Headshaking is a problem seen in horses all over the country. If your horse is affected it is important to try and find out the cause of the problem so that appropriate treatment and preventive methods can be put into place. Horses can be severely distressed by headshaking as it is a response to pain or irritation of the head.

Headshaking describes the presenting sign of a number of conditions. The challenge is to identify the cause of the headshaking. Headshaking involves an often dangerous and unpredictable tendency to shake or nod the head which may be accompanied by snorting or sneezing. The action of headshaking is usually spontaneous with frequently repetitive vertical, horizontal or rotary movements of the head and neck. The horse is often described as behaving as if a bee has stung its nose.
One side of the face may be more severely affected than the other; this will be obvious by your horse rubbing one side of the face more than the other, or turning the head to one side. Headshaking is often severely distressing to the affected horse as the behaviour is a response to pain or irritation.

Headshaking is usually caused by some sort of head pain or irritation, which may have no known cause. It can also be caused by:

  • dental problems
  • poorly fitting tack
  • ear mites/ticks
  • allergic response
  • neurological problems
  • acute and chronic environmental frustration.

Even an increase of blood flow to nasal mucosa and turbulence of air flow through the nares of the nasal cavity can increase irritation and cause headshaking during exercise. Other irritants may include pollen grains, dust particles and volatile irritants that trigger an allergic reaction.
Headshaking is often seasonal (approximately 60% of cases only occur in the spring and summer) but can also be non-seasonal. Most seasonal headshakers are worse on bright sunny days, improving at night or when indoors and in rainy weather, these features are less common in non-seasonal shakers.

During exercise headshaking can be so severe that it may unseat the rider and the horse may stumble. This shaking action can be seemingly uncontrollable, persistent or intermittent. Ensure that all tack is checked, especially the bridle and bit, and that it fits correctly.
Your horse may rub its nose or attempt to rub its nose while stationary or while moving; your horse may also strike at its face with one of its front legs. It is also thought that this behaviour may worsen when excited.
The upper lip is often flipped or gyrated, and swelling of the nose and lip muscles occurs in long-standing cases.

Treatment depends on the cause, therefore no single consistently effective treatment is available. Options include a change of environment (try and avoid bright light, warmth or wind on the face), management or riding, nose masks, contact lenses and medical treatment, if appropriate.
Nose nets appear to be the most consistent non-surgical treatment to date – overall improvement in 70% of cases, with 60% improving by 50% or more and around a third improving by more than 70%. Improvements, however, may vary depending on the specific symptom. Occlusive masks with side ports are another option and may help up to 80% of cases, but these are often impractical.
Some headshaking cases show significant improvement with a change of environment, but many develop the problem again within days of the move. If your horse doesn’t improve having tried these methods you should contact your vet. Your vet may suggest using coloured or polaroid contact lenses or may recommend various types of drug therapy; your vet will discuss these with you.