Maybe you’re just getting to grips with a new mount this spring or you’re bringing on your youngster. Imagine your horror when you find your horse starts headshaking. Your dreams of being able to compete or even hack safely begin to crumble around you. But don’t despair – headshaking need not mean the end to your horse’s riding career. New research is helping vets and owners to better understand this condition and give practical solutions for managing the problem.
What is headshaking?
Nowadays it seems that everyone knows someone with a head shaker. But what is a ‘head shaker’ and what distinguishes them from a horse with a short-term irritation or behavioural problem?
Most horses shake their heads from time to time to get rid of flies or when frustrated. Horses that simply nod their heads when stabled or as they turn home from a ride, may not be head shakers but ‘nodders’, a condition that is responsive to changes in management. ‘Nodders’ do not usually cause great problems to themselves or their owner. True head shakers do so persistently and for no apparent reason.
They exhibit sharp, jerky vertical and horizontal head movements. The severity of the movements can vary from small flicks to huge, sweeping arcs which threaten to hit the rider on the nose or unseat them. Experts now recognise that head shakers also exhibit symptoms that suggest the horse is suffering from irritation within or around the face and muzzle. Head shakers that also snort excessively during an attack will try to rub their face or act as if a bee has gone up their nose. They may even run their nose along the ground or strike the ground during the attack. Moreover the unpredictability of the length and occurrence of these attacks can severely limit a rider’s ability to compete or even ride safely.
By Dr Katy Taylor De Montfort University