If a cause has not been identified, your vet will suggest some more general treatments.

You can be successful in removing your horse's head shaking symptoms provided that, once the cause is identified, it is not reintroduced!

A net relief mask over the nose is a one of the most common treatments. It works by decreasing irritation from small airborne foreign bodies, such as dust, pollen and midges. Antihistamines, melatonin and some anti-seizure drugs have also been known to help.

Steroids such as xylometazoline and betamethazone, in a nose-spray form can help in temporarily numbing the affected nerve in the horse's muzzle. 

Vaccination against equine herpes virus may be prescribed.

Surgical procedures to cut the affected nerves have been tried and known to be successful in some cases.

There are many believers in the more homeopathic approach. There are non-medical homeopathic alternatives to drug therapies which are very highly regarded. They claim not to suppress symptoms but to remove them. You can search for them online.

If the problem is related to allergies the use of herbs can be beneficial. Many herbs have a type of antihistamine action, e.g. fresh extract of nettle as dried nettle does not work. Some ayurvedic herbs can also work and will help to repel flies. E.g. extract of cedar trees can be extremely soothing to the lining of the nose and is known to be helpful in repelling flies. Bach Flower Essence has also been found useful.

Maintaining a high dietary magnesium intake plus vitamin B complex supplements should be considered.

If none of the above is proving helpful, you may wish to consult an animal communicator. These people have psychic discussions with animals and may be able to help where all else has failed. Equine acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese
Medicine, with its holistic method of diagnosis & treatment have also been used and found to be successful.