what is shivers in a horse

Understanding Shivers in a Horse: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

by | Jul 5, 2023 | Equine Health, Equine Treatment

Shivers in horses is a term that brings with it a cold wave of apprehension for many equestrians. Not because of its commonality, but due to the severity it often represents, lurking in the shadowy corners of equine neurological disorders. A complex, progressive and sadly incurable condition, ‘shivers’ or ‘shivering’ is a neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects the large-breed horses, although no breed is truly immune.

The name itself is an allusion to its most distinctive symptom – a tremulous jerking or ‘shivering’ of the hind limbs and tail. Often, it starts so subtly that it creeps unnoticed into the horse’s life, manifesting only as an odd hitch or jerk in the horse’s stride. Yet, as time marches inexorably on, this stealthy invader becomes a titan, casting long shadows over the horse’s quality of life and functionality.

Despite being recognized in literature for centuries, the enigma of shivers remains largely unsolved, which contributes to the unease it incites among horse owners and vets alike. So, if you’ve ever asked “what is shivers in a horse?”, this comprehensive exploration will enlighten you about this perplexing and challenging condition. We will delve into its symptoms, investigate its causes, explore the available treatment options, and narrate the journey of a horse living with shivers, to provide a well-rounded understanding of this ailment.

Symptoms of Shivers in Horses

Piercing the obscurity of shivers, the first thing that comes to light is a distinctive constellation of signs and symptoms that define the disorder. Any horse owner observing these symptoms should take immediate steps towards professional diagnosis.

Foremost among these is an unusual ‘shivering’ or quivering of the hind legs, primarily when the horse is asked to move backward or perform an action that involves lifting a hind leg, such as for hoof picking or shoeing. This ‘shivering’ could start as a minor trembling, but as the disease progresses, the muscle tremors intensify and could involve the muscles of the tail, pelvis, and even the back.

Another tell-tale sign is a prolonged holding up of the hind limb in an extended or flexed position, seemingly locked in place, often accompanied by the aforementioned trembling. Over time, these episodes may increase in frequency and duration, making it challenging for the horse to perform regular movements.

As the disease progresses, horses may exhibit difficulty in walking backwards, a wide-based stance, and even muscle wasting, particularly in the hindquarters. Not to be forgotten is the occasional involvement of the front limbs, with symptoms such as the ‘snatching up’ or ‘paddling’ of the leg before placing it back down.

What can be particularly heartrending is the fact that despite these visible signs, affected horses are typically alert and do not seem to be in pain. They remain keen eaters, too, not showing any changes in appetite or attitude that might suggest a feeling of discomfort or sickness.

For a more sophisticated analysis of your horse’s movement, gait analysis devices such as the “Lameness Locator” can provide invaluable insights. These devices utilize advanced technology to analyze gait patterns, highlighting any abnormalities and helping monitor the progress of the disease.

Of course, these symptoms could overlap with other conditions, underscoring the need for a thorough veterinary evaluation. Early recognition and diagnosis of shivers can significantly improve the horse’s prognosis, by slowing the progression of the disease and managing its symptoms effectively.

Causes of Shivers in Horses

Entering the arena of causation, we discover that the definitive causes of shivers in horses remain a matter of ongoing investigation and debate within the equestrian and scientific communities. Still, several plausible theories hold the reins, and it’s imperative to understand these if we are to grapple with this perplexing condition.

A prevailing theory attributes shivers to a degenerative neurologic disorder that affects the horse’s central nervous system. The exact reason why some horses are afflicted and others aren’t remains a matter of mystery. Genetic factors are suspected, with a particular emphasis on certain breeds such as Belgian Draft horses, Warmbloods, and Draught horse breeds where the condition is more common. This has sparked ongoing studies, such as those by the Equine Neuromuscular Diagnostic Laboratory, aimed at exploring a possible genetic link.

In some cases, there seems to be a correlation between shivers and strenuous physical activity or high-energy diets. High-performance horses or those on a calorie-dense diet, therefore, might be more susceptible, though the jury is still out on the causal relationship.

Environmental factors too, may have a role. Horses exposed to cold climates, for instance, might be more prone to developing the disease. Protective gear like “Horseware Rambo Optimo Stable Blanket” could mitigate the risk by keeping the horse warm, especially during the winter months.

Furthermore, some evidence suggests a connection between shivers and other health issues, such as stringhalt, a similar condition that affects a horse’s gait, or polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), a genetic muscle disorder. However, more research is needed to definitively ascertain the connection.

While the lack of clear-cut causes can be frustrating, it’s the impetus driving rigorous scientific inquiry, continually adding layers to our understanding of shivers. Owners should stay informed about the latest findings, keeping up with resources like “The Horse Owner’s Veterinary Handbook” or reliable online platforms like “TheHorse.com”. The pursuit of knowledge is the first step towards combating this elusive condition.

Treatment Options for Shivers in Horses

Managing shivers in horses calls for an adept strategy that combines the latest scientific findings with time-honoured horse care practices. Unfortunately, as of the present, there’s no definitive cure for shivers, but a variety of treatment options can make the disease more manageable and improve the horse’s quality of life.

Many veterinary experts advocate a multi-pronged approach, combining dietary adjustments, physical therapy, and when necessary, medicinal interventions.

Dietary changes play a critical role in managing shivers. Research suggests that a low-starch, high-fat diet can prove beneficial for afflicted horses. Products like Formula 707 Weight Gain Crumble Equine Supplement or “Vita Flex Hard Keeper” can be added to the horse’s diet after discussing with a veterinary nutritionist.

Physical therapy, too, is indispensable in managing this condition. Regular, controlled exercise can help maintain muscle strength and flexibility, thereby managing the symptoms. Groundwork exercises focusing on the hind limbs, like walking over poles or up inclines, can be particularly useful. Useful resources like “Activate Your Horse’s Core: Unmounted Exercises for Dynamic Mobility, Strength & Balance” by Drs. Hilary M. Clayton and Narelle C. Stubbs provide detailed exercise programs that can help maintain muscular strength.

In some cases, vets might recommend the use of medications, drugs that enhance blood flow or counteract neurological symptoms. Remember, any medicinal approach should be tailored according to each horse’s individual needs and only administered under the close supervision of a vet.

Living with shivers can be stressful, but tools like a sturdy hoof pick such as “Roma Hoof Pick” can make it easier to handle foot care, which is often complicated due to the hind limb hyperflexion associated with the disease. Similarly, devices like “The HoofJack” hoof stand can be a boon for those looking to provide comfortable hoof care for horses with shivers.

By implementing such measures, horses with shivers can live more comfortably. Despite the severity of the condition, with proper care and treatment, many shivering horses continue to lead fulfilling lives, actively participating in recreational riding or other low-stress equestrian activities.

By implementing such measures, horses with shivers can live more comfortably. Despite the severity of the condition, with proper care and treatment, many shivering horses continue to lead fulfilling lives, actively participating in recreational riding or other low-stress equestrian activities.

Case Study of a Horse with Shivers

Allow me to share the account of one particular gelding named Thunder, a nine-year-old Dutch Warmblood who was diagnosed with shivers.

Thunder’s tale began when his owner, Sarah, noticed that he was exhibiting some classic signs of shivers. His hind legs quivered when lifted, and he struggled to back up. Concerned, Sarah immediately contacted her vet who, after a thorough examination, diagnosed Thunder with shivers.

Initially, the diagnosis was disheartening for Sarah, but she was determined to provide the best possible care for Thunder. She consulted with a veterinary nutritionist and adjusted Thunder’s diet. She introduced Formula 707 Weight Gain Crumble Equine Supplement into his diet, which is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids beneficial for horses diagnosed with shivers.

Sarah also engaged the services of a professional horse trainer who was experienced in working with horses with neurological issues. Together, they embarked on a specialized exercise regimen based on techniques from “Activate Your Horse’s Core: Unmounted Exercises for Dynamic Mobility, Strength & Balance” by Drs. Hilary M. Clayton and Narelle C. Stubbs. They focused on strength training and flexibility, particularly in the hindquarters.

Sarah also purchased a “Roma Hoof Pick” and “The HoofJack” hoof stand to ensure Thunder’s hooves received adequate care, considering the hyperflexion associated with shivers.

Today, although Thunder still has his challenges, the improvement has been remarkable. With careful management and a treatment regime tailored to his specific needs, Thunder continues to live a comfortable life, proving that a shivers diagnosis isn’t the end of the road, but merely a new path to tread.


Navigating the often tricky waters of a shivers diagnosis is not a straightforward journey, but it is one that can be taken with a measure of hope. Recognizing the signs early is key, followed by a diligent approach to the tailored treatments and management strategies that suit each individual horse. In so doing, we can ensure our equine companions live their lives with as much comfort and dignity as possible.

While there may not yet be a complete cure, the story of Thunder illustrates that a fulfilling life is still achievable with shivers. It requires knowledge, commitment, and an unwavering love for these noble animals that, despite their size and strength, can sometimes be vulnerable. It’s in these moments, however, that we humans often rise to the occasion, becoming their champions, their caretakers, and their best friends.

Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Through education and awareness, we can change the narrative around shivers, one horse at a time.

About The Author

<a href="https://www.equiniction.com/author/issabella-m/" target="_self">Issabella Mitchel</a>

Issabella Mitchel

Isabella is a remarkable equestrian and racehorse trainer, hailing from the horse capital of the world, Kentucky. Growing up in the heart of bluegrass country, she developed a deep affinity for horses from an early age.

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