Head Shaking in Horses

By PetMD Editorial on Feb. 5, 2010

Head Shaking Syndrome in Horses

Severe head shaking in horses is a pathological behavior. While some head shaking is a normal behavior, such as in a tool to escape insects or even a display of exuberance, excitability, or frustration, this behavior is considered abnormal in horses if it begins to interfere with normal activities such as riding or eating.


Horses with head shaking problems can either shake their heads horizontally (side to side) or vertically (up and down). The former is often linked to insect irritation or ear problems while the latter may be more indicative of a behavioral problem. Horses that shake their heads excessively due to insects do so much more frequently in the summer months. In other cases, if the head shaking is due to resentment of the rider or bridle, the horse may only head shake while being ridden.

Signs that accompany head shaking may include:

  • Extreme agitation
  • Snorting
  • Head tossing
  • Violent shaking or jerking of the head or neck
  • Wiping of the nose on the ground or legs


Identifying the cause of head shaking in your horse may be difficult, as there can be many different causes along with other causes that have not yet been confirmed. For some of the more difficult cases, there are theories that the horse may be extra sensitive to light or have chronic pain from a nerve in the face that causes a tingling sensation.

In many cases, head shaking is not attributed to any particular cause, but a few of the more typical causes include:

  • Allergic reaction (e.g., grass, tree or pollen allergies)
  • Severe irritation to some area of the head
  • Ear mites found in the ear canal


A diagnosis of head shaking is obvious; it is the underlying condition that poses the problem. A veterinarian may perform any of a battery of tests to get this diagnosis and find out what it is that may be causing the head shaking. In many cases, a cause for the head shaking may never be found.



Treatment is not always possible when it comes to head shaking. There have been some attempts at treating the issue surgically by altering the nerves in the nostrils, but that causes other sensations to this area to be eliminated as well. This may have negative repercussions of the horse. However, this has proven to be a considerable treatment for head shaking of excessive magnitude. Ear mites can be treated fairly easily with topical medications. Rhinitis (or inflammation and infection inside the nose) may require systemic antibiotics. If the head shaking is thought to be behavioral, re-training with a professional trainer may help.

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