After a long, wet and cold English winter (not to mention the visit from the Beast from the East), the first signs of spring are finally on their way. I really like winter, but I have now had enough of frozen taps, slippery grounds and cold toes.
And I think it’s fair to say spring is something all equestrians look forward to… unless you have a headshaker.
I remember the day very well when my horse Chili showed the first signs of headshaking. It was January 30th 2016. It was snowing a little and I thought he was reacting to the snowflakes in his nose at first, just that it got gradually worse over the next weeks.
He was always a very forward horse and with the progression of his headshaking he would not even want to trot. Instead, he was walking around with his head very low, snorting, shaking his head vertically as if he had just received an electric shock and trying to rub his nose on the arena fence.
I have ridden very mild headshakers before, so I knew how the symptoms of headshaking showed, I had just never come across anything this severe. I always thought it was easily managed with a nosenet, if it needed managing at all. I had no idea about the pain involved in some of the cases.
Having spent hours in the internet researching potential causes and treatment options (spoiler alert: there are many and every horse seems to react differently), I decided to start by writing down a diary of when he was showing symptoms, and by a process of elimination I tried to find triggers.
So I rode him in a nosenet, tried to avoid UV/sunlight and rode in a facemask, even rode in a headcollar and without saddle to rule out tack problems. He showed the same behaviour on the lunge and even when being led, so a rider-related cause could be excluded as well.
Unfortunately, none of my experiments pointed to any obvious change I could make that would give him a significant improvement in the symptoms.
Speaking to my vet and showing videos of his behaviour, I was quickly referred to a leading clinic in the field to see if he would qualify for PENS treatment (electrical stimulation of the trigeminal nerve).
I had read up on the treatment online and it seemed to be our best shot of getting him rideable again. He must have been in tremendous pain, as his beautifully cheeky face was depressed and he had lost his spark. Something I had never seen in him before.
So off we went down south, received the diagnosis of ‘idiopathic trigeminal mediated headshaker, possibly seasonal’ and luckily he qualified for treatment, which he received over the course of the next few weeks.
I knew there was no guarantee that it would work, but it was our best shot and might help us manage his symptoms.
I was a mess. Horses often give you this rollercoaster ride of hope, a great feeling and then disappointment, but with a headshaker that you actually want to ride and compete, I feel it’s even worse.
Because nobody fully knows what causes it or how to prevent it, you are always trying to find an answer. And knowing it could come back any time - every head throw, every snort, every nose rub could mean it’s back or treatment hasn’t worked - can be deeply upsetting.
So I was very lucky, my horse was one of the horses that react well to treatment. He went into remission for 2 years, until last Sunday.
I was feeling so positive about the year ahead where I could finally go out competing, but then a headshake and another. And while I am often left wondering if that odd head throw is a sign of headshaking, I always know without doubt when he is actually starting to show signs. It is this involuntary movement, something he simply can’t control.
I booked him in for another set of treatments. I know my horse hates them. Since he had treatment two years ago I can’t load him well anymore, but some things in life just have to be done even though they are not fun. It has worked once and I keep my fingers crossed it will again. In the meantime I will try to keep my spirits up reading up on all the holistic and alternative treatments that may not have studies to back it up, but you never know. I need to hold on to some hope.
Here’s to a shakefree summer!
After treatment... a little balder