We’ve all seen horses throwing their heads up when our hand approaches. This behavior is commonly referred to as being “head shy”. It’s often assumed that the horse has not been handled enough, or possibly too roughly. Or maybe he’s just having a bad day, has not yet forgotten his last dose of bad-tasting dewormer, or simply doesn’t want to have anything to do with today’s training plan. Headaches are an option that most people don’t consider when diagnosing their horse but, believe it or not, horses do get headaches.
Never heard of such a thing? You’re not alone. Unlike our equine partners, we can tell others when we have a headache. Even in our high-tech world, this is still how the diagnosis is made: the patient tells the doctor about feeling the pain. But horses can’t verbalize and therefore, if they suffer from headache it is often unbeknownst to their caretakers.
Headaches can come on for many different reasons. They therefore cause a variety of different behaviors and call for specific approaches to solving the issue. By first understanding that your horse’s headache is real and what the symptoms are, then finding out why it’s happening and what to do about it, you can help alleviate this far-too-common issue.
What makes his head hurt?
A multitude of factors can bring on a headache. Those traditionally considered in veterinary medicine include meningitis, an abscess or tumor, or an accident leading to a skull injury. With accidents, it’s important to keep in mind that you may not even be aware that one has happened. The horse may have fallen, been kicked by another horse, beaten over the head by a previous owner, got hung up under a paddock rail or hit her head on the roof of a trailer, without your ever knowing.
A classic cause for equine headaches is impaired movement in the first neck vertebra (“atlas”). This easily happens when the horse pulls back. Chronically tight poll muscles due to training issues or other types of stress can also be the culprit, as can jaw, tooth and sinus problems.
There is no physiological reason why a horse’s blood vessel system wouldn’t dilate the same way it does in humans who experience headaches. And in spite of the differences between the two species, hormonal changes during the female cycle can impact mares much as it does human women.
Blood sugar imbalances can be another trigger, particularly when feeding schedules are designed more for the convenience of the caretaker than the physiological needs of the horse, which by evolution is designed to eat almost constantly.
Symptoms to watch out for
Just like people, horses may experience headaches of varying severity. If the pain is mild it can be easily overlooked. The condition can be intermittent or constant, and to make things even more difficult, the personality of a horse can greatly influence how clearly he expresses discomfort.
All the symptoms are unspecific, meaning they could be caused by issues other than headaches. But one or more of the following behaviors is good reason to suspect headache:
• The horse does not like to be touched on the head and/or poll
• Over-reacts to movements happening in his surroundings or in proximity of his head
• Pins his ears back when approached
• Won’t let you easily put a flymask on, or be haltered or bridled
• Has a squinty or worried look in or around the eyes
• Blinks frequently, particularly when moving
• Tends to bump into things
• Shows inconsistent performance/ trainability
• Exhibits irritability, which in the case of a “moody mare” may also be connected with her cycle
When people get headaches, they usually take painkillers, either prescribed or OTC, to lessen the discomfort. But there are a number of complementary modalities that may be able to help equine (and human) sufferers.
The cause of the headache is what determines the type of treatment most likely to help. In many instances it will take a professional practitioner to solve the issue, while in others it might be possible for the caretaker to do it.
1. Chiropractic and osteopathy
Let’s say a horse has pulled back. Chances are his first neck vertebra will need to be re-aligned or else he’ll be in discomfort until the problem is addressed. In this case, chiropractic and osteopathy are great options, and even a single treatment may solve the issue. Always be sure to look for practitioners that know how to diagnose the mobility of single joints. The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) trains and certifies human chiropractors and veterinarians to provide this type of service in a safe and effective manner. Go to www.animalchiropractic.org to locate a practitioner near you.
Why do some horses tend to pull back over and over? It’s because they panic as they are already in pain or anticipate a painful impact. The body has ways to store the memory of a negative incident. With his highly developed flight instinct, a horse has no choice over his fear reflex if he has not been shown “a way out”. This problem can be alleviated with the help of TTEAM and TTOUCH, created by Linda Tellington- Jones (www.LindaTellingtonJones.com). These modalities can also be used to release a tight poll and muscle tension, and relieve stress.
3. Craniosacral work
This can be the key to resolving headaches, although there are not many equine practitioners out there yet. Craniosacral work restores the minute movement that naturally occurs between connecting skull bones, and which can be inhibited by a traumatic impact. To learn craniosacral work yourself, go to www.equinecraniosacral.com; to locate a practitioner, check the holistic vet listings in your area at www.AHVMA.org.
4. Acupressure, acupuncture and herbs
Stimulating particular acupuncture points on the body can address headaches by reducing muscle tension, inflammatory responses and pain. It promotes proper blood circulation, regulating blood vessel dilation, and can also balance hormonal issues. To locate a veterinary acupuncturist, visit the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, www.IVAS.org.
Practitioners from Dr. Xie’s Chi Institute are trained in the use of Chinese herbs at the same time they learn acupuncture; you can locate these veterinarians at www.TCVM.com. Hormonal problems, such as “moody mare” issues, may respond beautifully just to the correct herbal formula.
In certain cases, acupressure may be sufficient. For courses, books and point charts go to www.Animalacupressure.com.
More solutions and prevention tips
• If your horse’s issues are caused by a tooth problem, he needs a practitioner specializing in equine dentistry. Visit www.equinedentistry.com or www.iaedglobal.com.
• Make sure all your horse’s gear fits right. A too-short crown piece or brow band can trigger headaches. A nose band so tight that you can’t slip a couple of fingers between the leather piece and the skin, is just asking for jaw problems that can also end up causing headaches.
• Even blankets that seem to fit the horse well tend to shift, and may apply pressure around the shoulder, impairing circulation, and causing muscle tightness that can radiate into the poll and head area. Again, what is convenient for us may not be the best for our horse, and leaving blankets on for most of a 24-hour period is a potential culprit.
• Eating from the ground rather than raised feeders not only reduces the chance of ulcers but also helps stretch the neck muscles and keep them supple. Pasture time reduces stress levels, as can gentle body work.
• No professional can solve the problem if it stems from a horse being fed too infrequently or irregularly. The next time you feel irritated or even angry at your horse’s apparent unwillingness to cooperate with you, step back for a moment, take a deep breath and consider the possibility that he may have a headache.
Ella Bittel, a German veterinarian who lives and works in California, has specialized in holistic treatment options for animals for over 20 years. Among the modalities she offers are veterinary acupuncture, chiropractic and craniosacral work, all interspersed with tteam/ttouch. Email email@example.com or call 805-688-2707.