Margaret Donnelly, Timmy’s owner and founder of Equilibrium Products talks about what it’s like having a horse diagnosed with head shaking, how she solved the problem and how helping her horse, she actually managed to help so many other horses too.
I bought Timmy as an un-backed two year old in Ireland. I just fell in love with him – he was such a classy horse! He was backed as a 3/4 year old, and from day one, he was always a fantastic horse for hacking. As a 5 year old, it started becoming clear that he had developed a violent reaction when ridden for probably about the first 10 minutes, where he was tossing his head, trying to strike his nose with his front leg, rearing up, he was snorting continually – literally just one day, completely out of the blue!
I thought something must be wrong, so I had the saddle checked, bridle checked, teeth checked. So I got the vet who said he was suffering from Head Shaking, possibly caused by allergic rhinitis, which I just knew as ‘hay fever’. At that stage, I had never heard the term ‘Head Shaking’ before – back in 1998.
I used to have to squash up loads of anti-histamines to put in his feed, which didn’t actually help. I also tried a few different supplements, bits and loads of other things. I also considered sending him to the University of Liverpool to have the Trigeminal nerve blocked or cut, but that was very very drastic. I thought – do I want my horse to have no feeling in the main nerve down their face?
I remember hacking him out one day that wasn’t too hot or with too many flies, but he got so bad, that I actually got off and put my jacket over his head – and that gave him relief! So that’s how I knew it was something to do with his head.
One of the other things I noticed, is that when I had him tied up, what he liked to do was rub the end of his nose against the old, traditional brick stables, which seemed to settle him!
The other thing he would do was try hide his face from any wind or anything like that. He would try tuck it under my arm or something like that to shield it.
So working in product development for all of my career, I was used to having a problem, and trying to solve it. Knowing a little bit about sewing as well, I got out my sewing machine and started making a few things for him. After a few weeks of trying different things, I found this very rough mesh that basically, with a close fit, worked the best for him. I noticed he liked to wriggle his nose against it, so it almost provided like a little scratching pad for him. I can imagine that for him, it’s a bit like if our nose was really really itchy, but someone had tied your hands behind your back, how would you relieve that itch? We would get very frustrated, agitated and very cross!
So I found a solution for my horse, I was so delighted! I was being faced with having this fabulous horse that I fell in love with as a two year old, and having to put him down as a 5 year old. No one wants to make that decision. As it was though, he went on to be a fabulous dressage horse, who didn’t really ever miss a Regional Championships. He got to the National Championships and was placed 10th – just got in the ribbons! But he’s just been a great horse, he’s still with us today in his 20’s and he has his little niggles, but he’s comfortable and enjoying life. But they way I look at it is that he’s have 20+ more years of life than he would have had if I hadn’t have come up with that product.
Then, more people got to know about this and asked me what was on Timmy’s nose… Although it was quite subtle, which I liked. The design also allowed saliva to escape so it was comfortable to wear, easy to wash and could stay on the bridle all the time, so it was quite easy. I’m always one for keeping things simple, for both horse and owner!
I had someone else on my yard say they also had a horse showing the same symptoms, could I make her a Muzzle Net too… turns out, she was also having lessons with someone who had a Grand Prix horse who was also a head shaker, could I make them one too?
At the time I was working full time in London, coming back every evening and making more and more Muzzle Nets, and I thought, there’s actually more head shakers that I realised – I originally felt very isolated because I thought I was one of the few people who owned a head shaker!
What I decided to do from there was contact the Royal Veterinary College, and they put me in touch with De Montford University and Dr. D. Mills, who was running something called the National Headshaking Survey. They were trying to put together a panel of headshakers from around the UK to see if there was any correlation between breeds, ages, background, training, feed, or some sort of pattern.
I contacted Dr Mills, and at the time, he and his PHD student Katy Taylor were actually trying to test potential products that might relieve the symptoms of head shaking. I showed him the Muzzle Net and he said, he thought that actually from the feedback from the panel and observations, he felt the Muzzle Net might have a good chance of helping some head shaking sufferers. It went into the clinical trial and was tested against a number of other products, but the Muzzle Net was the most effective of them all. It didn’t help everybody. But it did indicate that 79% of sufferers showed an improvement. Actually 50% of the head shakers showed a 100% improvement, which was incredible.
Having a Head Shaker
It’s awful. To ride, the more you go on, the worse it gets. I had some people saying ‘He’s just being resistant, he’s just being naughty’, ‘push him on’. But I knew – you couldn’t have a horse that had been fantastic to ride and hack, never put a foot wrong, suddenly turn out to be un-rideable. I knew there had to be a physical reason for it, I just didn’t know what it was. And no one did back then. I think previous to that, most head shakers used to be retired, or put down. This is why I think what happened with Timmy, changed the lives of so many other horses. One of the marked things for head shaking was, when Valegro was competing in young horse classes, one of the years he was wearing a Muzzle Net, and he still won. And it was a great step forward, because he wasn’t marked down for it.
There are a lot of different reasons for headshaking. It’s been likened to a headache – 6 people in a room could have a headache – but each one can be caused by something different. Head shaking is the same, it’s a symptom of something, but the reasons for it could be different. So that’s why the Muzzle Net works for some, but not everyone. But the way we look at it is, it can help 8 out of 10 horses, we just don’t know which 8.
The Net Relief Muzzle Net
I was at work one day, and I had a friend who was helping me with orders for Net Relief Muzzle Net. She rang me to say the phone had been going mad for the Muzzle Net with people wanting to know where they could get it from, because Horse & Hound had done an article on it. I was working just off Oxford Street in London and I ran down to try find a Horse&Hound somewhere in the middle of London – going into every WHSmiths looking for it. Eventually I got it, and there was a tiny article, about an eighth of a page, showing a picture of Timmy with his Muzzle Net on! This made it clear that head shaking horses weren’t that small of a minority, and this was a product that had lots of people had been waiting on.
The reason Horse & Hound had written the article, was because British Dressage had allowed the Muzzle Net to be used in competition, with written dispensation from the vet. It was a break-though!
The letters we’ve had since then to now have been fantastic. We even had one owner in Canada thanking us, saying ‘Thank you for giving me my horse back’, which makes me feel very emotional.
Onwards and Upwards
Since the Net Relief Muzzle Net, Timmy has been the inspiration for so many other products – such as the Equilibrium Therapy Massage Pad, Magnetic Back Pad, Stretch & Flex Wraps, Net Relief Riding Mask, Field Relief Max, Simply Irresistible – and is still inspiring products today!