Everything You Need to Know About Headshaking in Horses

Do you have a horse that shakes its head frequently? If so, you’re not alone. Horse-shaking head is a common problem that can be caused by a variety of factors. In this blog post, we will discuss the causes of headshaking in horses and how to treat it. We will also provide some tips for preventing this problem from occurring in the first place. So, if you’re concerned about your horse’s tendency to shake its head, read on!

When a horse shakes his head, what does that mean?

Horses can shake their heads for a number of reasons, but most of the time it’s just because they’re trying to get rid of a fly. Even if a horse shakes its head, it’s not usually called a “headshaker.”

A real headshaking, on the other hand, is a horse that can’t stop shaking its head or rubbing its nose. The shaking of the head can be mild and just a little annoying for both the horse and the rider, or it can be so violent and frantic that the horse is dangerous to ride and can’t even eat.

What are the signs that a horse’s head is shaking?

Even though head shaking is the most common sign, horses can also show a number of other signs, depending on what’s making them shake their heads. Some horses have been known to rub or bite their legs so hard with their noses that they have worn away the skin.

Other signs of shaking the head are:

  • Tossing or turning the head
  • Putting nose in the dirt
  • Red bumps on the face
  • Inflamed nostrils
  • hitting his head on the stall
  • Sensitive to being touched
  • Sneezing/snorting
  • Coughing
  • Having nothing to look at,
  • Eyes that tear or swell
  • Extreme agitation

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What causes horses to shake their heads?

In the past, not much was known about headshaking, and many people thought it was just a bad habit that should be ignored or fixed. Thankfully, we now know a lot more about the condition.

There are a lot of different reasons why horses shake their heads, but they can all be put into one of two main groups: those caused by a physical problem (like pain or bad behavior) and those caused by the trigeminal nerve firing (sometimes referred to as trigeminal-mediated headshaking).

Physically shaking the head

Pain in any part of a horse’s body can cause it to shake its head, but a pain in the head or back is the most common cause. For example, a poorly fitting bridle or bit or dental problems can cause pain in the head. They can also shake their heads when a bad rider hurts them or makes them uncomfortable. No one likes to admit they have problems with their riding, but a horse will shake its head if the rider pulls too hard on the reins.

Most of the time, pain-related shaking of the head is easy to fix by getting rid of the source of the pain.

Even though it doesn’t happen as often, some horses shake their heads to show who is boss or to get out of doing work. In these situations, getting back to being the leader will help change this behavior.

Trigeminal-controlled shaking of the head

When it comes to head shaking caused by the trigeminal nerve, there are two different kinds. Sometimes called “photosensitive headshaking,” photic headshaking happens when the horse’s trigeminal nerve is overstimulated by things like light, wind, noise, or even pollen. On the other hand, idiopathic or “spontaneous” headshaking happens even when there are no outside stimuli.

Idiopathic headshaking is often the most upsetting for both the horse and its owner since it has no clear cause and can make the horse so sick that it can’t always eat.

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How do you tell if a horse is shaking its head?

Diagnosing the condition is easy since the violent shaking of the head is very obvious. The hard part is figuring out what’s causing it.

If you think your horse is always shaking its head, you should watch it in a number of different places and situations. Do they do it more when it’s sunny or windy, or only when they’re being ridden? Keeping a detailed record of how your pet acts will help your vet figure out what’s wrong. It’s also a good idea to record the horse shaking its head. This might not seem like a big deal, but some horses stop shaking their heads on the day of the exam, so having a video will help your vet.

Some vets may suggest a Bute trial to help figure out why the horse is shaking its head. If the horse shows signs of improvement, then the shaking is caused by pain or a behavioral problem. If the horse doesn’t get better at all, on the other hand, the vet can be sure that it has trigeminal-mediated headshaking.

In addition to the Bute test, your vet may do other tests, such as a thorough check of the ears, eyes, and teeth. They may also take blood samples, ear swabs, or do CT or MRI scans.

How frequently do horses shake their heads?

The majority of horses headshake at some point in their lives; this is quite normal (and frequently done as a manner of coping with annoyances like flies) and of no concern. On the other hand, people who shake their heads continuously for more than three months are much less prevalent. Although it occurs more frequently in Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Warmbloods, headshaking can affect any horse, regardless of breed.

It is estimated that 4.5 percent of all horses—or roughly 2,626,925 horses—will experience chronic headshaking at some point in their life, despite the fact that there have never been any formal studies on the subject. Eighty percent of them will only do it while riding, leaving 20 percent who will only do it at rest.

Over 2 million horses suffer from head shaking.

Even though there are over 2 million horses, only about 1 percent of them will experience severe enough suffering to require veterinary assistance. This does not make the situation any easier for the horses or their owners, though. The good news is that, in most situations, headshaking can be controlled, if not fully eliminated.

While any horse can experience headshaking, it’s important to note that between 63 and 72 percent of all occurrences involve geldings. While it’s unclear exactly why this is the case, it’s thought that reproductive hormones may lessen the trigeminal nerve’s sensitivity.

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How is headshaking in horses managed?

There is a lot of trial and error because there isn’t a magic solution or quick fix that will permanently stop your horse from shaking its head. Most veterinarians advise starting with one medication at first and giving it enough time to see if it is beneficial; however, this could be many years in the case of seasonal head shakers because not all treatment options are effective for all horses.

Even while many of the aforementioned natural treatments are effective, you might discover that your horse does better with a more traditional, medical kind of treatment. These include neuropathic pain medications like gabapentin, antihistamines like hydroxyzine or cyproheptadine, and even anticonvulsants like carbamazepine.

Bilateral infraorbital neurectomy, a surgical treatment in which a small portion of the nerve ending is destroyed, is a possibility in the most severe cases, but it has a low success rate (only around 16 percent of horses improve) and has a risk of major side effects. Caudal compression of the infraorbital nerve is another treatment with an 84 percent success rate. Horses frequently experience a noticeable improvement in just 24 hours after having a platinum coil used to compress the infraorbital nerve.


Headshaking is an interesting behavior that can have a variety of causes. If your horse starts shaking his head, it’s important to determine the underlying cause as soon as possible in order to start treatment. The best way to do this is by working with your veterinarian and taking a detailed history of the behavior. Hopefully, this article has given you a good understanding of what headshaking is and how to go about diagnosing and treating it.