From Endurance to Dressage
What is Headshaking?
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 ...
4/28/2015 11:40:01 pm
Oh my goodness, I am so, so terribly sorry to hear this about Izzy. I had a horse who was a headshaker, and have been where you are and tried everything you have or are looking into. I sincerely hope that you find something that works to help Izzy's symptoms - it really is an awful thing. Some of my experiences are on my blog, but if you'd like to contact me privately, you can get me at jen jobst at gmail dot com.
4/29/2015 01:14:54 am
My first thought as well. I am sorry to hear this.
4/29/2015 03:48:09 am
Jen will be a great resource for you. I hope you find the key to controlling this asap.
4/29/2015 02:08:50 am
Silent follower of your wonderful blog. You might check out
4/29/2015 02:40:52 am
A friend of mine's OTTB was diagnosed as a headshaker two years ago. Only appears in the spring. The first spring (she'd only had him a few months) he was horrible. Couldn't ride him at all. She tried everything. Finally, she switched to a grain that's supposed to be good for horses with allergies and the headshaking decreased significantly. And once spring was past, no more headshaking.
oh no! :( what disappointing news. i sincerely hope you find something that works for Izzy. we have a head shaker at my barn who does really well with a nose net and seems quite manageable... but after reading about JenJ's experiences it's clear that things can get very serious very fast. good luck!
4/29/2015 05:50:19 pm
I am sorry to hear this!
4/30/2015 07:23:18 am
Forgive me in advance for what is probably a way off base question.. But when you describe a nerve condition, and knowing your horse had significant exposure to the white lotion, which you said had a lead base, has any thought been given to testing his blood levels for lead?
5/17/2015 01:22:51 am
Karen, I love your blog and I know you trust your vet but Betty might be onto something. Lead toxicity does occur in horses and lead can be absorbed through the skin. There's a reason why we don't use it in skin products anymore, despite its effectiveness at maintaining beautiful skin. Here is an article: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22546056/ns/health/t/suffering-beauty-has-ancient-roots/#.VVir7o5Viko
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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)
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3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: