Headshaking is a frustrating problem in horses. It’s often hard to identify a cause and treatments are frequently unrewarding. Many different possible causes of headshaking have been proposed, including equine herpesvirus type 1 (EHV-1) infection.

As is common with herpesviruses, EHV can lie dormant in the body, and it may be re-activated during times of stress. There’s ample evidence that other herpesviruses can cause nerve pain with reactivation. In humans, re-activation of the varicella-zoster virus (the herpesvirus that causes chickenpox) causes shingles, which is a very painful disorder. Since dormant EHV-1 can be found in nerves in a horse’s head, it has been suggested that pain caused by reactivation of dormant virus could be a trigger for headshaking.

A recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Aleman et al 2011) investigates this theory. The researchers looked for the presence of EHV-1 in trigeminal ganglia (a group of nerve "nodes" in the head) in headshaking horses and healthy controls. While it was only a small study, there was no evidence indicating a role of EHV-1 in headshaking, since the virus was only detected in 1/8 headshakers compared to 0/11 controls.

This study doesn’t absolutely rule out EHV-1 as a cause a headshaking, since it still could be one of many potential causes that is involved in only a minority of cases. However, this study suggests that EHV-1 is not a particularly common cause of headshaking, if it causes it at all.