Head flicking horse

Head Flicking (Horses) 08/09/2015

Have You Diagnosed Correctly?

Head flicking or shaking is characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Sudden, involuntary jerking up and down of the nose (exactly like a bug has flown up his nose)
  • Sometimes it is more a violent shaking of the ears
  • Hanging the ears out to the side (aeroplane ears)
  • Urgent rubbing of their nose on their leg, or dragging it along the ground, (sometimes forgetting they were cantering at the time!)
  • Leaping around trying to ‘box’ their nose with their front feet
  • Pressing their head into you
  • General distress and agitation
  • Urine pH over 8

There are a variety of conditions that will ‘trigger’ head-shaking episodes.

  • ‘Sunlight’ in which case the horse can be described as ‘photophobic’
  • Other UV rays (on cloudy days)
  • Breeze/wind
  • Flying insects in the grass
  • Exercise
  • Stress/adrenaline (anything that gets their ‘gander up’)

Important: Head-shaking/flicking is not ‘naughty’ behavior. Forget trying to physically restrict the horse with any kind of ‘tie-down’or trying to ‘school’ him out of it. It is a debilitating, painful condition, see below.

The Trigeminal Nerve
It has been established that head-shaking/flicking involves the malfunctioning of the trigeminal nerve in the horses head.

The trigeminal nerve originates behind the horse’s eye and has branches down to the mouth, nostrils and up to the ears. When this nerve is surgically ‘cut’ or ‘blocked’ the symptoms immediately cease. The trouble is, people who have had the nerve block done say the process caused extreme pain and distress and they would never put a horse through it again.

And, in the case of cutting, the nerve eventually heals up to some extent after which symptoms are much worse. In the meantime the surgery can cause the horse to have a ‘droopy lip’. So neither nerve blocking or cutting are viable or humane options!

Humans with trigeminal nerve trouble describe ‘sharp, electric shock sensations’ in their face. It is an excruciatingly painful condition that drives some people to suicide.  Even if head-shaking/flicking were only half as bad, it warrants urgent action.

Globally, there are various theories on what causes head-shaking/flicking but no real progress has been made in finding a ‘cure’.
Some maintain their head-shaking/flicking was caused by vaccinations. This may be so but not in New Zealand where the condition is epidemic amongst horses that have never been vaccinated.

Some say it is caused by stressful events. This theory doesn’t sit right because horses are prey animals and you can’t get much more stressful a situation than being eyed up as a predator’s meal! If this was true then head-shaking/flicking would be observable in wild herds which it is not.

On first glance it appears to affect horses somewhat randomly and there is no apparent pattern, hence the term ‘idiopathic’.

Many treatments have been tried over the years with limited and varying success. Everything from nose nets, masks, contact lenses, melatonin, spirulina, drugs such as cyproheptidine, or Dexamethasone Pulse Therapy.

Until now, the prognosis has NOT been good for head-shaking/flicking horses. Often, after a lot of money has been spent to no avail, these horses are retired and turned out on pasture, only to get worse. Then, eventually when their distressed owners see them flinging around the paddock, banging their head on the side of the water-trough or plunging their head in and out of the water or trying to stuff their head in the hedge to avoid the light, they are understandably put down.

Is it Possible There Could be a Very Simple Cause?

The evidence is accumulating that head-shaking/flicking is another physiological problem and is likely the result of consuming a chronically high potassium diet (re-growth grass, clovers, Lucerne/alfalfa, molasses) exacerbated by pasture ‘spikes’ of both potassium and nitrogen which occur seasonally in the warm, wet, or cool, wet, cloudy or frosty conditions.

Why head-shaking/flicking is ‘seasonal’. Symptoms are noticeably worse in spring, autumn and sometimes other times of the year, depending on the weather. People often report their horses are worse after rain, row, consecutive cloudy days or frosts. This is because grass needs these elements (potassium and nitrogen) for growth and therefore sucks them up at every opportunity. Both are readily taken up into the plant with water after rainfall and tend to accumulate when temperatures are too cold for growth.

These spikes, or changes in the bio-chemistry of the grass, happen especially when you have rye-grass and clover or any species of grass that has been stressed by drought, frosts or over-grazing, when it is in rapid growth mode or when it has been fertilized to increase production.

Rye-grass, clover and lucerne (or alfalfa), are all potent triggers for head-flicking syndrome as is regrowth grass because they are inherently high in potassium and nitrates. All forage is low in sodium.
(If your horse isn’t eating any grass, or persists with head-flicking after you have removed the grass, then you would have to look at your hay, or even chaff, perhaps it contains clover or was grown on ground which was heavily fertilized so that it too is out of balance).  

Under the above-mentioned climatic conditions, especially those of spring and autumn, grass becomes even higher in potassium but no higher in sodium or chloride. In the absence of sufficient salt (sodium chloride) an electrolyte imbalance occurs which disturbs the stability of cell membranes.

This causes ‘muscle twitching’ (often seen in head-shaking/flicking horses).

These changes in the blood make calcium less available and can cause symptoms of hypocalcemia.

(1.) These include numbness and tingling around the mouth which causes affected horses to continually have to rub their muzzle on their leg or the ground.
Normal horses have very efficient self-regulating mechanisms which ‘kick in’ to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium). For instance in the case of excess potassium intake, the adrenal glands are soon triggered to produce the hormone ‘aldosterone’ which in turn tells the kidneys to excrete more potassium whilst conserving sodium.

It has been suggested that in head-shaking/flicking horses the self-regulating mechanisms are not functioning correctly because of adrenal malfunction. (Annabelle Knight, TCM Equine)

We have successfully reversed this syndrome removing the cause (the offending pasture/hay and other high potassium feeds aggravating to the condition). This needs to be done for long enough that the self-regulating mechanisms can recuperate and the time-frame varies from one to several months in most cases. During this time the horse has ad lib access to hay that has preferably come from unfertilized country (no clover, no Lucerne) and mineral imbalances are addressed.

Head-flicking/shaking does not appear to have ever been observed amongst wild horses. Your horse’s new feeding regime is going to approximate that of wild horses.

Wild horses do not continually consume grass that is short, green, over-grazed, stressed, lush, and fertilised (especially with super-phosphate, nitrogen, urea, NPK etc). The vast majority of their diet consists of coarse, fibrous material from mature grass and bushes on which they ‘trickle feed’. Their exposure to fresh grass if any, is limited to a few weeks in spring and they are not confined behind fences and forced to eat the regrowth. They therefore only ever have to deal with ‘temporary’ spikes of potassium and nitrogen and their self-regulating mechanisms work well for them.

Associated Symptoms:

Head-flicking horses usually exhibit other symptoms as well

  • Musculo-skeletal issues of being twitchy and touchy
  • Sacro-iliac problems of not being able to canter properly
  • Metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance
  • Bouts of colic.

We know they all stem from the same cause because when you remove this cause and address the diet ALL these symptoms go away.

10 Steps to reversing Head Flicking

1.Take your focus OFF trying to get the horse right and focus on ‘getting it right for the horse’!

2.Make an area where there is NO GREEN GRASS! Do whatever it takes, it doesn’t have to be a large area but this is the KEY. This means either spraying out with Round Up plus a pre-emergent (so it won’t grow back for several months) or scraping the grass off or bringing in some material to cover it up. You need to make sure they can’t reach under or over fences to nibble on any that way. In other words get your microscope out to check for green!!
NB Smaller areas of green grass can be killed by covering with salt. Then there is no withholding time.

3.Source some plain hay, the browner the better and make sure there is NO clover, Lucerne or Rye-grass in it.
Take out all feeds that contain Lucerne, Rye or clover, molasses, kelp and most herbs.
Invest in some sort of ‘slow feeder’ to slow down the hay consumption so they never run out. Hay such as Oaten, Wheaten, Rhodes, Brown Top, Cocksfoot, Prairie and Timothy are usually OK sources of hay. A ‘Hay-Saver’ Net with small size mesh slows down the hay consumption. If you put a whole bale in the net then you know they won’t run out of hay. This is very important to prevent stomach ulcers and for their mental well-being. If your horse would be inclined to pee on the bag then loop the draw-string over the top of a fence-post.

4.Feed plain feeds, beet and oaten chaff make a great base. You can add barley and oil for keeping on condition, pollard and/or copra if you want to avoid grains. Linseed meal is a great source of protein and Omega 3. Soya bean/canola meal are too high in potassium.

5.Add salt to their feed in addition to supplying a salt lick. At a rate of approximately 10gms per 100kgs live-weight. Unrefined sea salt is good or just plain salt will do until you can source some. I know it sounds a lot but isn’t actually for horses and they absolutely don’t get enough from a salt lick.

6. Add Quality Minerals. Getting them off all green forage lowers potassium levels, then we need to get the other electrolytes UP! (the salt takes care of sodium and chloride and the combination of AlleviateC SOS and GrazeEzy take care of calcium and magnesium).

Be aware – it is not a case of simply feeding more magnesium.

Supreme Vit & Min will supply all the other vitamins and minerals including organic selenium, copper, zinc, chromium, MSM, Vits A, C, D, & E and all the B Vitamins.

7. If your head-flicking horse is showing symptoms of photophobia (can’t stand the light, just like they have a migraine head-ache) then provide shade and put on a mask. This symptom normally disappears within the first few days on their new diet regime.

8. Light exercise is OK so long as they are comfortable. This is where nose-nets can be a big help. Don’t expect anything in particular of the horse because increased blood supply with exercise will trigger more episodes and cause distress.

9. Expect that recovery will take several months and that it will be somewhat erratic. In other words you may be making great progress and then they will have a bad day for some reason. Don’t panic just stick to it!

10. Keep a diary of your observations. It will be very helpful to be able to record your experience for others. Feel free to e-mail us – info@greenpet.com.au

How do I Introduce Grass Back into my Horse’s Diet?

While your horse is in his Dry Lot:

1. Conduct a pasture inspection, if possible with someone who can identify grasses. Alternatively take photos of your grass and send them to one of us.

2. Depending on what is identified you will either need to spray out and resow more horse-friendly grasses** OR just spray out for the broad-leafs like clover, cat’s ear, cape weed etc

3. Whilst your horse is recovering let the grass grow as mature as possible.

4. A week before you plan on allowing some access to grass, start adding Graze Ezy to the feeds.

5. When your horse is completely back to normal start allowing access to the long grass for 10 minutes morning and night.

6. Gradually increase this time so long as he remains flick-free

7. You will soon learn when and how much of your grass is OK for your particular horse in your particular situation.

8. Times you can guarantee it won’t be OK include Spring, other times of the year for a few days after rain, and Autumn. If there has been a dry spell followed by rain then the grass won’t be OK. At these times he goes back into his dry lot.

9. Times the grass is usually OK: summer when the grass stops growing and browns off and depending on where you live: winter

Has there been any permanent damage to the trigeminal nerve?

No. Horses come completely back to normal so long as you are diligent with your pasture management. Also head-shaking/flicking is known to be ‘seasonal’ which means they can be perfectly normal at certain times of the year. If there was permanent damage the horse would be head-shaking all year round.

Will my horse always have to be kept like this?

Don’t think of your horse as being any different to any other horse! This is really how they should all be kept; i.e. on a high fibre, minerally balanced diet with no access to unsuitable grass. You will find he will be better in every, single way. You will find pretty well ALL the problems disappear on this kind of a feeding regime. You have been ‘forced’ to make a change, other people whose problems aren’t as drastic, ‘get by’. They think they are OK but don’t know how good their horse could be if they made similar changes! They haven’t yet made the connection between the grass their horse is eating and his various quirks or issues.

It’s not fair for my horse to be locked up!

I agree. In the short term until you have a chance to make something more suitable it is preferable to having him head-shake/flick as this is a very debilitating and painful condition. Longer term, people are setting up fabulous dry lots, in the form of tracks that go round and under any trees, they bring in various features like logs or boulders, bring in metal to fill muddy spots, make a nice area for rolling etc. Think outside the square!!

 Article provided by Jenny Paterson Bsc 

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