Why your horse shakes its head

Excessive and inappropriate head-shaking is abnormal in equines, but it’s a behaviour that can usually be brought under control, says Kim Dyson.

Why your horse shakes its head
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It’s normal for a horse to shake its head in excitement or frustration – or simply to get rid of flies. But when severe head-shaking becomes a habit that interferes with normal activities such as riding or eating, the behaviour is considered abnormal.
Head-shaking is done either side-to-side or up-and-down. Side-to-side is usually linked to insect irritation or an ear problem. Up-and-down normally indicates a behavioural problem.

If the head-shaking is more frequent in summer, insects are the likely culprits. If it is present only while the horse is being ridden, your horse probably resents the bridal or the rider. Head-shaking can be accompanied by snorting, violent shaking or jerking of the head or neck and wiping of the nose on the ground or legs.

Finding the Causes
If you’re able to determine the cause, using a process of elimination, it’s fairly easy to put an end to this annoying habit.
Studies suggest that the more difficult cases are related to sensitivity to light or chronic pain from nerves in the face. But in my experience, a horse is more likely to shake its head due to a combination of reasons: severe irritation to an area of the head, an allergy (to grass, trees or pollen), and ear mites in the ear canal, for example.

In more extreme cases, surgery has been found to help by altering the nerves in the nostrils. However, an operation may change the other sensations in this area as well, and could have negative consequences. Always think twice before surgery – it should only be a final option. Ear mites can be eliminated easily with topical medication. If your horse has an inflamed infection inside the nose, your vet will prescribe antibiotics.

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To control flies, try fitting a fly mask to your horse. It can sometimes be more of an irritant than a help as it covers the entire face and nose, but test it under different circumstances before abandoning it. Regular use of fly spray will help to repel flies. If your horse shows sensitivity to one type of spray, try another brand. Introducing predators can also cut down on fly populations. And finally, hanging up a fly trap is a good idea, as long as it’s not too close to where you and your horse work.

If you suspect an allergy, especially one affecting the lungs and immune system, use Aloe vera juice. As with any natural product, you will need to wait a minimum of three months for the best results. If you suspect that your horse is uncomfortable because of its bridal, seek professional help to retrain yourself and the horse. This is an excellent opportunity to grow and learn as partners. Finally, groom your horse every day – twice if possible. A good bath once a month helps cut down on skin irritations.

Add 5ml lavender oil and 5ml citronella oil to a bucket of warm water. After the wash, sponge the warm water and oil over the entire body and walk the horse dry.

Phone Kim Dyson on 082 888 6511.