Saturday, 24 June 2017

Heartbreak, headshaking and hope


You don't always know that a situation is crushing your heart if the damage arrives in neat instalments. 

In February, Zed went mildly lame following a field injury to his left hock. As I stood there cold hosing his swollen joint my heart felt concerned. Not broken, just worried.

We did vet visits and box rest and a month later I bought him back into work. But I didn't really feel like he was ok so I turned him away to heal for a bit longer. I still felt alright-ish, just a tiny bit more nervous. 

About three weeks ago I tried again and found we had a new problem - headshaking.

Heart in the blender. 

If you don't like swear words, don't read the next paragraph.

Of all the motherfucking things that you don't want to happen to your motherfucking horse, headshaking is right at the top of the motherfucking list. Motherfucker. 

It is the densest maze of unknown cause and effects, research, hypothesise and trial treatments. There is agreement that it's linked to the trigeminal nerve misfiring and overreacting to stimulus like pollen and dust,  but the 'why' is where things unravel.

Some think there's a link to equine herpes, others believe it's stimulated by a hormone imbalance. There's also agreement that it's presently incurable. 

Read the forums and there's the odd tale of hope versus an awful lot of sad stories. 

Note, I've actually had a horse headshake before, only when riding and through the spring/summer, but with a five quid nose net on he was absolutely fine and business as usual. 

But this time: me being me, I feared that we were looking at the idiopathic, untreatable, unmanageable kind that is unresponsive to nets, supplements, steroids etc and just leaves you with a horse that has shooting pains in his face and no idea why. 


video

I'd seen Zed headshake back in March when he was on box rest, and also on the walker around that time. I put it down to frustration at being cooped up and thought it would ease when summer turnout kicked in.

The second time I tried to bring him back into work was different. He was very, very agitated. I tried a couple of times and then got off because it was obviously extremely stressful for him. 

I tried nose nets, vaseline around his nostrils, riding him inside and riding him outside and it all amounted to the same thing.

I spoke to two senior vets about it (one was my boss, Nicola Mason, who owns Durham Equine Practice, and the second was Dave Rendle, who is based at Rainbow Equine Hospital where we send our referrals) and was luckily able to pick their brains about options. 

We decided to rule out obvious causes first and to confirm whether he's actually sound, which meant a vet day for Zed yesterday with our locum, Antonia.

In short, he is. He's weaker on the left rein but that pre-dates his injury and lameness. So open-the-champagne news on that front.

After that, Antonia checked his teeth, eyes and ears. His ears were pretty grimey so she sedated him and gave them a good clean and took a swab to run under the microscope to check for mites and other nasties. His teeth and eyes were deemed fine. 


Then he also had a shot of dectomax to kill feather mites and some antibiotic and steroid cream to clear up the small plaques in his right ear. While he was sleeping we also cleaned his sheath, removing two fairly decent beans. 

It was a satisfying afternoon and it felt like a relief to actually be taking action. Zed was well-behaved and good to sedate which made me happy. It made me really, really want to fix him as Antonia asked questions about him and I got to reminisce about all the nice times we've had and his funny little manner. 

With a plan to scope his guttural pouches next week, we called it a day and I clipped his feathers while he came round from the sedation.

The strange thing was though, after he'd done his trot up and the vet had looked at him on the lunge, he didn't show any signs of headshaking. He just seemed absolutely fascinated by all the poking and prodding. It was kind of annoying in the respect that I looked like a liar, but it also got me thinking about why he'd suddenly stopped. 

He'd been pretty lit up on the lunge and enjoying himself as he hasn't done any work like that in months. After a bit of a mad canter he settled well and at the end he had a yawn as if he was ready to relax...

I went home to ponder and to continue researching the condition online and to think back through the past few months.

I began to wonder if part of the issue was exasperated by stress. It seemed to flair up when he was on box rest and he's definitely worse in his box and on the walker which is the two places he spent a lot of time when he was effectively on house arrest. Had the chance to move his feet and blow off steam helped him out? 

He'd also gained a lot of weight since his injury so I'd cut out all hard feed and he wasn't having his magnesium supplement any more which helped him to stay chilled last summer. (it's not confirmed but some studies have shown magnesium can help with headshaking in some horses. Interestingly, fat horses are over-represented in studies of headshaking. Fit horses don't seem to get it - or at least are able to keep doing their job).

Gradually, I formed a tentative little plan on the basis that he's now sound and technically ok to work. I decided to put him back on his magnesium and gastric aid supplement, do a little bit of light lunging to bring his weight down, and remove the nose band and brow band from his bridle to reduce pressure on his face. Just in case. 

Today was day one. He only flipped his head once or twice coming in from the field, ate his chaff and supplements happily and then I put on his modified bridle and took him in the indoor. He was much calmer than yesterday but seemed pretty happy to work and we did ten minutes of walk and trot and two small canters, one on each rein. He didn't headshake at all. He blew a lot through his nose, but definitely no shaking and no dragging his nose through the arena surface.

In fact the only time he did headshake was when I put on his headcollar to lead him back to the field. His headcollar has quite a heavy noseband and that seemed to set him off briefly. 

When I turned him out he stayed at the gate for a few minutes, whereas normally he gallops back to his friends so he seemed to be giving his seal of approval to the experience.

I don't know whether the ear clean helped, or if it was the bridle change or the faster work just to unwind a bit but today was definitely the best day I've had with him in a long time. It may also be a fluke and I'm trying not to get my hopes up. 

But I am finally able to admit that I have a lot emotionally invested in Zed, that the whole thing has made my heart painful, and that I want to solve it. Which may or may not happen, but at least I'm being honest about it instead of pretending it's all fine. 



Ps. For anyone dealing with a headshaker, I thought this article was interesting and informative - the gonadotropin treatment outlined seems less expensive and less invasive than some options and I'd like to know more if today proves to be a false dawn. I'll also consider things like antihistamine treatment and x-raying to rule out issues in his atlas/cervical vertebrae. 

For a more general outline on headshaking, this article is useful. 

Thoughts, feelings and advice relating to headshaking all welcome. I think I've read everything available on the internet but personal stories would be interesting and gratefully received!

2 comments:

  1. Hoping he keeps improving and that it's stress related. Headshaking can be soooo frustrating :(

    ReplyDelete