Riding A Sick Horse- Headshaking

I’m not an expert on Headshaking. Still I’ve owned two of them.

Poseidon, my old boy, was “diagnosed” as a headshaker at a very young age. Removing the nose band when he was ridden, completely solved the problem for him, so let’s be honest. He was the lucky kind. The nose band does apply pressure to the trigeminal nerve, and some headshakers have nerve damage. With Poseidon, my best guess would be that he felt sensitive around those pressure points, and that the nose band caused him pain. It wasn’t my impression though, that he was in pain when no pressure was applied.

april 23-21

What we must bear in mind is that headshaking is not a diagnosis, it’s a symptom, and it can be caused by almost anything. If you have a head shaker, you must first and foremost, find out WHY the horse shakes it’s head.

Saleem for instance, is a headshaker as well. My vets have, one by one, ruled him out, to the point where his violent headshaking has almost been undiagnosed. He should not be shaking his head. Saleem is not in pain. He responds to stress, happiness, anything… whenever Saleem doesn’t know how to respond, he shakes his head. He does so when ridden, (much less these days,) or on the pasture, and he has done so since he was a foal. For Saleem, the headshaking is a “nervous tick.” He is not in pain.

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(Here he is playing with Apocalipse…)


And let’s be honest, it’s easily tested, if he was one of those headshakers with nerve damage, who- make no mistake- are in pain. Removing the nose band had no effect on Saleem, and neither does the well known nose net.

Ask the humans suffering from trigeminal nerve damage. Ask them why it is called the “suicide disease.” The pain is jabbing, unbearable, and painkillers are ineffective.

Imagine my surprise when I saw Ben Maher at the European Championship, riding his wonderful white horse Cellas, and lo and behold, Cellas was wearing a nose net. I was astounded.

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The nose net is said to be the most effective kind of “treatment” for headshaking, at least the trigeminal nerve kind. Some say it is because it filters out pollen- of which we have none in Denmark these days- some believe it acts as a windbreaker, preventing turbulence inside the horses nose…

I don’t know, I’ve never had a headshaker- luckily- who responded to a nose net. I do know, on the other hand that since Cellas do, this horse is in pain. So what is it doing at the European Championship for Show Jumping? Why is it allowed to ride a sick horse, as long as you can mask the symptoms, even by using draw reins on the warm on grounds?

Once again, thumbs down FEI and vet control. The commentator even said – live on TV- that Cellas had to wear the net at all times, it even wore it when examined by the vet before the show, because it is just too sensitive to walk through the stable without wearing it. Fantastic. But not sensitive enough to be excused, and quite possibly euthanized, which in some cases, seem like the kind thing to do.

Cellas came in second at the finals. I must say, that is a nice horse. I mean, how impressive is that, a sick horse, beating all those healthy horses? Someone must have trained it very well…

Which leads me to another thing, that had me shaking my head while watching show jumping. Those horses with “sensitive legs.”

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I mean, really. A horse like that one- and quite a few others should have been disqualified on the spot, as soon as it displayed that kind of “front-leg-technique.”  Horses that jump like that are screaming foul play. They are screaming to the world that someone, at some point, have been “helping” them understand that they may not touch the obstacle.

NO horse is that careful on its own accord. Horses that pull their legs up like that has been barred, one way or another. Small wonder that the officials check the horses legs underneath the boots once it leaves the show ring. He is looking for pins and nails and barbwire…

So, happy horses, all around the European Championship. Which leaves me to the last thing of the show, that had me astounded.

I mean, not only was Ben Maher riding a sick horse, but so was Andreas Helgstrand, clearly – in his own words- riding a horse with an untreated respiratory problem, and the vet control looked away, but then we have Adelinde Cornelissen with Parcival, the one who came in third in the dressage finals.

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Other than the horse being clearly rollkur trained, to the point where it’s piaffe work is some of the worst I have ever seen- yes I said that even though it gets 9,5 for its piaffe by the judges- still what that horse is doing is so far from dressage as anything has ever been. They are number one in the world, by the way… even though you don’t even have to show the piaffe in slow motion, to see how the horse is placing all its weight on its front legs, and just bounces back and forth, from hind leg to hind leg, out of sync, out of shape and utterly forced. A circus trained monkey. Not a dressage horse.

Way to go judges.

Well, we see a lot of that, at top level, all though Parcival seem to have taken “cheating” to a whole new level as far as piaffe work is concerned….

But, I must not get side tracked. Adelinde Cornelissen with Parcival was not qualified for the European Championships. They failed to compete at the national championships, because Parcival had heart failure.

But the team couldn’t do without them, so luckily they were allowed to compete at the European Championships, completely without being qualified, because the horses heart was failing… I wonder if Parcival have recovered? Our nice commentators didn’t say, perhaps realizing that they had already said too much?

On the upside, the one guy I had never thought would win, Rodger Yves Boost, from France, did win the show jumping. Now, I have no idea how his horse is trained, but I do know that it seemed like a happy horse. Like one of the few that was up for the task and was pulling towards the obstacles on its own, and it wasn’t desperately moving its legs out of the way. If this horse has been mistreated in some way, I lack the critical eye to find the symptoms.

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And yes, this guy has a very special style… which was why we giggled and never thought he would make it through. Shame on us. Luck follows the crazy, I believe the saying is.

So in conclusion, I guess,  you can get away with almost anything, right underneath the stewards, the vet control, the sponsors, and FEI’s noses, in fact you can get away with slowly killing your horse on International TV and no one cares.

Then once in a while, some guy shows up, on a happy looking horse, and saves the day…

I was hanging with my horses in my pasture last night, looking at them grazing in the setting sun, wondering if I should tell them, just how lucky they are, that they are not billion dollar horses.

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Even if I could, I don’t think I should. I like it that they have no idea how lucky they are. That they have no idea of how there are no limits to human cruelty. I hope they never find out.

Poseidon knew. It never stopped haunting him.


About Starstone

-Owned by horses. Writer, Photographer, Director, Musician.
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8 Responses to Riding A Sick Horse- Headshaking

  1. sammerson says:

    Working around a lot of show horses (that were the lucky ones thankfully) I was exposed to some of the cruelty first hand, just things I saw in shows, much like you. It makes me happy to know that there are people out there like myself and you that actually care about our horses for the horses they are, not how much money can be made off of them. My horses aren’t worth much, at all, but they are happy, and I will never want that sort of life for them. I’m just happy knowing they have a pasture to graze in and will take me on a good ride from time to time. If people only took the time to understand just how wonderful these animals are. That they have feelings, and very quirky personalities. Is that too much to ask? That one should learn that their horse is a partner, a companion, and even if they are used for a “job” they should be treated as such? You wouldn’t beat your colleagues into submission would you?

  2. Thank you for writing this. I show 4H level only, because upper levels make me ill to watch. I once attended a show where a girl spur-kicked her horse until his sides were bloody because he was in pasture shape and refused to canter with the rest of the class. She should have been excused, but was not. I will never show in an upper level, and that’s ok with me. I’m happy just loving my horses.

    • Starstone says:

      Usually, blood is where FEI draw the line, and one of the only ways to get disqualified these days… the horse must bleed… anything else is acceptable, it seems… sadly….

  3. Jennie123 says:

    I’m surprised you mention nothing about sunlight and pollen reaction in headshakers – I’ve had two horses now that SHOCK wear a nose net to stop the headshaking. Both only exhibited headshaking when ridden – one when the rape seed here in the UK was at it’s highest pollen count, the other when it was a sunny day. Are you ‘outstanded and shocked’ that I rode my horses when otherwise in any other time of the year were fine but in summer at certain times needed a nose net? I am I as bad as Ben Mayer that presumably is giving a horse that is uber talented and enjoys what is does a good life compared to …….what…….. in the hands of others that would have given up on the horse years ago. I find your comments on such matters shortsighted. How do you know it’s not a habit like your own horse which you’ve declared is apparently all fine and dandy. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Before you comments on others, read up on your subject matter please.

    • Starstone says:

      I believe I mentioned pollen… but you’re right, sunlight is a facotor in some headshakers yes, the ones with nerve dammage, the ones who are in pain…. Like I said, I am not an expert on headshaking, it would seem that even our best experts don’t really know most of the time, why a horse shakes it’s head, I can’t possibly say anything about your horse, that was hardly the point of this post…
      I use my own horses as an example, because I HAVE studdied headshaking, and I haven’t delcared my horse “fine and dandy” my vets have, and I have been able to train away his behaviour, without the use of nose nets or draw reins, and he never responded to sunlight or any of the other classic signs of being a “real” headshaker.
      By the way, nose nets have no effect on pollen, it slipps through the net easily, so maybe you should read up on it yourself….

  4. Thank you for this great rendition of what “goes on” behind all the glam and glory of show horses! What a horrible human weakness, our ego (Easing God Out) Wish you could publish this nationwide in all the magazines that so proudly tout the names of people that have no heart and no ethics for the grand animals that take them where they want to go!!

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