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Medical Index
First Posted: Oct 27, 2008
Jun 1, 2012

Head Shaking in Horses

by Debora Johnson

Update: "Successful treatment of headshaking by use of infrared diode laser deflation and coagulation of corpora nigra cysts and behavioral modification in a horse," was published in the Nov. 15 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Jeannine Berger, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, Stephanie A. Bell, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM; Bradford J. Holmberg, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVO; and John E. Madigan, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM.

"In horses with excessive tearing and photophobia (a sensitivity or aversion to light), sodium cromoglycate eye drops (one drop per eye four times per day) appears to markedly decrease the incidence of headshaking. (by: Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc in an article dated October 07, 2008)"

For an excellent study: Head shaking in Horses
John E. Madigan, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM, Department of Medicine and Epidemiology, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

Annoying, dangerous, and frustrating--head shaking in horses has been observed and recorded for more than 100 years. It can affect all breeds. This shaking can be done in an up and down motion or a side to side motion. It is a syndrome that is not totally understood, however, there are a number of avenues to pursue in trying to determine the cause. It has been noted that head shaking in horses is often seasonal. One of the possible reasons for this is that seratonin and melatonin changes occur with the changes of the seasons.

The following are some YouTube videos of horses head shaking in stalls, pastures and under tack with sound.

Head Shaking in Horses Video

Head shaking horse Video

Horse Head Shaking Under Tack

Possible Signs

  • Nasal rubbing
  • Snorting or sneezing with head shaking
  • Flipping of the nose
  • Rubbing nose on ground or objects
  • Shaking head up and down
  • Shaking head side to side
  • Shaking head and pawing
  • Develops after trauma of some sort
  • Horse seeks out shaded areas
Possible Causes

  • Insects
  • Ear infections
  • Ear mites
  • Teeth
  • Nasal infections (vasomotor rhinitis)
  • Photic (Sensitivity to sunlight/Optic-trigeminal)(Treatment drug called cyproheptadine) Photosensitive
  • Cranial nerve problems
  • Contusion, lacerations, or hemorrhage causing acute damage
  • Tumors
  • Neck pain
  • Guttural pouch mycosis
  • Intense exercise and sunlight
  • Heat
  • Stress
  • Changes in hormone levels
  • EHV-1 virus (Horses who have been exposed to this virus are more at risk).
  • Ill fitting tack
  • Harsh hands
  • Weight gain during a layoff
  • Lack of aerobic exercise
Possible Treatments for Head Shaking
  • Cyproheptidine Therapy (An anti-seratonergic, anti-cohligenic and anti-histamine drug)(Works effectively in most horses by inhibiting the normal activity in the trigeminal nerve.)
  • Protection from sunlight
  • Eye Protectors
  • Environmental changes (keep horse in a shaded area as much as possible)

It is always necessary to have a complete vet check done to try to determine what is going on with the head shaking horse. Many causes can be ruled out just by a complete physical during a farm call. There is help for the head shaking horse once the cause is determined.

For More Information:

Headshaking/©Katy Taylor, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK An excellent article.
Headshaking Triggers and Treatment An excellent article.

Medical Index