Reverse Head Flicking / Head Shaking


Head flicking/head shaking is one of the most heartbreaking, exasperating, baffling conditions to affect horses anywhere. It has been established that it involves 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 but unfortunately, in the case of cutting, to some extent the nerve eventually heals up again after which symptoms are worse and in the meantime the horse has a droopy lip.


People with trigeminal nerve trouble describe sharp, electric shock sensations in their face. It is an extremely painful condition and warrants urgent action, hence why these ten steps and the Gotcha Feed Plan are so important.


Pictured left is a video of a horse showing signs of head flicking/head shaking syndrome. NB. It is important to note that not all horses flick the same way. For some it looks more like a nodding, for others it will appear like they have just got some sort of shock and jerk their head up whilst some will only do it under saddle or when they get warmed up in work.


Other horses will also snort a lot while eating or in general, others will rub their nose on their front leg... Even when you're trying to ride them. Some horses will shake and twist their head and they may also be worse on bright, sunny days or when it is windy. View more footage of head flicking horses.


Ten steps to reverse head flicking/head shaking in horses.


Head Flicking/Shaking
  1. Take your focus OFF trying to get your horse right and work on getting it right for your horse!
  2. Make an area where there is NO GREEN GRASS! Do whatever it takes - it does not have to be a large area but this is the key. This means either spraying out with Roundup® plus a pre-emergent (so it will not grow back for six months), scraping the grass off or bringing in some material to cover it up. You need to make sure your horse cannot reach under or over fences to nibble on any grass that way. In other words get your microscope out to check for green!
  3. Source some plain hay, the browner the better and make sure there is no Clover, Lucerne or grasses bad for horses in it. Take out all feeds that contain Lucerne or Clover, molasses, kelp and most herbs. Invest in some sort of slow feeder (pictured below) to slow down hay consumption so it lasts your horse all day. Hay such as Oaten, Wheaten, Rhodes (Queensland) (pictured below), Brown Top (Victoria) (pictured below), Cocksfoot and Prairie are all excellent sources of safe grass hay.
  4. Feed plain feeds, beet and Oaten chaff makes a great base. You can add barley and oil for keeping on condition.
  5. Add salt to your horse's feed at a rate of a maximum of 10gms per 100Kgs live weight (sea salt or plain salt) in addition to supplying a salt lick. Please read the salt section in the Gotcha Equine Feed Plan emailed out to you (important). Don't over do salt, most horses not in heavy work won't need more than 20g per day, per 500kg's. If addional salt makes your horse worse or no difference at all after 2 weeks, then simply provide a salt block or loose salt they can access at any time rather than adding salt to their feed. An indication to add salt into the feed can be when they are chewing large chunks off a salt block.
  6. Getting your horse off green lowers potassium levels. We then need to get calcium, magnesium (and sodium as in point 5) UP! Feed the with a multi-mineral that contains all the essentials including copper, zinc, chromium, MSM, etc. including plenty of B vitamins.
  7. If your head flicking horse is showing symptoms of photophobia (cannot stand light, like they have a migraine headache) then provide shade. This normally disappears within the first few days on their new regime.
  8. Exercise lightly so long as your horse is comfortable. This is where nose nets (pictured below left) are a big help. Do not expect anything in particular of your horse as increased blood supply with exercise will trigger them off.
  9. Expect that your horse's recovery will take several months and is somewhat erratic. In other words you may be making great progress and then your horse will have a bad day for some reason. Do not panic, just stick to it!
  10. Keep a diary of your experiences including the weather. This will help to show how much your horse has improved and what is affecting them. It will also be extremely beneficial to share your experiences with other horse owners to assist them in resolving their horse's head flicking issues.


Nose Net and Slow Feeder


Please contact Lucy Prior for moral support with your head flicking/head shaking issues!





It works! The only variable is the time frame which varies from horse to horse.


  • Head flicking/head shaking is unknown in wild horses. Your horse's new feeding regime is going to approximate that of wild horses.
  • Wild horses do not consume grass that is short, green, over grazed, stressed, lush, fertilised (especially with superphosphate, nitrogen, urea, NPK, etc.) or minerally imbalanced. They consume coarse, fibrous material from mature grass and bushes.
  • Forage tests taken from pastures where horses have started head flicking/head shaking consistently show high potassium and low sodium, i.e. a high potassium:sodium ratio or sometimes a high potassium:calcium ratio. Other readings can vary.
  • Potassium is very antagonistic to magnesium so feeding an organic magnesium supplement is essential. The organic calcium helps balance the potassium:calcium ratio.
  • Literature maintains that potassium is easily excreted in urine but when horses are on high potassium forage 24/7 they never catch up. Their system is relentlessly flooded in it. This is why getting your horse completely off green helps so much. We do not want to add to the load by feeding other high potassium feeds like Lucerne, Clover, kelp, molasses and many herbs.
  • These same forages are low in sodium. It is impossible to feed enough salt to correct the potassium:sodium ratio.
  • The electrolyte imbalance of too much potassium and not enough sodium, calcium and magnesium is a recipe for inflammation.
  • Some horses are prone to inflammation of the laminae = laminitis.
  • Some horses are prone to inflammation of the musculature = behavioural, musculo-skeletal issues, in particular the sacroiliac area including saddle fitting issues.
  • Some horses are prone to inflammation of the trigeminal nerve = head flicking/head shaking.
  • Some horses are prone to other conditions ending in itis = inflammation of the ... .
  • Commercial electrolytes are not appropriate to correct this imbalance because they contain potassium.



How do I introduce Grass back into my Horse's Diet?


While your horse is in lock down.


  1. Conduct a pasture inspection to identify if some of the grasses/weeds are known triggers for head flicking/head shaking. If possible conduct your inspection with someone who can identify grasses or alternatively, take photographs and email them to Lucy Prior of Gotcha Equine.
  2. Depending on what grasses and weeds are present, you will either need to spray out and resow more horse friendly grasses OR just spray out for broad leafs like Clover, cats ear, cape weed, etc.
  3. Let the grass grow as mature as possible while your horse is recovering and start to rebalance the soil, particularly if it has been highly fertilised with things such as superphosphates (contact Lucy Prior for more information).
  4. Pick up your horse's manure or leave it where it is to break down naturally - DO NOT spread the manure as this causes imbalances.
  5. When your horse is completely back to normal start letting him have ten minutes am and pm on grass.
  6. Gradually increase your horse's grazing time so long as he is okay.
  7. You will learn when it is okay for your particular horse in your particular situation and when it is not.
  8. Times you can guarantee it will not be okay: spring, for a few days after rain and autumn. If there has been a dry spell then some rain it will not be okay. At these times your horse must go back into lock down in his dry lot.
  9. Times the grass is usually okay: when the grass stops growing and browns off. This will depend where you live but generally is during winter and the middle of summer.




Gotcha Equine Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)


Q. Has there been any permanent damage?


A. So far it appears not. Horses come completely back to normal so long as you are diligent with your pasture management. Also, head flicking is known to be seasonal so your horse can be perfectly normal at certain times of the year.


Q. Will my horse always have to be kept like this?


A. Do not think of your horse as being any different to any other horse! This is really how all horses should be kept, i.e. on a high fibre (long mature grass/non legume hay/sugar beet/non legume chaff), minerally balanced diet with no access to grass in a rapidly growing state. You will find your horse will be better in every single way. You will find ALL the problems disappear on this kind of feeding regime. You have been forced to make a change - other people whose problems are not as drastic get by. They think they are okay but do not know how good their horse could be if they made similar changes! They have not yet made the connection between the grass their horse is eating and its various quirks or issues.


Q. It is not fair for my horse to be locked up!


A. I agree. In the short term, until you have a chance to make something more suitable, it is preferable to your horse head flicking as this is a painful condition and very debilitating. Longer term people are setting up fabulous dry lots (pictured above) in the form of tracks that go around and under any trees. They bring in various features like logs or boulders, bring in metal to fill muddy spots, make a nice sand area for rolling, etc. Think outside the square!


Grasses bad for horses.


Grasses to avoid are Rye Grass, Clover, Paspalum, Couch Grass, Phalaris (Blue Canary Grass), Cats Ear, Flat Weed (looks like Dandelion) and Tall Fescue. Oxalated grasses include Kikuyu, Setaria, Buffel, Green Panic, Pangola, Para Grass, Guinea Grass, Signal Grass and Purple Pigeon grass.


Horse friendly grasses.


The following grasses are safe for horses to eat, keeping in mind that all grasses in spring will go through a rapid growth stage, so you still need to limit the amount of time your horses have access to this feed. Brown Top Bent Grass or Bent Grass is one of the ideal grasses for horses. Other grasses that can also be seeded are Rhodes Grass (pictured below right), Prairie Grass, Windmill Grass, Brome Grass, Cocksfoot, African Lovegrass and Fog grass.


A comprehensive list of grasses and weeds can be found on Poisonous Plants in the Pasture: A Horse Owner's Guide by Dr. Deb Bennett, which will help you to identify species in your pasture. You can also send samples to your local botanical gardens for a small cost per sample and they will identify the sample for you.


Horse Safe Hay




  1. Minerals "The Metabolic Miracle Workers" by Dr. Robert Erdman and Meirion Jones.
  2. Equine Nutrition and Feeding by David Frape.
  3. Grass Tetany by André Voisin (eBook).
  4. Nitrate Toxicity and Sodium Deficiency Associated with Hypomagnesemia, Hypocalcemia and the Grass Tetany Syndrome in Herbivores by T.W. Swerczek, DVM, PhD.
  5. Don't Short Salt by Dr. T.W.Swerczek. DVM, PhD.
  6. Potassium Accumulation in Perennial Cool Season Forage by J.H. Cherney and D.J.R. Cherney.
  7. Endogenous Toxins and Mycotoxins in Forage Grasses and their effect on Livestock by P.R. Cheeke, Journal of Animal Science, Vol 73, Issue 3.
  8. Equi-Analytical Laboratories.
  9. National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Horses.
  10. Hyperkalemia by Joyce C. Hollander-Rodriguez, M.D. and James F. Calvert, Jr, M.D. Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon.
  11. Potassium Ion and Anaesthetic Implications by S. Parthasarathy and M. Ravishankar.


More articles relating to horses with head flicking syndrome include Pasture and Feed, BJ is Back! The Story of Annette and BJ, and Ten Years Turned Out, Now Back Under Saddle.




Article Table of Contents



Video Footage of Head Flicking Horses


Below are some YouTube videos that show symptoms/characteristics of horses with head flicking/head shaking syndrome. Please note that these videos are independent of Gotcha Equine and are used solely to assist in demonstrating to readers the different way horses display head flicking/head shaking syndrome.



Tdeasterling: Photo Head Shaking Syndrome. "This video was taken the day Bob was put down. At times the head shaking was less severe and yet there were times where it would be violent.


I tried medicines, holistic, mask and anything that was available at the time. I hope they someday can find a cure for this dreaded disease."











Totuava2: Roanie Head Shaking Symptoms 2. View Roanie's first head shaking video, Recording of head twitching symptoms September 30, 2008". Pictured left is another movie of Roanie's symptoms.














StephnFred: Head Shaking. "Fred head shaking - 31 Mar 07. Just so people know, it's not the rope that bothers him. He does this in the field, stable and riding without his mask on.


His full face fly mask eliminates 99% of the head shaking and I can now ride him providing he is wearing his mask."


See more footage of Fred head shaking.









Calove22: Riley Headshaking 1. "Example of horse headshaking syndrome, headshaker."

















Bbaaddnneewwss: Calipsa Headshaking. "My 8 year old mare shot while having the headshaking attack. We're still trying to find the cause. I tried to ride her without the halter and without the saddle - no difference. It doesn't happen every day, even though the conditions are the same, what makes the cause harder to determine. At first I thought the light may be an issue but the symptoms are the same when exposed to natural and artificial lightening. Yet she feels very uncomfortable when she's out on the snow, she can run for 2 hours, tries to get out of the pasture and is practically mad and uncontrollable on the way back to the stable, and tosses her head as well."





Yannjess: Headshaking. "May 2007."


















Littletrev999: Wil'O Headshaking in Field. "Some old video of Wil'o headshaking in field." More footage of Wil'O headshaking.
















MsLine17: Headshaking Syndrome. "The stud muffin."


















Vanessa6363: Risais Head Shaking.


















Paintubturner1: Horse Photic Head Shaking Syndrome. "This is my fourteen year old gelding. He has been an awesome 1D contesting horse up until his recent diagnosis. He is now no longer able to be ridden. He will be started on the medicine Cyproheptadine on 21 Mar 10. If the meds do not work then a nerve block will be performed on the nerve in his nose which will tell whether he would be a candidate for surgery.


This is a horrible condition and is painful to a horse. It just breaks my heart to see him like this. A uv ray protectant mask has also been used on this horse with no relief from the headshaking."





Fieryy: Meet Guinness. "... Also, you might notice him flicking his head around a bit. He has head shaking syndrome. It's fairly mild and he's still rideable and everything, but yeah. That's what's going on.


We ride him in a running martingale with a rubber bit, constant light contact seems to help. He also has a big earnet that hangs over his eyes and I have to look at into getting a nose net. If you have a headshaker I'd love to talk to you, haha!"








Levreboljev: Horse Head Shaking Syndrome. "How did I help my horse to stop head shaking with simple nose net? I don't use any herbs, just a simple panty hose and it helps.


Before that, I have tried everything from magnetic therapy, homeopathy and equine dentist... But the only thing that 100% helps are panty hose. Try to use it and tell me how was it."









To view more video footage of horses with head shaking syndrome, please type in words such as horse head shaking, equine head flicking syndrome, horse head flicking syndrome, horse photic, etc. into the YouTube search field.


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