Issues From The Saddle: Horse With Head Shake Logo

Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Good morning Julie,

I have two additional questions for you: First, I have written about an extremely sensitive five year old mare, who is still occasionally blowing up if touched unexpectedly. Her owner was advised to put her on Relax Saver, but there is little improvement after two weeks of this treatment. This little girl is still not able to be trimmed by the blacksmith and is so defensive when the owner approaches her in her stall every day, even after living there for four years! There is no evidence of any soreness….. Additionally, she asked me to write to you about her other Palomino who developed a head tic after touching an electric wire with her mouth. She is photo sensitive now, and very uncomfortable to ride in warm and particularly sunny weather. The rider is very careful not to bump the mouth, but the head tossing is so extreme that the reins are frequently tossed over the horse’s head and to one side. If you have any thoughts on this problem, please let me know. The owner does not have a computer, and we both attended your clinic in Columbus, Ohio, at Equine Affaire. Thank you so much, Julie! I continue to be a great fan of yours and have spread the word about your philosophies of training.

Marie Lester

Answer: Hi Marie,

Thanks for the kind words and support 🙂 This horse owner certainly has some horses with issues and I hope she does not get too frustrated.
The condition that you seem to be describing is “head shake.” It is not real common but I know of a few horses that have had this condition. It seems to be a relatively new phenomenon and there has been little research done about it. Headshake is a violent shake of the head, rather spasmodic and very different from a horse that is throwing his head. Horses that develop headshake are often photosensitive and they work fine indoors but when working outdoors the problem is much worse. Some horses with headshake are not photosensitive.

The cause of headshake is not fully understood. One theory is that it is allergy related and some horses do better on anti-allergy drugs and only seem to have a problem at certain times of the year. Another theory is that headshake horses have a damaged nuchal ligament which is the ligament connecting the horse’s head and neck at the poll. One possible cause of damage to this ligament is too much time spent riding in an over flexed frame (behind the bit).

I am sorry to say that is all I know on the subject and none of my veterinary textbooks have any info on the subject. What I know is from just a few articles on the subject I have read and also some personal accounts I know of. Perhaps you can find out more by searching some veterinary websites or consulting your vet or the nearest vet school. Let me know if you find any additional info as I too am interested in this subject. I’ll email a few of my vet friends and see if I can find additional info. Good luck.

BTW- the Relax Saver is certainly not a cure all but I have found it very helpful, along with training, in over-sensitive horses.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer


Julie: Headshaking can be a very frustrating condition in horses, so I am glad you do not have a horse suffering from it. The 2 veterinarians that I know that probably know the most about it are John Madigan at UC-Davis and Pam Wilkins at the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently in Equus (June 2004, pp 40-50) there was an article about head shaking and the author interviewed or got most of their information from Dr. Madigan at UC-Davis and Derek Knottenbelt in the UK. Let me know if you do not have access to it and I can send you a copy.

Horses can head shake vertically (most common), horizontally, and in circular patterns.

Causes of head shaking include, but are not limited to allergic rhinitis, photic head shaking (similar to sun sneezing in horses), masses in the respiratory sinus, pharynx, larynx or guttural pouches, bad teeth, changes in the stylohyoid bone, ear problems, tack problems, rider problems, sour horses that do not like to do what they are being asked to do, withers fractures (rare), and potentially nuchal ligament disease. Some cases are idiopathic because we check everything we know to check and can not find any reason for the condition. Some horses will get so bad they will just do it out on pasture, while many only do it when being ridden. Often the history will be the horse was recently bought in the winter months and then as the weather starts to warm the horse starts to head-shake, implying the horse was dumped.

Allergic horses respond to steroids (systemic or nebulized), sun sneezers respond to tinted eye covers on head masks or Cyproheptadine), some horses respond to a nose net (thought to stimulate the nose similar to rubbing your nose to stop you from sneezing) and the other disease require fixing the inciting cause surgically or management-wise. Some horses are treated with a drug called Tegretol (carbamazepine) for idiopathic shaking or Tegretol and Cyproheptadine. Lately, I think UC-Davis has been treating some horses with long-acting sedatives with some success.
As I said, this just touches briefly on most of the causes, it can be incredibly frustrating and in many instances a cause is not identified.

Ryland B. Edwards, III, DVM, MS, PhD Diplomate ACVS
Clinical Assistant Professor

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