HEAD SHAKING - 'Loaded gun disease'

Headshaking is characterised by a violent and repetitive movement of the horse’s head, almost as if a bee had flown up his nose. The suddenness of the headshaking can make it dangerous to ride or handle a horse with a headshaking problem such can be the severity of the problem.
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Researchers agree that headshaking is caused by the abnormal firing of the trigeminal nerve. Derek Knottenbelt, BVM&S, DVM&S, MRCVS, Dipl. ECEIM, of the University of Liverpool, calls headshaking a “loaded gun disease” in that it is ready and waiting for something to pull the trigger, whatever that trigger maybe – light, wind, dust, pollen etc. The triggers can be endless and varied, and sadly not known, so can be difficult to prevent.
The diversity of headshaking causes problems in its treatment, as what works for one horse may not work for another, and often owners resort to working their way through a long list of possibilities before finding one that fits.

Headshaking is uncurable – though it is manageable, so the resources available can hep you to manage the symptoms, as supposed to providing a cure. In some cases, around 20%, headshaking will disappear on its own, however it is important not to confuse this with the seasonality of headshaking.

The first step in regard to headshaking is to discuss it with your vet. It is important to rule out any other reasons for the behaviour. Then discuss possible treatments and the pros and cons of each with your vet. Treatments include a hormonal treatment, with works with the gonadotropins in the body. It is believed that the gonadotropins affect some part of the trigeminal nerve changing its chemistry and making it more unstable, which can trigger the headshaking behaviour. The treatment works on adjusting the hormonal levels in the body.
You can treat your horse with nerve suppression therapy, though there are associated side effects. 40% of cases find a nose net to help the headshaking – which is a cost effective simple starting place when trying to find a treatment that suits your horse. There are a range of nose nets on the market, we recommend the Shakeaze, as the guard has received recognition at the British Veterinary Equine Congress 2016 and the 2017 Sports Horse Veterinary Congress in Amsterdam, and is currently being trialled in headshaking research at the famous UC Davis Veterinary teaching hospital in California.

There seems to be indirect evidence that allergies do not contribute to headshaking, though in some cases using antihistamine drugs can be beneficial. In a few cases surgery can help, but these are the exception rather than the rule.
Headshaking is a difficult condition to manage, but by working with your vet, and taking the time to try different solutions to the problem, it can be possible to find a resolution to help your horse. Remember it is not bad behaviour!
Lizzie Hopkinson is a director at www.ethicalhorsemanshipassociation.co.uk