What can we do about head shaking in horses?


This is a phenomenon in horses that will stump most owners, trainers, and Grooms.  This article serves to outline some possible causes, and can give you and your Veterinarian a starting point to figure things out for your horse.  Always involve your Veterinarian if you suspect your horse is a head shaker.  Causes can be biological, behavioral, or simply unknown.


It is widely believed that head shaking in horses is caused by some sort of hyperactivity of some of the facial nerves, the trigeminal nerve in particular.  This results in vertical head shaking, usually in a violent manner, for most horses.  It should be noted that there is typically a trigger that sets of the nerve and causes the horse to shake his head.  (there are also a slew of other possibilities here, so bear with me!)


Here’s where it get confusing.  Head shaking triggers can include the following - light, dust, insects, pressure from tack, exercise, and even sounds and smells.  There is also some evidence that suggest head shaking is related to some of the rhino viruses that affect horses. 



A full lameness exam and neurological exam (shown here) can help your Vet determine what may be going on. 



So how do you figure things out if you are a horse owner with a head shaking horse?  As with most things horse, your special guy will be different from other horses, so do some great record keeping and try and decipher some patterns.  Then, you and your Veterinarian and team can rule out some stuff.


  • Does the tack fit?  Including saddle, bridle and boots.  Does changing the noseband change anything?  What about adding a pad to the tighter portions of your bridle.  Does the saddle pinch or apply pressure?  Explore every possibility with every piece of tack you use - don’t forget about the bit!  Have your Veterinarian and trainer examine his mouth and bit to be sure it’s ergonomic in his mouth.  Many bits don’t work with some horses just because the bit hits sensitive areas of your horse’s mouth!


  • Does he respond differently to different riders?  Riding style may contribute, also.  


  • Does he only head shake when he is taken away from a meal?  Or when he’s alone or maybe when you are riding in a group?  What about at a specific gait?  If it’s trot but not walk or canter, you may have a painful mystery lameness.  


Involve your Veterinarian.  Have him do a head to toe workup.  

  • Ears are rarely infected, but can harbor ticks and insects that cause irritation. 
  • Check the eyes for signs of infection and disease that may cause blind spots or pain.
  • Check the teeth!  Dental problems are also a cause of head shaking.
  • Consider using a Veterinary Chiropractor to check and treat for alignment issues. 
  • Consider neurological issues.  Your Veterinarian can help you here.  
  • Does your horse have allergies?  Consider having him tested.
  • Does he have a bug up his nose?  Literally.  
  • Does he have a cyst or tumor?  I know of one horse who did!  You could see it with a bright light up his nostril.
  • Is you horse uncomfortable anywhere else in his body?  If he hurts, he may be trying to tell you, so have your Veterinarian do a complete lameness exam, to include the back, neck, and all major joints. 


What can you do as a Groom or Owner?


First, you must try and rule out causes with your Veterinarian and your team of other horse Pros.  You can try different nosebands and browbands, and have your tack inspected and properly adjusted by a saddle maker.  


Consider using a specially made net for your horse when you will be handling him, on the ground or in the saddle.  These nets either attach to the noseband and cover his nostrils, or you can use a micromesh black fly mask designed to be used when riding.  



Nose nets may help the head shaking horse. 


There are also some prescription medications that you may try with the help of your Veterinarian, as well as some herbal and homeopathic remedies. 


Be safe, and don’t give up.  There are a lot of reasons for head shaking, and therefore a lot of treatment options!  What has worked for you?