Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Head Tossing or Shaking, Not while Ridden

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

  • If this problem seems severe and has come on suddenly.
  • If the behavior persists for longer than 30 minutes without an explanation.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • If the behavior seems extreme, or the horse seems to be in distress.

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

  • If the signs are more intermittent and mild.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

Head tossing can range from mild and intermittent to violent and constant, and may be caused by a variety of stimuli. Anything that causes irritation to the nasal passages, skin of the face, foreign bodies or ticks in the ears, and even mouth irritation may result in this behavior. Horses commonly shake their heads when flies are bothering their face, or as a sign of excitement or anticipation.

Another poorly understood cause of mysterious head shaking is photo-activated or photic head shaking. This results in persistent head shaking, especially in bright sunlight.

WHAT TO DO

Assess the horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), and look for other problems or abnormalities. Assess your horse’s mouth as best you can (wear gloves), look in the ears and up the nasal passages. If flies are an issue, wipe fly spray on the head and face, or place a fly mask to see if this changes the behavior. Try to determine whether the behavior is worse in bright sunlight, or associated with the transition from dark enclosures to brightly lit areas. Discuss your findings and concerns with your vet.

WHAT YOUR VET DOES

Your vet rules out other causes through careful examination and imaging, ultimately ruling in the photo-activated syndrome if there is no other explanation.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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