Sudden-Onset Headshaking

My pony started tossing his head and cribbing at about the same time. The head tossing has increased to the point of not being able to ride him. He has had his teeth floated and has been checked by a vet for common problems. He has never had any problems before this, and has always been a great pony hunter. I've changed bits, used a hackamore, longed him with tack--still with the same problems. He doesn't toss his head when turned out. This only happens when he is being ridden or under tack. It started in April and has gotten worse (now late September). Any suggestions?     Michele

With a sudden onset of head tossing in a horse that has been a good performer for many years, it's always good to look long and hard for a physical irritant as the root cause. And in the case of your pony that started cribbing at the same time, it's probably even more important to keep looking for something physical that is bothering him. After what you have done already, it might be best to ask your veterinarian to refer you to a large veterinary referral hospital, where a team of clinicians with in-hospital imaging equipment can systematically evaluate the many possibilities. Repetitive head movements--
headshaking, tossing, rubbing, etc.--can be provoked by anything abnormal in the head area, including ears, eyes, mouth, or guttural pouches. Infections, allergies, parasites, neurologic abnormalities, and any number of conditions should be systematically ruled out. There is a condition known as photic trigeminal hyperstimulation or photic headshaking syndrome in which bright light induces rubbing, sneezing, and sometimes frantic headshaking.

It can be frustrating sorting out the relationship of headshaking with riding and tack. When your horse only does the headshaking when ridden or under tack, it might be the tack itself that is presently irritating the horse, or just that the tack and riding exacerbate an existing irritation. Theoretically, the behavior could become learned--it could continue after the irritation goes away. In my experience, this has rarely been the conclusion. In other words, if you can identify and eliminate the physical irritation, the behavior immediately goes away.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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