From Endurance to Dressage
Last week, Izzy got crankier each day I rode. Rather than push him through the spookiness and reluctance to go forward, I backed off and worked him at the walk, returning to trot when he felt more ready. On Friday, I rolled my eyes in exasperation. What now? He was very unhappy in his work, so I spent the last 20 minutes of the ride just walking, asking him to move his body around. As I rode, it occurred to me that Friday was the first day of October. That explained it.
Every spring and fall - February and October to be precise, Izzy experiences some neurological/physiological pain or discomfort commonly referred to as Trigeminal-mediated headshaking. It happens every year like clockwork. On the first warm day in February - here, that means our first couple of 80 degree days, Izzy flicks his head sharply, rubs at his nose, and snorts/sneezes frequently. To see him do it, it looks like he's being stung on the nose. In the fall, right around October, the symptoms are different. Instead of visual head shaking, he becomes very distressed while being ridden. He spooks, chomps frantically at the bit, gets very wide-eyed, and generally acts miserable.
My vet and I have discussed this many times. In his experience, seasonal changes can induce headshaking. For Izzy, it is the amount of daylight we have in spring and fall that trigger his symptoms. In February, our days begin getting longer quickly, and in October, the daylight is fast disappearing. It's interesting that it is only the equinoxes that affect him, not the solstices (when the sun is at its highest and lowest points). Early on, I tried a few things to mitigate the symptoms - an anatomical bridle, a nose net, magnesium, and other supplements. Nothing really worked. The symptoms just pass on their own.
On Saturday morning, I took a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. While I waited for Sean to join me in the Pivo Cast, I warmed Izzy up. To my surprise, he was very willing, in front of my leg, and soft. Sean joined me, and we got to work. For the first half of the lesson, Izzy did everything that was asked of him, and everything felt fabulous. Over the past few months, Sean has shown me how to loosen Izzy's back by doing lots of leg yields and other exercises that encourage Izzy to cross over with his hind legs. Each week, Sean helps me build on what we learned the week before.
After a short walk break, Sean suggested we work on a tiny bit of lengthening. Almost immediately, Izzy shut down. He tightened his back, spooked in every corner, and began gnashing at the bit. I was very surprised because what we had been asking him to do beforehand - canter leg yields, was much more difficult. So why get so stressed out over a bit of a trot lengthening?
I immediately felt my frustration rise. Sean reminded me not to make it a "thing," something I had just blogged about, but it had already become a thing. We were struggling with one corner in particular. Each time we came through it, Izzy flew sideways, twisting his body violently as he tried to jerk the reins through my fingers. Sean encouraged me to avoid riding into that corner with the expectation that Izzy might spook. I explained to him that unless I put my aids on and really pushed him into the corner, I had no control. I understood what Sean was asking me to do, but he couldn't feel Izzy. I knew that without putting my aids on, there was no way Izzy was going into that corner.
After another huge spook and bolt, I told Sean I needed to change the conversation, and I let Izzy canter. After several circles, Sean asked me to walk him because he could see that the tension was only escalating, and that is what we are trying to avoid. As we walked, I went back to the work I'd been doing during the week, lots of turns, ten-meter half circles, turns on the forehand - anything that asked Izzy to move his body around.
As I helped Izzy to relax, Sean and i chatted about what was going on. When I asked why the trot lengthening set Izzy off after the much harder leg yield work, Sean explained that going forward while straight is a tension building movement. In order to lengthen, horses have to build positive tension. For Izzy, when he's already experiencing the "discomfort" of the headshaking, that added bit of tension is simply more than he can handle.
Rather than be discouraged by the situation, Sean explained that we now have an opportunity to build more trust with Izzy. By not pushing him through the work but by backing off, we are telling Izzy that we hear him and that we are here to support him. Izzy's willingness to work in the first part of the lesson proved that my approach the day before had made a difference. As long as this episode lasts, Sean encouraged me to go as slowly as I need to because once this is over, Izzy will have even more trust in me.
Last week I shared Sean's post about taking the time that it takes. When we listen to our horses and do what they need, we will ultimately get much farther in our journey than if we try to push them before they are ready. Sean helped me see that rather than seeing this as a setback, I need to use it as an opportunity to further strengthen my relationship with Izzy.
I have a very complicated horse. Whenever I remind Sean of this fact, he rolls his eyes (I think because I can't actually see him do it) and says, "if they were all easy, we'd all be Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro." It's easy to be patient once or twice or even five times, but Sean's level of patience with Izzy and me is now appearing to be unlimited. Each time I bring Sean a new problem, he looks it over, gives it a thought, and reduces it to a tiny pebble.
Instead of seeing a mountain of problems that I can't overcome, Sean is creating a path of pebbles that serve to keep the dust down.
For a more complete answer, check out this website or this one, but the short answer is this:
"Headshaking is a condition of horses in which the horse shakes, flicks, or jerks its head uncontrollably without apparent stimulus (without any obvious cause)."
Headshaking happens for a variety of reasons, again, check out the websites for a better explanation, but there are two basic causes: abnormal function of the trigeminal nerve and/or exposure to bright sunlight.
Horses who experience headshaking generally flick their heads up and down with a sudden motion much like they've been stung. Sneezing and nose rubbing are also symptoms.
In February, Izzy went through a weeklong period of extreme sneezing attacks while in his stall. I chalked it up to an allergy and watched for any nasal discharge. The episode passed and we moved on to lunging and under saddle work.
While riding him bareback, he started flinging his head pretty violently, but I chalked it up to nervous tension. Once I started riding him with the saddle, the head jerking was accompanied with repetitive sneezing. I called the vet. His tentative diagnosis was headshaking. I was crushed.
I started researching the condition and was somewhat encouraged. Izzy had only some of the signs, and only when working. As suggested by my vet, I started doing different tests to find out what triggered the headshaking and sneezing. I kept a detailed log of weather conditions and Izzy's response.
For most headshakers, sunlight is a giant trigger, not so for Izzy. I did lots of hand walking and lunging in the arena on the brightest days possible with the sun high in the sky. For some of the tests, I turned Speedy out while I walked Izzy with my handystick in hand (for protection). On those days, Izzy was the most relaxed and completely symptom free. Bright sunlight does not seem to be a trigger.
Since sunlight doesn't appear to be a trigger, I started working on other therapies:
While the pharmaceutical therapies don't seem to be really effective, there are two things that do seem to be working. The first is that head shaking is quite often seasonal which means for many horses it goes away as spring turns to summer. It can come back in the fall, wait until spring before reappearing, or simply disappear all together. That might be why Izzy's symptoms are lessening.
The second thing that Izzy has going for him is that the trigeminal nerve is not damaged. There is not anything wrong with him other than the fact that something is causing that nerve to misfire. This is a good thing. If we can eliminate the trigger, we can help him work more comfortably.
Izzy's symptoms do not seem to come from the bright sunlight, but rather from tension. My vet agreed with this assessment. Some horses who experience headshaking only show signs when asked to work. As their tension levels rise, the trigeminal nerve misfires and the headshaking begins. Izzy's symptoms are mostly sneezing, so we are addressing this as a training issue - as in how do we reduce his tension?
How are we doing that? I'll share more in another post. We don't have a concrete answer yet, but we're chipping away at the problem, and I am still having fun riding him.
Check back for more ...
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: