Professor offers head-shaking hypothesis

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Could head-shaking in horses be associated with pain from similar syndromes to those found in humans?

Professor Derek Knottenbelt provided his hypothesis around headshaking to those attending this month’s National Equine Forum in Britain. He also gave a presentation on sarcoids.

The forum was attended by more than 200 of Britain’s most influential members of the equestrian industry, including forum president Princess Anne, leading equine vets, international riders and trainers, and equestrian trade business leaders.

Knottenbelt explained that a high proportion of headshakers showed the worst signs during exercise, but many had very variable symptoms.

He described how nostril-clamping had recently been identified in some horses, showing affected horses attempting to close each nostril in turn as if trying to prevent the intake and movement of air and possible associated pain.

He went on to suggest that the condition is very similar in nature to the syndromes of facial pain encountered in the human in multiple sclerosis, post-herpetic neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia and cluster headache syndromes.

In all these conditions, uncontrollable pain is the cardinal feature.

Professor Derek Knottenbelt

“It is now accepted that it is not a vice and owners now expect a more rational and less patronising investigation and assessment of prognosis.”

Therapy for headshakers is currently limited to the use of drugs and/or management changes, including the use of masks and contact lenses.

Expectations for cures are high, but realistically not achievable at present, he said.

He closed by emphasising that headshaking is a serious neurological condition that has a significant implication for the welfare of the horse, warranting a thorough clinical investigation.

Knottenbelt also gave a practical update on sarcoids. He emphasised that the sarcoid should be regarded as a form of skin cancer and not a wart.

He explained that researchers are still some way off finding a definitive cause for the disease, but what is known is that horses of all ages can be affected and that it has a genetic basis.

It is also clear that the fewer lesions present at any one time, the fewer the horse will get, and that this may link to the feeding habits of flies. There is also some suggestion of an increased prevalence in thin-skinned horses.

Correct treatment for sarcoids is critical.

Prognosis is guarded and early treatment is important, as success is more likely if the lesions are small and the horse is under four or five years old.

Knottenbelt said the correct choice of treatment was critical, taking into account each individual lesion.

“Resorting to homeopathic rubbish or other witch-doctoring is not what cancer deserves. We are in desperate need of more effective treatments and some form of prophylaxis if we are to rid the horse of this distressing and expensive disease,” he said.

Lisa Randle, presenter of the British Horse Society Thesis of the Year, kept to the theme of equine healthcare with her paper entitled “Equine obesity – helping horse owners to help themselves”.

She raised the serious problem of owner perception of equine obesity, saying that her own research indicated that owners appeared to be accepting the obese phenotype as a representative of normality.

Unless perceptions could be altered, then owner behaviour would continue to perpetuate the problem of between 30 per cent and 54 per cent of horses and ponies in Britain being either overweight or obese.

Randle suggested that a potential solution could be the introduction of “well horse” clinics.

“Equine vets, nutritionists, physiotherapists and dentists could work together to educate and motivate horse owners in cases where action is required. Owners need the support of equine professionals to healthily manage the horses and ponies in their care.”

 

His paper on sarcoids can be read here.

 

14 thoughts on “Professor offers head-shaking hypothesis

  • March 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm
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    Headshaking is a tricky problem to get to the bottom of. Anyone got any tips to share?

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    • March 16, 2012 at 12:48 pm
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      I had a headshaker for many years, each horse is an individual… but i found herbal remedys (James Hart Flik de-ter) and a nose net(worn all the time) worked the best, and i had tried all the vet drugs, antihistamines, and rakalin with no benefit.

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    • March 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm
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      I have a horse that when grazed on ANY type of Clover he will exhibit extreme signs of headshaking and runs around the paddock with his nose in the air and then flicks his head.
      WHen removed from the clover and fed a toxin binder( the bestIfound was MYCOTEX toxin binder) the headshaking symptons completely abate.’He certainly could not be ridden when suffering an attack.
      So many problems are caused by the feed esp ryegrass and clover.

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    • March 18, 2012 at 8:15 am
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      Look carefully at the type of pasture your horse is grazing. Clover for some horses does cause them to head shake.
      If your horse is headshaking remove him /her completely from the pasture feed him speedibeet, good meadow hay with NO clover and very important to feed a good Toxin Binder eg Mycotex. This helped in fact completely removed the symptons from my horse.

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    • September 14, 2012 at 5:03 pm
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      We have had good results when we can restore proper movement in the atlanto-occipital joint with routine chiropractic adjustments.

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  • March 16, 2012 at 6:46 am
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    Not impressed with his opinion of homeopathy. Closed minded thinking.

    As for headshaking, Equiwinner patches are amazing.

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  • March 18, 2012 at 3:25 am
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    I had a headshaker eventually diagnosed with a severely arthritic neck. We attempted to diagnose and treat it as traditional headshaking and never considered what in hindsight must have obviously caused the problem.

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  • March 18, 2012 at 6:35 pm
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    This guy seems to be so far behind what’s happening in the field. Head flicking is a pasture problem, clover in particular. Take the animal off all grass and onto hay, minerals ,toxin binder. Head flicking takes quite a while to subside.
    We had a horse with a large sarcoid by his mouth – was cleared up in a few weeks with homeopathics.

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  • March 20, 2012 at 9:04 pm
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    I had a head shaker – a nose net works amazingly!!

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  • March 22, 2012 at 9:09 am
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    I have a head shaker and the only thing that works for us is a nose net. Up until then had tried everything. Every now and then I ride her without the nose net just to see what she does, and its straight back to the flicking. Does any one know if you can compete in dressage with a nose net on??

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  • April 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm
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    As an Equine Reiki practitioner i have met many horses with headaches caused by various problems, and helped many toward recovery by highlighting my findings to vets for further investigation. Some have been ‘cured’ by the reiki including head-shakers. I have also had small sarcoids (and warts)fall off after a course of reiki and know many instances where homeopathic treatment has been successful.

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  • September 15, 2012 at 9:32 pm
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    Sarah….
    In New Zealand, there has very recently been a rule change allowing the use of nose nets in NZDressage tournaments, as long as a steward checks to make sure you haven’t put anything you shouldn’t have under the net to give you an infair advantage. Good luck 🙂

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  • October 20, 2012 at 8:51 am
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    Cromolyn Sodium 4% eye drops 3 times a day are working very well for my horse. I beleive his shaking is due to allergies not neurological.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 3:51 pm
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    Owned two horses on the same property that developed HS, ive lost one to colic last year, and he was 99% ff at the time, my other horse now 20 has been suffering since 2009, after years of hard work he is now around 90% ff, with change in pasture, no rye, only Rhodes and prairie grass, support custom minerals and james hart allergy formula, and I put a rhinitis detox mix around 4ltrs through him before James mix, he is doing very well this year, so I am sticking with rhinitis mix next year, but they need safe pasture and mineral support including daily hand fed salt. Increased iodine is another area that needs to be addressed, along with copper and zinc

    Reply

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