Headshaking: is there hope for the horse?

Headshaking in horses is a problem for many horse owners. The constant shaking of the head quickly brings horse training and handling to its limits.

However, it does not only limit the rider, the horse also loses a lot of quality of life. So the despair of many does not come from nowhere. People start looking for causes and healing methods. Sometimes with slow success. Unfortunately.

Interesting to know:

At that time, violent head-butting in horses was considered purely a bad habit. Today, the subject is treated in a differentiated way. Quasi headshaking as a behavioural disorder in horses, for health reasons, due to various rider errors, due to inadequate equipment or as a confrontation with environmental triggers. Therefore, it is not a horse disease in the true sense of the word, nor is it necessarily to be equated only with the horse's weaving and bobbing.

Of course, we do not want to withhold from you what is behind all this and how the headshaking syndrome can possibly be brought under control. One thing should be said beforehand: Headshaking treatment successes do exist - only the way there is usually a bit rocky.

Headshaking in horses - what is it?

It is assumed that 1 to 2% of all horses are actually affected. The uncontrolled shaking of the head has also been mentioned in writing for over 200 years.

When this happens, the horse moves its head suddenly and for no apparent reason from bottom to top, from side to side or even in a circular motion. The resulting jerk goes through the entire horse's body and is of course clearly felt by the rider. If the animal can still be ridden at all. Even ground work becomes an act when the shaking stimulus is enormous.

The symptoms can be less or more pronounced. Everything from head banging, head shaking to twitching is present. The immediate impulsive and compulsive action is the most typical feature of headshaking in horses.

The severity, duration and occurrence can vary. It depends on the cause and even on the season and weather conditions.

Often the animals show stressed and unfocused behaviour. Some horses even reflexively lash out with the forehand.

For example, if there is irritation from the trigeminal nerve, rubbing the nostrils against the legs, wall or the ground is often used. There are also animals that literally hide their head in the tail of their conspecifics. A frequent twitching of the facial muscles can be observed.

Increased snorting or slobbering with the upper lip are also signs of headshaking.


Health reasons can be:

- Dental problems (e.g. an inflammation of the tooth root or a troublesome wolf tooth).

- Health defects of the eye, auditory canal, mouth and nasal cavity (possibly fluid accumulation)

- fungal infections

- Injuries to the neck muscles

- Back or spinal problems and resulting damage to the nervous system

- Nerve damage caused by viruses (e.g. herpes) or bacteria (e.g. Lyme disease)

- a connection between the trigeminal nerve and the optic nerve (e.g. trigeminal neuralgia in horses)

- Allergies (pollen, moulds or insects)

Some horses shake without any recognisable disease-related causes.

Such triggers can be, for example

- unsuitable bridles and saddles

- wrong bit

- rideability problems

- Rider error

This narrowing down of causes produced 3 headshaking horse types:

- stereotypic headshaking (similar to a behavioural disorder in a horse e.g. cocking, weaving in a horse)

- symptomatic headshaking due to an underlying cause (revealed by investigation)

- idiopathic headshaking (no apparent cause)


An immediate diagnosis can be difficult and time consuming because the clinical picture of headshaking is so complex. First and foremost, the owner is questioned extensively.

What are the husbandry and feeding conditions?

When (at rest or at work) do the symptoms occur?

Is it worse when exposed to light?

Where does it happen? When riding, in the paddock, in the pasture or in the stable?

How long does the head banging last?

Is the animal otherwise healthy? Can it be touched anywhere? Any other abnormalities?

Another point is the exclusion procedure. Here, for example, a painkiller is administered to see if the horse stops head banging. If so, an attempt is made to localise the pain.

This is similar to an allergic reaction. The animal may be given anti-allergic medication and it will be observed again.

Furthermore, X-rays or a CT scan can provide information if, for example, the spinal column is being considered.

Therapy of the "horse sickness

If an allergic reaction is present, the headshaking syndrome can usually be counteracted well. Dental problems and ostheopathic findings can also be eliminated and thus there are treatment successes with headshaking.

It also makes sense to replace a bit with a bitless alternative if an unsuitable bit is suspected.

The effect will quickly become apparent. A similar procedure is followed with the saddle.

If the horse is only ridden by one rider, a change of rider can reveal whether there is something wrong with the riding technique.

The story of trigeminal neuralgia in horses is more difficult. This very painful disease requires certain medications (strong side effects) and the prognosis is not really promising. Especially if the animal is in severe pain due to the trigeminal nerve, a decision should be made in any case for the benefit of the animal.

Often light shyness is recognised in these horses (photic headshaking). Headshaking in horses is particularly severe in spring/summer.

The trigeminal nerve splits in the entire visual field of the horse's head. Understandably, pain is extremely stressful for the animal. However, a new procedure, the so-called PENS technique, is said to provide some horses with relief for a few months. This electrical nerve stimulation lowers the stimulus threshold of the nerve, which results in a reduction of head banging. However, this method is not entirely straightforward.

If a headshaker is additionally fitted with a nose net, fringes or a dark fly mask, the stimulus can still be distracted.

Ultimately, minimising the stimulus is always crucial and the main part of a treatment.

Acupuncture, homeopathy and chiropractic are often mentioned as accompanying therapies. In any case a good support for the whole organism horse. In addition, a stress-free environment is recommended for the patient. This means meeting the horse's needs as best as possible - lots of free exercise, high-quality feed, clean bedding and a relaxed life with other horses. Sounds obvious to you? Great, your horsemanship thinking is intact!

Unfortunately, the conditions under which some horses are kept are a real problem. For the good of all animals, whether ill or not, the "necessary" should always be questioned! Love for the unique character of the horse obliges us to do so, doesn't it?