Now I don't profess to know everything about headshaking and I doubt I ever will but as I keep no secret about Fifi being a sufferer, I often get asked about how I cope with it, or rather, how does she. So if this can help just one person and their horse, then great!
Headshaking is described as "an abnormal behavior occurring when a horse shakes its head in the absence of obvious extraneous stimuli, and with such frequency and violence that it becomes difficult or dangerous to ride or appears to be distressed. Headshaking behavior characterized by sudden, uncontrolled, violent and apparently involuntary head throwing (in the absence of external stimuli) is considered abnormal. It occurs most often in exercising horses, it begins as soon as they are warmed up (approximately ten minutes of work) and gets progressively worse the longer they are worked. These horses are referred to as headshakers."
To simplify: if your horse is fussy with the contact and throws its head about, twitches from flies, doesn't do it with your trainer on, stops when draw reins, or side reins etc are introduced, then it's probably not a headshaker. In my experience its not just a head toss, its violent and erratic and distressing for the horse concerned.
Fifi didn't start doing it until the summer of being 5, she didn't do it when being broken in or when she was in training and I don't know what started it off. Some days she is ok, and some days (although *touch wood* its very rare), she thrashes about and is completely unrideable.
I have tried to pinpoint with her what sets her off, and I have found that hot days, bright sunlight, tree pollen, and pollen from crops in the height of summer are the worst things for her. Oh and snow, definitely snow.
This doesn't mean this is all that sets her off, static in the air, dust, hair when she is clipped.. the list is quite long.
To describe it best, imagine how you feel when you've been clipping your horse and those tiny greasy hairs get on your neck and face. And then imagine when you are about to sneeze and it just doesn't come out and it actually begins to hurt.. well combine the two and thats what your horse feels like. You can understand why they thrash their head so violently can't you?
A few things have helped over the years, although obviously I haven't tried everything so please don't rule anything out on this basis. After all, what works for one doesn't work for them all. So the things that have helped Fifi make a noticeable improvement:
Nosenet when ridden - this makes a small difference to her. I know this stops some horses completely but unfortunately not for Fifi. I use an Equilibium one which is around £25.
Fly mask covering her ears, whole face and muzzle: In summer particularly, this is crucial, it makes a huge difference to her turnout being protected by this. I use a shires one which was about £15.
Global Herbs Shakefree (liquid summer formula): She has around 15mls maintenance dose per day and on bad days she has 25mls. £38 per bottle.
Nostrilvet: This is a powder you put up their nose 15mins before excercise which creates a gel which enhances the protective purpose of the mucous membrane and prevents stimuli going up the nose. £32 per pack.
Micklem bridle: This is a new type of bridle that is becoming more and more popular. It is designed for the structure of the horses head, to avoid sensitive facial nerves. It is also very lightweight so the horse doesnt feel pressure while wearing it. These are around £125.
NAF Skin Wash (Love the skin he's in): Ive only just started using this new product but I used it to wash Fifis head with and she settled very quickly. It makes her skin feel refreshed and cool so she found comfort from it. £20 for a large bottle (with free towelling cloth).
These are the things that I use to aid Fifi, along with regular sessions with my chiropractor and equine touch practitioner Emma Overend, who helps release pressue build up in her head and body. I find she absolutely loves having her head brushed, rubbed and washed, you could do it all day long.
I've never had any treatment for it from a vet as my understanding about it is that there isn't really a great deal they can do over what I already do to help her. I've never had her examined by a vet as when I asked about it, I was told this is an expenisve investigation which more often than not shows no abnormalities.
I hope this helps if you are struggling with an unhappy horse!