Headshaking equals heartache.  Not the occasional studly shake, the protest against bad hands or the signal that it’s time to float teeth.  The repetitive headshaking that is distracting to horse and rider in its intensity and the pain it represents.

I’ve been lucky.  I had one horse that rubbed his face after every ride and liked to throw his head around, but he never developed the headshaking syndrome that is so difficult to treat, much less to cure.

NASA's photo of the molecular cloud known as the horse head nebula.  Is this how a headshaking horse feels?

NASA’s photo of the molecular cloud known as the horse head nebula. Is this how a headshaking horse feels?

Some of my friends have not been so lucky.  Watching the syndrome develop over time, watching an endless stream of treatments (from nose nets to spirulina to craniosacral therapy) fail, and watching horses suffer and dreams die, all has made me wary when I see a horse violently shake his head or try to rub the bridle off his face.

I was all set to vet out the perfect lesson horse when I heard how the horse had experienced a bout of allergies the prior spring and how he’d been observed scratching his head and neck.  That alone made me cancel the pre-purchase.  I explained to the seller honestly my concern about allergies and headshaking, and was told “good luck finding a horse.”  Well, I need that good luck, since I have yet to find my lesson horse, but as Louis Pasteur said, “fortune favors the prepared mind.”

Prepared minds are busy at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences and the University of Liverpool in England.  They’ve just published the results of their research into an innovative surgical procedure for headshaking in the Equine Veterinary Journal.  Good news!  There’s a long-term success rate of nearly 50 percent following caudal compression of the infraorbital nerve, in which platinum coils are implanted into the nerve ends in order to relieve pain.

563px-Gray778_TrigeminalVeronica Roberts, the Clinical Fellow in Equine Medicine who led the study, has now been awarded a grant by the British Neuropathological Society to further investigate headshaking syndrome — specifically, demyelination of the nerve. This is the cause of trigeminal neuralgia in people and it has long been hypothesized that a similar cause leads to headshaking in horses.  The equine team is collaborating in their research with Seth Love, Professor of Neuropathology in the School of Clinical Sciences, who has researched the effects in people.  Brilliant.

Anyone across the pond who is contemplating euthanasia of a horse due to headshaking syndrome is encouraged to contact Veronica Roberts for possible inclusion in the study.

Here in the US, Pam Neff has a wonderfully informative website, headshakingsyndrome.com, and informs us that Dr. John Madigan at UC Davis is studying LH and FSH levels in headshakers.

Is there any gift more precious than hope this holiday season?