Head-shaking/flicking is characterized by some or all of the following:
Sudden, involuntary jerking up and down of the nose
(exactly like a bug has flown up his nostril)
Sometimes it is more a violent shaking of the ears
Hanging the ears out to the side (aeroplane ears)
Urgent rubbing of the nose on their leg, or dragging it along the ground, (sometimes forgetting they were cantering at the time!)
Leaping around trying to ‘box’ their nose with their front feet
Pressing their head into you
General distress and agitation
There are a variety of conditions that will ‘trigger’ head-shaking episodes...
‘Sunlight’ in which case the horse can be described as ‘photophobic’
Other UV rays (on cloudy days)
Flying insects in the grass
Stress/adrenaline (anything that gets their ‘gander up’)
A Simple Cause?
Is it Possible There Could be a Very Simple Cause?
The evidence is accumulating that head-shaking/flicking is another physiological problem and is likely the result of consuming a chronically high potassium diet (re-growth grass, clovers, Lucerne/alfalfa, molasses) exacerbated by pasture ‘spikes’ of both potassium and nitrogen which occur seasonally in the warm, wet, or cool, wet, cloudy or frosty conditions.
Micro-nutrients also play an important role in restoring optimal nerve & muscle function.
Why head flicking is ‘seasonal’.
Symptoms are noticeably worse in spring, autumn and sometimes other times of the year, depending on the weather. People often report their horses are worse after rain, consecutive cloudy days or frosts. This is because grass needs these elements (potassium and nitrogen) for growth and therefore sucks them up at every opportunity. Both are readily taken up into the plant with water after rainfall and tend to accumulate when temperatures are too cold for growth.
These spikes, or changes in the nutrient composition of the grass, happen especially when you have rye-grass and clover or any species that has been stressed by drought, frosts or over-grazing, when it is in rapid growth mode or when it has been fertilised to increase production.
This is very closely related to head-flicking. Different nerves are affected; those around the ears and fortunately they respond to the very same feeding regime.
Never Tie Horses up When they are Touchy
Around the Ears
This is because they are prone to violent pulling back. They can be dangerous and liable to hurt themselves and you.
Once they are back to normal you will be able to tie them again no problem. Don’t create an issue when there really isn’t one!!
Both these horses show the typical aeroplane ears of head flickers.
Calm Healthy Horses
Head-flicking/shaking is almost always the result of a diet-related disturbance to the bio-chemistry of the horse.
It is a systemic problem which affects the trigeminal nerve, but the trigeminal nerve is not the cause.
Head shaking is very much a management problem, not a horse problem.
Unsuitable forage including green, vegetative, in particular fertilised grass, legumes like clovers and alfalfa/lucerne compounded by various hardfeeds which add to the horses load rather than helping it, along with inadequate salt intake; there are many contributing factors!
Management and dietary changes are consistently the answer – time frames for recovery vary from one- twelve months.
Over the years we have conducted many forage tests from grass consumed by horses who had become head shakers.
They all show a similar pattern:
High potassium, crude protein and sometimes nitrates.
In one instance, we analysed pasture grass (fertilised rye/clover) that had caused head shaking in a horse with a very brief exposure - within 3 hours!
The potassium was 3.9% (it should be under 2 %), the nitrates were 1585mg.kg - these should be undetectable, the crude protein was 25.2% - this should be 10 - 12% and the DCAD at 368 - this should be well under 200 . The interesting thing is that the soluble sugars were very low at 5.5% with starch less than 0.5%
While this was an extreme case, in terms of the time frame, other forage analyses show a very similar pattern.
Head-shaking/flicking is not 'naughty’ behaviour.
Physically restricting the horse with any kind of tie-down, or trying to school him out of it is only adding to the horse's distress and discomfort because this is a debilitating, painful condition.
The Trigeminal Nerve
It has been established that head-shaking/flicking involves the inappropriate firing of the trigeminal nerve in the horses head.
The trigeminal nerve originates behind the horse's eye and has branches down to the mouth, nostrils and up to the ears. When this nerve is surgically 'cut' or 'blocked' the symptoms immediately cease.
It is completely uncalled for - and is in fact, maltreatment, to try to address head flicking by doing anything to the trigeminal nerve itself.
Humans with trigeminal nerve trouble describe 'sharp, electric shock sensations' in their face. It is an excruciatingly painful condition that drives some people to suicide. Even if head-shaking/flicking were only half as bad, it warrants urgent action.
Globally, there are various theories on what causes head-shaking/flicking but no real progress has been made in finding a ‘cure’.
Some say it is caused by stressful events.
While adrenalin will exacerbate symptoms, this theory doesn't sit right because horses are prey animals and you can’t get much more stressful a situation than being eyed up as a predator’s meal! If this was true then head-shaking/flicking would be observable in wild herds which it is not.
It appears to affect horses somewhat randomly and there is no apparent pattern, hence the term ‘idiopathic’, with individual horses having different 'triggers' (such as, sunny breezy days, rain, excitement, bright light, contact on the reins etc). But removing or masking 'triggers' is not addressing the cause or reversing this syndrome.
Many treatments have been tried over the years with limited and varying success. Everything from nose nets, masks, contact lenses, vaccinating for herpes, melatonin, spirulina, drugs such as Cyproheptidine, or Dexamethasone Pulse Therapy. All of these treat the symptoms, rather than the cause.
Until now, the prognosis has not been good for head-shaking/flicking horses. Often, after a lot of money has been spent to no avail, these horses are retired and turned out on pasture, only to get worse. Eventually when their distressed owners see them flinging around the paddock, banging their head on the side of the water-trough or plunging their head in and out of the water or trying to stuff their head in the hedge to avoid the light, they are understandably put down.
The GOOD NEWS is that we have a very high success rate by making changes to the horses diet & management:
10 Steps to Reverse Head Flicking
*We have a lot more, however because of 'Judging Bias', many people are understandably not willing to share their stories.
An interesting note about head flicking is that there is a clear connection with the size of the horse - very rarely do we see head flicking ponies. Basically if you put 6 Tbs and 6 shetlands of fertilised rye/clover, the littlies will become EMS & Laminitic and the big one's will become head flickers.