Headshaking can be a worrying and frustrating condition for horse owners, exacerbated by certain triggers through the spring, summer and autumn seasons. The main sign of this condition is obvious and pretty violent: the horse will shake/toss his head in a sudden vertical “flicking” movement of the nose. This motion is often repeated over and over, causing the horse distress and can make both riding and handling difficult. The horse’s reaction is intense and in more severe cases he may shake his whole head and neck.
Other signs to look out for include the horse rubbing his nose and/or muzzle on the ground or on objects (which can become vigorous or frantic), repeated snorting/sneezing, staring into space and general upset/anxious behaviour. It’s common for signs of headshaking to worsen when the horse is ridden compared to at rest, with some horses becoming so violently affected that they become impossible or dangerous to ride.
With pain-related conditions such as this, it’s important to rule out any other potential causes prior to a headshaking diagnosis. It is worth a conversation with your vet – with this behaviour, your horse is clearly indicating that he is in pain. This pain can potentially be caused by other issues, such as problems with the teeth, ill-fitting tack or other pain triggers such as back pain, lameness or from poor riding.What causes headshaking?
Headshaking as a condition has no current veterinary cure, so it’s important as owners for us to determine and understand the triggers and causes to effectively manage the condition and make the horse more comfortable.
Essentially, headshaking is a neurological condition which is caused by a hypersensitive nerve in the face, with the level of hypersensitivity increased by seasonal triggers. This nerve is the Trigeminal Nerve which runs across the face and controls the sensation of touch; the condition is known as Trigeminal Mediated Headshaking (TMH). Simple touches to the face – even a drop of rain landing – may cause extreme pain for your horse. It’s highly common for headshakers to be very sensitive on the face, particularly around the muzzle.
Spring and autumn is usually the worst time of year for headshakers, depending on individual triggers for that horse. Pollen allergies, insects, sunlight, wind, stress and reactions to wearing a bridle are common headshaking triggers.
How can headshaking be managed?
The key way to manage headshaking is to identify and alleviate the main trigger for your horse. This may include stabling your horse during the day to keep him away from bright sunlight and insects, using a nose net and antihistamines to manage pollen allergy or ride in an ergonomic bridle to help alleviate any facial discomfort. Using a UV blocking fly mask may be helpful, but equally it may worsen symptoms to put a face mask on a horse with facial sensitivity. Maintaining a quiet and calm routine and riding very early/very late in the day can also be a beneficial management technique. Riding early/late in the day will mean that key triggers of sunlight and flies are less severe.How can NAF Shake Relief help my horse?
NAF Shake Relief offers valuable, targeted nutritional support for horse’s showing signs of seasonal stress and anxiety displayed through headshaking. Shake Relief contains bio-available magnesium and soothing herbs to support a calm, focused and confident outlook, easing anxiety. MSM provides soft tissue support while Vitamin B12 provides nerve fibre integrity. The inclusion of dietary antioxidants helps the body to flush out the damaging free radical toxins associated with pain, inflammation and the histamine release response seen as a result of exposure to the trigger allergen.
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"I have been privileged to have had Dexey in my life for 18 years and very soon after buying her, I found out that the mild head shaking, described in the vetting as a 'young horse getting used to the bit' escalated into something that was quite distressing for both horse and rider. I took her on holiday that year to Cranbourne Chase and as soon as we went under any trees, she would become very distressed and at 4 years old she was managing piaffe and passage very well without any tuition nor any prompting from me!!! During the winter, the symptoms went only to return in the spring. Over time, I have learned that tree pollen is the culprit, mainly beech and oak. She is now almost 22 and either she has learned to accept the symptoms or has built up some immunity, I am not sure, but she does not become quite so agitated but I know she is still in considerable discomfort. It is only her perfect manners which stop her from trying to escape from the stress of it. As you will guess, in all this time, I have tried almost every possible remedy from a special mixture of pollens made up for her, to human hay fever tablets prescribed by my vet which involved crushing 80 tablets per day. I had not heard of Shake Relief - I have to say I have never been a huge believer in supplements but she had a bit of a cough and my current vet recommended I try Respirator Boost, which I have to say did the trick. It was whilst I was enquiring about Respirator that I learned about Shake Relief, so thinking 'what the heck' decided to try it. I am now on my second tub with a third on order and at this early stage, the results have been very positive indeed. Our yard backs onto a bridleway running alongside a river and bounded by trees on both sides, so you will appreciate that midges are also a problem in addition to the pollen. So far, the results have been very positive, so I am keeping my fingers crosses as this is one of the worst times of the year for her. This mare is not a cheap date, but if I can make her life as happy as she has made mine, I think we have both fulfilled our relationship! Thank you very much for your advice."
"I have found the supplement very helpful for making Nosey more comfortable. He is 14 and has had a problem since the age of 6. If no measures are taken he is quite distressed rubbing his nose and shaking his head all over the place when he is outside his stable in summer. There are also some signs through the winter. My normal measures are fly mask, nose net, homeopathic pills and cranial sacral therapy. Even with these I have to limit schooling sessions at peak pollen and particles in the air times. When using the NAF supplement he is noticeably more comfortable and relaxed in most riding sessions, and in fact when feeding it I now forget about his condition through the winter months. He is also able to be turned out in summer for a few hours with very few crazy moments. There are occasional high pollen/particles in the air days when even at high doses of the supplement he is better off in the stable. But most of the time I feel the supplement is helpful making him more comfortable in his life."
"In 2018 my horse developed an occasional shake of the head. I tried many different products to help ease his symptoms and the shake itself but to no avail. I saw NAF UK offering a trial of a new product and contacted them as it I felt this may help. I was so pleased with the results after only a few weeks. It has definitely helped to settle my horse and he can now enjoy hacking and schooling without constant discomfort. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone with a similarly sensitive horse."
"I was lucky to be able to trial the Shake Relief supplement for my horse. Prior to the trial she had become increasingly stressed and difficult to ride due to severe bouts of seasonal sensitivity. It was impossible to carry out any schooling work and normal hacking was becoming quite dangerous. I introduced the supplement gradually, as she can be a particularly fussy feeder. She got used to the supplement very quickly and the results were noticeable within a short space of time (about a week). Her symptoms were markedly improved, she was less stressed and shaking her head was much reduced to the point that it was possible to hack out happily and resume flat work. Her concentration levels increased dramatically to the point she has started jumping and been hunting."
"I bought Tiffin a 16.2 TB. in November last year, although having ridden and had horses on loan all my life, he is the first horse i have actually owned. At first he occasionally shook his head when out hacking and grabbed at the bit. He was fine when ridden in the school and when jumping, it seemed that if he had something to concentrate on he was fine, so at first I put it down to it being a 'TB thing'. However, in February/March this year, he became nearly un-rideable. I bought a nose net as someone suggested this might help, it did and he was better but I wondered if there was a supplement that could help. I did some research and read other peoples stories on the NAF website and decided to give Shake Relief a go. I started Tiffin on 2 scoops and within 10 days, it was like riding a new horse! He was calm and working well both out hacking and in the school. I then dropped him down to 1 scoop a day and he was ok but definitely not as good. About 2 weeks ago he went on box rest due to a bruised sole. Don't ask me why I did it, but I stopped his Shake Relief. The first time I took him out again, he was a complete nightmare and the next time and the time after that. So I put him back on Shake Relief and he has returned to a calm and content horse again. Although I think he may need to be one of these horses that stays on it all year long, it really is a great supplement for him!"