Various therapies employed with some success to help headshaking horses – study

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Study team calls for more research into alternative therapies as a way to ease signs in headshaking horses.
Nose covers were a common therapeutic measure employed by owners of headshakers, as was a change in riding equipment. File image 

Alternative therapies for headshaking in horses should be further investigated, according to the authors of a just-published study.

Equine headshaking syndrome has been a global problem for more than 100 years and is still a problem in modern equestrianism. Its prevalence may be low, affecting 1 to 1.5% of horses, but it causes distress in affected animals and affects their welfare.

Although simple to diagnose, its cause and progression remain little understood, researchers Laura Maxi Stange, Joachim Krieter and Irena Czycholl noted in the journal Animals.

In their Kiel University study in Germany, the trio employed an online survey to learn more about headshaking among horses in France and Switzerland.

A total of 933 complete questionnaires – 804 from France and 129 from Switzerland – were evaluated by the trio.

The median age of affected horses was 12.4 in France and 14.3 in Switzerland. Mostly geldings were affected (58.5% in France and 57.4% in Switzerland).

In terms of breeds, there was an association with Warmbloods in Switzerland (55.8% of affected horses), but in France, in addition to Warmbloods (34.4%), Thoroughbreds (27.2%) were also affected. The breed distribution matched the breed distribution of each country.

Horses affected by headshaking often showed stereotypical behaviours, although it remained unclear whether this contributed to headshaking, or was a consequence of it.

Horses from both countries mostly showed vertical head movements as a symptom of the syndrome; and the symptoms were most frequently observed while being ridden.

Respondents indicated that headshaking had been preceded by a special event in 22.3% of cases in France and 23.3% of the cases in Switzerland. This question was not answered by just under half of the respondents.

Caregivers described what they believed were causes for the onset of headshaking in about a quarter of all cases involved in the study. These included allergies, stress, training, diseases or trauma, the type of husbandry, vaccination, the season or weather influences, or equipment.

Horse owners employed therapeutic measures in 38.4% of cases in France and 67.4% of cases in Switzerland, with nose covers being most commonly used (19.9% in France and 30.2% in Switzerland).

Horse owners resorted to alternative treatments in roughly a fifth of cases that had not previously been studied in relation to headshaking. In France, 8% of the horses received osteopathy as a treatment for symptoms, and another 7% said they treated the symptoms with alternative healing methods. These included acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, or homeopathy.

A change in feeding or the use of additional feeds, as well as a change in husbandry conditions, was attempted by some, as was a change in riding style and equipment.

The Swiss participants employed similar strategies, with some attempting a change in posture and riding style in a bid to ease the condition.

Conservative treatments, such as medication, were used in 5.4% of cases in Switzerland and 1.9% of cases in France. A very small number reported approving an operation on the trigeminal nerve as treatment, or percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.

In the survey, owners in France said that an improvement was observed in 27.1% of horses. In Switzerland, 54.3% of owners described a reduction in signs. This question was answered in the negative by 26.5% of French owners, and 13.2% of Swiss owners. A further 26.1% in France and 11.6% in Switzerland were unsure whether an improvement could be observed. Roughly, a fifth of responders skipped this question entirely.

“It remains undisputed that symptoms of equine headshaking syndrome can lead to dangerous situations when riding and handling affected horses,” the study team said in discussing their findings.

“A seasonal dependency with an increased occurrence of symptoms in the summer months is mentioned in the current literature and can be underlined by the results of this study.”

The authors noted that while various causes had been mentioned by respondents, such as vaccinations, this has not been adequately researched scientifically yet. “The participants also list stress, training condition, or the rider’s influence, as well as the husbandry conditions. So far, there is no scientific evidence for this, but these causes are mentioned in the literature,” they said, pointing again to the need for further research.

The development of a suitable therapy for the condition is important, they said.

In France and Switzerland, some owners had resorted to alternative treatments. These included acupuncture, physiotherapy, osteopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine.

“Moreover, horse owners report an improvement or lack of symptoms due to a change in riding, equipment, or husbandry conditions. However, the use of therapy and the absence or reduction of symptoms is still no indication of a causal connection.”

Symptoms reportedly improved in half of all horses in Switzerland and a quarter of the horses in France, but it is unclear which therapy contributed the most to symptom reduction.

“Nevertheless, it is clear that the use of therapy contributes to an improvement in symptoms,” they said.

“Equine headshaking syndrome is difficult for veterinarians to assess because it can vary greatly between the animals and is unpredictable.

“The study situation is still limited, and this is why collecting data from owners can be seen as a suitable tool, especially with regard to therapeutic interventions.

“Above all, alternative therapies should be investigated in further studies,” the trio wrote.

They said knowledge of the global prevalence of the syndrome is fundamental for a better understanding of the syndrome and gaining an overview of possible effective treatment options.

In order to gain expertise, the aim should be to conduct extensive research in other countries to make comparisons possible and to gain a better understanding of the cause and progression of the syndrome.

Stange, L.M.; Krieter, J.; Czycholl, I. Comparison of the Current Situation of Equine Headshaking Syndrome in France and Switzerland Based on an Online Survey. Animals 2022, 12, 1393. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12111393

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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