Responsible Horse Ownership

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6 months since that balmy December day when Snow Angel entered our lives here at Race2Ring. Despite her strong will the shape she was in had us all wondering if she’d survive the winter, yet here it is summer now and she is a healthy, vibrant horse! Snowy has been in her foster home for just seven weeks now, and in walking down to the pasture to visit her yesterday her foster mom was expressing her concern that Snowy may have done some backsliding with her weight. Although she was full of energy she had taken a dislike to her Chaffhaye and soaked alfalfa, because of her teeth she had trouble grazing, and there was only so much concentrated feed her small body could take. She was just worried that Snowy had not only stopped gaining weight but may have lost a little bit. However when I laid eyes on the feisty old mare I saw a different story! It had been nearly three weeks since my last visit (when I helped her mom give Snowy her first soapy bath), and I saw more of a rounded tummy and barely a hint of ribs.

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Snowy eagerly trotting off to visit with buddies after her first “soapy” bath

Rehabbing a starved elderly horse is extremely tough on many levels, one being that older horses take a lot longer to put weight back on, and due to their inability to process protein and build muscle as well as in youth, some may never develop a rounded topline. In addition, loss of teeth and dental neglect make it harder for the elderly to process fiber, which is the mainstay of a horse’s diet and accelerates weight gain. And lets face it, some older horses can be downright difficult, often refusing to eat what caretakers say is good for them, just like older humans!  So for the rehabbers it may seem like an uphill battle bringing an older horse back to perfect health, with very little instant gratification. Also when you see your horses daily, it can often be hard to “see the forest through the trees” – this goes for both weight gain and weight loss. So even when dealing with healthy horses we always have a second set of eyes looking at our horses every month – whether it be our farrier, vet, nutritionist, or just a board member who doesn’t see the horses on a daily basis. It’s always good to get another opinion on your horse’s condition from someone who doesn’t see him or her daily.

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Snowy is super happy in her new home!

In response to Snowy’s lack of interest in certain feeds, her foster mom (who is  incredibly knowledgeable in equine nutrition) has tried a few things to help increase palatability and find what feeds Snowy would prefer. She has changed brands of alfalfa cubes and is feeding them in cold rather than hot water. She also has switched Snowy from her Lo Carb pellets to Progressive Nutrition’s Senior feed – while a little lower in fiber the Senior is a bit more dense and has a different flavor and texture, which so far Snowy seems to enjoy. She is also getting a super condensed vitamin/mineral/protein supplement – Pro Add Ultimate – that will give her the nutrients she needs in a more concentrated form. This change was of course done gradually, and so far Snowy seems to approve!

While she still has a long way to go to be at her “ideal” weight, our Snow Angel has made a miraculous recovery in just 6 months. She is gradually becoming worm-free and gaining weight. As she puts on some muscle she is moving a lot more comfortably, and has been seen running across the pasture to greet new horses over the fence (or attack the neighboring mini-donkey!). She is full of vim and vigor, and she is oh so loved – and Race2Ring is proud to announce that her foster mom is officially adopting her!

There’s an old adage in the equine world you may have heard of – “no hoof, no horse”, and this saying couldn’t be more true! Anyone who has spent enough time around horses knows that if it’s feet are sore, there is certainly no riding the horse, and often times other ailments and problems can arise. Think about it – the average 1200 lb Quarter Horse is carrying 300lbs on each hoof, which on average has a surface of less than twelve square inches. If you weigh 150lbs, imagine holding your friend of equal weight on your back, then try standing on one foot…now imagine standing on that one foot while standing on a rock – ouch! But its not just pain or discomfort the horse owner should be concerned with, as the hoof actually works as a secondary “heart” for the horse. Because the horse’s lower extremities are so far from it’s heart, the contraction and expansion of the hoof capsule in general, and the frog specifically, helps pump blood back up through the legs towards the main body and heart, playing a vital role in overall health. In addition, improperly balanced hoofs not only affect this pumping system and hoof health, but also can affect the horse’s total musculoskeleta system and health (imagine walking around all day with one flip flop and one high heel – that’s how it feels to a horse with unbalanced feet!).

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Mike Stine patiently works on Snowy’s hooves at her first farrier visit.

So what does all this mean for our poor Snow Angel. First, the average retired backyard pasture horse can go 8-12 weeks between having a farrier trim it’s hooves. Left untrimmed for too long and the hoof will do one of two things – stronger healthier hooves will grow out of control, causing distortions to the hoof capsule and resulting in incredibly long unruly hooves (imagine never trimming your fingernails); weak or brittle hooves will break and crack off, sometimes right up at the white line (the border between “non-living” hoof tissue and the vascular “living” sole of the foot). This can cause pain and open the horse up to problems such as bruises, abscesses, and bacterial infections.  We do not know how long it had been since Snowy had a proper farrier appointment, but amazingly her feet were not in horrible condition. Part of this can be attributed to genetics – Arabians do tend to have hard strong feet – but also to her lack of nutrition. While she may not have been getting the proper nutrients to maintain hoof health that also meant the growth rate would be slowed.

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Snowy had her first appointment with our farrier Mike Stine of Equine Dynamics – Horses in Motion, on January 5th, less than one week shy of her one month anniversary at Race2Ring. While her hoof walls were not in terrible condition, we did have some concerns due to her age and condition. First, as we noted when we first picked Snowy up, she had an old injury to her right stifle, making it difficult to bend that limb. This could be a problem for the farrier, as Snowy would need to bend the right hind to have the hoof trimmed, and then balance on that leg to have the left hind trimmed. Additionally, we had discovered in her vet exam that Snowy has severe ringbone in her right front foot. “Ringbone” is the general term for arthritis in the hoof, and it can affect the coffin joint, as well as both pastern joints. Although we did not x-ray Snowy, it was obvious from her inability to flex her foot as well as bony calcification at the coronet that she definitely had “low” ringbone affecting the joint between the coffin bone and short pastern (right at the coronary band). It’s more than likely that she has “high” ringbone too, which affects the joint between the two pastern bones. Not only would this make it uncomfortable for her to bend her leg to have the hoof trimmed, but her lack of mobility in that joint makes the right front foot grow differently from the left, making her feet very uneven and thereby her whole body unbalanced.

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This is what can happen to hooves left untrimmed – “Pegasus” was a Mustang stallion who’d sustained an injury while in the wild, resulting in uneven hoof balance. This meant he didn’t wear his hooves evenly like most wild Mustangs, resulting in the odd hoof growth. Mike Stine had the privilege of caring for this amazing stallion in his twilight years.

It is very important that in a case like this you not only have a farrier knowledgeable in proper hoof balance, but also one who is familiar with overall body alignment of the equine, as well as someone sensitive to Snowy’s age and ailments. Mike was very patient with Snowy, not asking her to lift her feet too high, bend them at severe angles, or stand too long in one position. As typical of Snowy she was incredibly stoic and had no issues with having her legs and feet bent and held at varying angles while Mike addressed the hooves. While it is possible to cause changes in a horse’s musculoskeletal balance by changing the angles of the hooves, at Snowy’s age trying to do so would not only take a lot of time but would cause her more pain and discomfort. Mike’s goal was to treat each hoof as an individual and balance them in the best possible way for all four to work together to keep Snowy as pain free and comfortable as possible. In most cases this means keeping the toes trimmed to an appropriate length to make it easier for the limb to “break over” and not cause undue stress on her arthritic joints, as well as to prevent any flares on either side of the foot that could cause undue stress to the hoof capsule. Snowy definitely was a happier more mobile horse after her first farrier visit, as her feet were trimmed down to the proper “size” and balanced in a way that eased discomfort when she moved. And now that she is receiving proper nutrition and her hooves are able to grow at a normal rate, she will continue to have regular appointments every 6-8 weeks to maintain a correct balance to ensure she remains a healthy happy horse!

Next month: Snowy’s 6 month Update!

Whenever rescuing a skinny horse – especially an elderly horse – there is always a concern that there are underlying health factors causing the horse to be underweight. In addition, horses that have been starved may begin to suffer from organ failure, and depending on the severity of the case the vital systems may not be able to heal and start working again once re-feeding is begun. Therefore the very first appointment we scheduled for Snowy was a wellness exam with one of our veterinarians, Dr. Tiffany Bradford of Bradford Animal Hospital in Statesville, NC. Given that Snowy had received no vet care for the past five years (including annual vaccinations, Coggins, or regular de-worming), we had three main areas of concern: 1. Coggins test and vaccinations; 2. Formulate a plan for parasite eradication and control, 3. Blood tests to evaluate if there was an underlying cause to Snowy’s condition, and to evaluate any damage that may have occurred due to the malnutrition.

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Vaccinations & Coggins

A Coggins test is a blood test to determine that a horse is not affected by Equine Infections Anemia.  EIA is a highly contagious deadly disease, but fortunately due to diligent testing it is virtually unheard of in the US. All horses moving from farm to farm or state to state are required to have a current (within one calendar year) negative Coggins test. EIA can only be passed from horse to horse contact, and because Snowy had lived in a secluded pasture with only one equine buddy we were sure she was unaffected. However for her safety and the safety of the herd at Race2Ring we needed to have a current test done ASAP (and she was kept isolated from other horses until it came back negative).

There is a lot of debate surrounding vaccinations nowadays. The purpose of this blog is not to tell people how I, or Race2Ring, feel horses should be vaccinated, just to share information on how we treated a particular rescue case. There are a couple of points I would like to make, however:

  1. When it comes to your horse’s health, all horse owners must have trust and a good working relationship with their veterinarian. If you value and trust your vet’s opinion, then it is up to you to follow his/her recommendations when it comes to vaccinations – not those of the barn manager, your friends on FB, or some random article that may condone or condemn vaccinations.
  2. If you board your horse, you are responsible for following rules and guidelines set forth by the barn manager, owner, or trainer, in conjunction with your vet’s recommendations. For example: I do not vaccinate my personal horses for Rhino (EHV 4). However if I board at a barn that has pregnant mares and they require all horses to be vaccinated for rhino due to the safety of the breeding stock, then I will either abide by their wishes or move my horses to a different facility.
  3. If you compete your horses at recognized events (USEF, AERC, FEI, etc) then you need to abide by current vaccination rules. USEF just passed a new rule this year requiring all horses competing at shows/events recognized by USEF to have proof of rhino/flu (EHV 4/1) vaccinations within the past 6 months.

At Race2Ring, we vaccinate bi-annually for all mosquito born illnesses that are common in our area – Eastern & Western Encephalitis & West Nile. We also vaccinate annually for Rhino/Flu (EHV 4/1) as well as for Rabies. Because Snowy had not had any vaccinations in a number of years, we were eager to get her protected as soon as possible, even though it was December and the likelihood of her coming into contact with a mosquito was slim. This was also for the health of our herd, because if Snowy became sick from an illness she had not previously been exposed to and had no protection from, it would be possible for her to pass it on to one of our current horses (especially as most vaccinations don’t PREVENT the disease, but LESSEN its duration and effects).

Parasite Control

Parasite control and deworming protocol is another hot topic of discussion. Again this should be something agreed upon by you, your vet, and the barn management. At Race2Ring, we were fortunate to take over a barn that had been horse-free for a number of years, so under our vet’s advice we do bi-annual fecal egg counts (FEC) and deworm our horses according to the results, in addition to good parasite control (dragging and rotating pastures). Poor Snowy had spent the last number of years in a small, grassless paddock with one other horse and no parasite control program whatsoever. It was vital that we do a FEC and get an idea of how extensive she was infected – deworming a horse with extreme parasite infestation can cause a massive die-off of worms, which in turn can block the intestines and cause severe colic and even death. Most vets consider a FEC of less than 200 epg (eggs/gram) to be acceptable  – Snowy’s was 2200 epg! This meant we were going to have to go slow and careful to eradicate the parasites without causing further harm.  Instead of bi-annual de-worming, Dr. Bradford recommended we deworm Snowy with small does of mild medication every two months. After she had gained some weight in December, we were able to give her a 600lb dose of mild Anthelcide, followed two months later by a 750lb dose of Pyrental Pamoate (Strongid). In a couple of weeks Snowy will receive a third treatment of either Anthelcide or Pyrental Pamoate, before having another fecal egg count done to evaluate her progress. Fortunately through this slow and careful treatment she has had no ill effects and is gradually becoming worm-free.

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Blood Tests and Overall Exam

Three days after arriving at Race2Ring, Snowy had her first veterinary exam. At that time she “weighed” 600lbs according to the weight tape (at both withers and flank) and Dr. Bradford evaluated her to be a 1.5 using the Henneke body condition score (normal for a horse is considered around a 6).  However overall Dr. Bradford was extremely impressed with her health – her heart was strong and healthy, as were her lungs. Snowy was bright, alert, and had plenty of energy despite her weight. She had a small ulcer in her left eye (treated with antibiotic ointment) and didn’t have much sight in her right eye, although it does not seem to affect her at all. When we picked Snowy up from her owner we were told that she’d “broken her hind leg in seven places” – while we were skeptical about that, she had obviously had some sort of trauma to her right hind leg, as she swings it out when she walks and trots. Dr. Bradford determined it to be an old stifle injury, but she had apparently adapted to moving on it well. In addition Snowy has severe ringbone (arthritis to the pastern and possibly coffin joints) in her right front.  We decided to put her on a non-NSAID anti-inflammatory that included Devil’s Claw, such as STP or Buteless, to help with her comfort. The biggest concern was what we couldn’t see – would blood tests show damage to any of her vital organs? Fortunately they came back a few days later looking extremely good – despite mild anemia (most likely due to the parasites) Snowy was given a clean bill of health! Apparently all her weight loss was due to poor dental care and nutrition, something that is easily fixed.

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On April 1st, just shy of four months after arriving at Race2Ring in poor condition, Snowy moved to her foster home! She has gained 200lbs, has loads of energy, and is now between a 3-4 on the Henneke scale. We are extremely pleased with her progress, and the fact that we have been able to give her a happy and healthy retirement. Next month’s topic: No Hoof No Horse – how we care for Snowy’s feet to help alleviate pain and discomfort from the arthritis and stifle injury.