The cause of headshaking in horses is not well understood; in all cases, the trigeminal nerve causes facial pain in affected horses. One of the simplest forms of relief has been the application of a nose net on the affected horse. Cheap and non-invasive, nose nets are also accepted in most competitions, said Veronica Roberts, University of Bristol Veterinary School. Other ways headshaking can be addressed is with pharmaceuticals, surgery, electroacupuncture and homeopathic treatments.
Nose nets usually offer relief to 25 percent of headshaking cases; horses that get relief from nose nets typically get up to 70 percent relief. Around 1 percent of the equine population is believed to be affected with headshaking intensely enough to warrant veterinary attention.
Roberts feels that headshaking presents a significant welfare issue. She notes that horses are generally more affected during exercise, which can cause them to be dangerous to ride or handle. Severely affected horses may be euthanized.
Though headshaking can be caused by other issues like a neck injury, ear mites or dental issues, among others, headshaking should be investigated if frequent, violent headshaking occurs, along with signs of distress. There is a very good chance that no physical cause will be found; in up to 98 percent of cases, headshaking is diagnosed with no known cause, though signs tend to be seasonal (usually in spring and summer) in about 60 percent of horses.
Headshaking usually affects adult horses, with geldings affected more than mares and stallions. All breeds are susceptible. The trigeminal nerve below the eye socket is sensitized in affected horses, which suggests a structural abnormality, which in theory means a treatment can be developed to reverse the issue.
At this time, nose nets are the most effective way to combat headshaking, no matter the cause. However, until the cause of the condition is understood, it is doubtful that a cure will be found.
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