Head tossing explained

My horse is all-in-all very well behaved on the ground. He has a lot of personality though and likes to express this through tossing his head--up, down, sideways. It is like he doesn't think and forgets I am there and swings his head around to look ...My horse is all-in-all very well behaved on the ground. He has a lot of personality though and likes to express this through tossing his head--up, down, sideways. It is like he doesn't think and forgets I am there and swings his head around to look ...

Story originally posted by: Maggie FlowersHorseCity.com Training Director

My horse is all-in-all very well behaved on the ground. He has a lot of personality though and likes to express this through tossing his head–up, down, sideways. It is like he doesn’t think and forgets I am there and swings his head around to look at something or tosses it in anticipation. Not a huge problem, yet, but he invades my space and I am going to end up with a shiner or fat lip if he catches me off guard. How can I teach him to be quiet about his head ? He is perfectly fine for bridling and drops his head into his halter so it is not a headshyness issue. I think he just needs to learn to pay attention to where I am and to respect my space by not swinging his big heavy head into my face. How can I teach him this?

Carolyn

Dear Caroline,

Head tossing is perhaps one of the most annoying habits a horse can develop. I can picture the scenario…as soon as you begin your warm up he starts tossing his head and maybe even sneezing. The sneezing eventually stops but the head tossing continues the more you work.

Thinking it might be gnats or flies bothering him, you dismount and apply fly spray. The tossing still continues. You check and double check his tack… bridle is correctly place, not too tight or loose. The tossing still continues. What next?

The next time you try working again, you decide that it might be the bit, so you change it. Nope, not the bit. In frustration you temporarily give up working him. That’s not the answer.

Constant head tossing makes it impossible to train your horse effectively. In order to cure this irritating vice, you have to understand why this happens. Horses normally shake their heads for pest control while outside in paddocks or in stalls, but headshaking or tossing is different. It has a different meaning when done frequently or constantly while being ridden – this not normal. This, the act of actually flipping his nose up into the air, sometimes even shaking its head from side to side. This type of headshaking, the pathological manifestation, also often involves rubbing the muzzle and sneezing. Not only is the behavior irritating and uncontrollable, but can seriously hamper the ability of the horse to perform in many disciplines. Some even become dangerous as their headshaking takes on an obsessive and violent form. These horse might appear as if a bee has flown up their nose.

The cause of headshaking has several factors that cause many horse owners to give up on the horse simply thinking that it was uncorrectable or thinking it was a rider or training problem … not a medical one. Some owners truly believe that improper fitting tack was the problem. Or that the rider with heavy or bad hands jabbing the horse in the mouth was the problem. The horse also begins thinking that all he has to do, to get his way, is shake or toss his head and the rider dismounts.

As research into this kind of behavior began to theorize, it realized that the cause maybe one of two possibilities. One that it was begin caused by allergies, or irritants such as pollen or dust tickling the horses’ sensitive nose overtime he inhaled. Another was the theory that a tingling sensation inside the horses nose resulted in the headshaking. Both theories, when treated by either placing a piece of open weave breathable material (such as pantyhose) or the introduction of a blocking drug (Cyproheptadine) were quiet effective. So what do we do now?

Contact your veterinarian. A complete physical examination should be done and the horse ridden while the veterinarian is there so he can see for himself the severity of the headshaking. Based on his gathered facts, the veterinarian will determine the true cause, which could be: ear mites, ocular problems, fungal infection of the guttural pouch, middle ear infection, nasal and/or dental problems and a disorder called "photic headshaking."

If the examination shows one of the above mentioned problems, it is unfortunate the treatment will not totally resolve the headshaking. Many veterinarians believe that seasonal headshaking or when a horse enters bright sunlight, the horse reacts much like humans sneezing when they enter sunlight (photic sneeze).

Dr. J. Madigan, DVM, MS Dipl. ACVIM from the university of California, Davis, who has done extensive research on this subject, believes that horses shake their heads from the bright light due to an abnormal stimulation of some of the branches of the ‘trigeminal nerve,’ which provides sensation to the face and muzzle. The light stimulation of the eye causes and abnormal stimulation of some of the nerves of the face and muzzle resulting in a tingling of even pain sensation in some e horses, which causes them to violently shake and rub their heads. This tingling or pain sensation is theorized to be a possible previous facial injury which resulted in this abnormal nerve transmission.

For these photic headshakers keeping them in a dark stall, riding them in the late evening or night, riding in an indoor arena or last but not least using eye protection (sunglasses). But you can’t ride in the dark forever, so what do you do?

There is a treatment that has had remarkable results that might help these headshakers, and their owners. Dr. Madigan has reported results from the use of a pharmaceutical treatment called, Cyproheptadine (currently used in Cushing’s Disease in horses and ponies, is a histamine and serotonin blocking agent which is thought to mediate sensation in the affected facial and muzzle nerve branches, decreasing the headshaking.

If this medication continues to show favorable results, treatment maybe variable among horses. Some horses will need indefinite administration, while others will need only seasonal treatment. Still in others additional sunlight protection will be needed.

Horse owners with horses that are afflicted by the problem behavior find it very frustrating as it is to the veterinarian, but with help of the drug Cyproheptadine, many horses and their riders are able to overcome this often career ending problem.

Some of the information in this article were obtained, by this writer who attended the convention of the AAEP, American Association of Equine Practioners 1997.