Health Matters

High on Health: Patience & Humility

Written by Dr. Justin High on .

For those of you who haven’t been involved with horses very long, you may find this hard to believe, but for those of us who have – the daily lesson of “the more you do the less you know” seems all too familiar. How this applies to you is directly related to how willing you are to accept your place in life. I know this may sound very esoteric, but think about it this way …

1.      We are dealing with an animal – they cannot talk.

2.     Horses have no interest in how much money you have or how much of it you spend on them.

3.     They have no loyalty to their genetics or the aspirations you have for their future.

4.     If something bad is going to happen, it always happens to the best one.

Granted, this is a pretty “glass is half empty” way of looking at things, but deal with horses long enough and I think you will agree. I say this not to disparage the horse of how God created them. Horses are, by far, one of the most amazing animals on the planet that have played a vital role in every phase in the history of mankind. They have excelled at everything from the most basic agricultural applications to being a vehicle for military campaigns. They have served as the backbone for industrial production, and now to the days where they are (for the most part) a source of recreation and enjoyment. This ability to become integral to every phase of our development is what maintains the horse at the forefront of our culture. So, to see such a great animal have a mind and will of their own is where many of us learn patience and humility.

Patience and humility are often two very difficult lessons to learn and horses are well suited to teach them. We spend days and weeks planning their breeding. We spend months and years waiting for the first saddling, then even more time watching the development process to see if what we have hoped for will materialize. It is a fun process and something that cannot be supplanted by anything other than the life of your horse. There is an economic, emotional and time investment that is unique to the horse. So, when the pieces all fit together and your horse returns to you the investment you have so carefully planned and performed, it is a sense of accomplishment like no other. On the other hand, when you do all the right things, the right way, with best of intentions and tragedy strikes – there is a sense of disillusionment and frustration like no other.

Over the years, I have met some genuinely good people in the horse industry. Humble, quiet, tolerant people that are exceedingly good at what they do. Be it train show horses, care for foals and broodmares, or shoe ranch geldings, these folks had the commonality of patience and humility. I have, conversely, met some very arrogant, elitist, and self-centered people who do the same jobs, and quite a few of them have been equine veterinarians.

This is where you separate the sheep from the goats. I cannot imagine living and working with horses on a daily basis and not somehow accept the fact that many of the aspects we try so hard to control are out of our hands. This doesn’t mean we will feel less disappointment or not wonder why only the best horse in the barn dies when the others don’t, but it sure goes a long way in keeping perspective on where we fit in the grand scheme of things.

Simple Steps to Prevent Shipping Fever

Written by Tanya Randall on .

Pneumonia following the stress of a trailer ride is so common that the condition is often called “shipping fever.” Young horses, like all the talented 3-year-olds who will be making their competitive debuts this fall and winter, are especially susceptible to developing respiratory infections and potentially deadly complications.

You can drastically reduce your chances of shipping fever and other respiratory ailments by ensuring proper air quality in your trailer while en route.

Ventilation. Dust, exhaust and heat builds up inside of a sealed trailer, so make use of all your trailer’s ventilation options by leaving windows and vents open. Unless winter conditions are extreme, horses will fare better against chilly, clean air than the contaminated air of a sealed trailer.

Keep it clean. Eliminate potential pathogens by keeping your trailer clean. Wash the interior after each trip and remove manure at each stop.

Manage hay and bedding. Hay and bedding are the top sources of dust in the trailer. Use thick stall mats instead of shavings to provide cushioning during travel. If you have to feed hay, wet it to keep the dust down.

Drop their heads. Tying and permanent mangers are also leading contributors to shipping fever. By nature, horses are comfortable keeping their heads at ground level most of the day for grazing. In the trailer, horses must hold their heads at shoulder height, which prevents proper draining of the nasal passages. Leave your horses untied if you can so they can raise and lower their heads at their leisure while in transit. If you must tie, use as much length as safely possible and untie at each stop to allow for nasal drainage.

Make frequent stops. Stopping frequently, every four to six hours, will allow horses to rest, drink and comfortably put their heads down to drain their nasal passages. If you can, let the horse out of the trailer to move around and relax.

Take the temp. Finally, one of the easiest things you can do is take your horse’s temperature before you put them on the trailer. Mild respiratory infections can quickly escalate en route. The normal temperature range for a horse is 99.8 and 101.3 degrees F.

Tanya Randall is a longtime contributor and former managing editor for Barrel Horse News. The wife of an equine veterinarian, Randall prefers writing horse health care articles to jogging horses for lameness exams.


What Is GBED?

Written by Stephanie Duquette on .

Glycogen-branching enzyme deficiency is an autosomal recessive genetic trait. Foals must inherit two copies of the faulty gene, one from each parent, to suffer from GBED symptoms. The disease is passed on from carrier horses that have one normal gene and one recessive GBED gene. Carrier horses are healthy because the GBED gene is recessive to its normal counterpart gene, but a mating of two carrier horses has a 1-in-4 chance of producing an affected foal. The disorder follows the same pattern as HERDA, hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia, another autosomal recessive trait, which causes fragile, slow-healing skin.

“It’s exactly the same as HERDA, in that it’s recessive,” said Stephanie Valberg, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of large animal medicine and director of the University of Minnesota’s Equine Center. She spearheaded the research that identified GBED and developed the DNA test to pinpoint carriers. “The genetic mutation of GBED was identified before HERDA, but it just didn’t get the same press. I’m hoping that information [about GBED] will get out and become more of a discussion point among owners.”

Dr. Valberg’s GBED research began in 1996, as an offshoot of a study already underway on another genetic glucose-storage disorder, polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). Both projects received funding from the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Foundation.

Foals that inherit two copies of the GBED gene lack the enzyme responsible for storing glucose in the form of big-branched glycogen molecules. Glycogen must be organized this way for the body to break it down and utilize it for energy. All life processes are fueled by glycogen, so a GBED-affected foal experiences total system failure. Muscles, heart, liver and brain all malfunction.

Sick foals display a multitude of symptoms including weakness, contracted tendons and low body temperature. Some are able to stand and nurse, but then collapse with seizures when their blood sugar plummets. Heroic measures can sometimes prolong a GBED foal’s life, but the ending is always the same.

“You cannot save them. You can keep them alive by providing them with adequate nutrition – the maximum amount of time would be 18 weeks that we’ve seen foals live – but they just don’t have enough energy to keep their heart beating and their muscles working, and they die,” Valberg said.

Read the June 1 issue of Quarter Horse News to read the full article.


Written by Dr. Justin High on .

snakebiteAs an equine veterinarian, I tend to think there are only a few true emergencies we see with horses. For example, some colics are true emergencies based on the need for surgery, a few types of lacerations, dystocias, castrations (my personal favorite), and snakebites. With the temperature staying well over 100 F in the summer months, the likelihood of venomous snakes being active and aggressive goes up also. So, if you are new to horses or just haven’t yet seen a snakebit horse, there are a few things you should prepare yourself for besides the amazement of just how big a horse’s head can swell up.

For the most part, Diamondback rattlesnakes are the primary cause of venomous snakebites in the Southwestern U.S., with Copperheads and Moccasins coming in a distant second and third, respectively. The type of snake, in my opinion, is not as important as the severity of the bite. The only time I have actually seen the snake that bit the horse I was called to look at it was still in the stall when I went in to examine it! No one bothered to check that out before calling me, and I have since learned my lesson. That being said, I’m sure young, small snakesbite as many horses as large, older ones do. But based off human medicine where most snakes are positively identified, there is some variance in the severity of the bite based solely on how much venom was injected by the snake, not the size.

Since horses do not get bit at the vet clinic, here are a few things you should have thought out and prepared for in the unfortunate case your horse is bitten. Almost all snakebites with horses occur on their nose, and subsequently the most immediate complication becomes whether or not the nasal passages swell shut. Horses cannot breathe well through their mouths alone, and if you ever see one doing it they are fixing to die, so remember that. As bad as snake venom is, it is rarely fatal in horses due to the relative proportions of venom versus the size. Therefore, the most important thing you can do is to maintain a good airway through the nostrils to prevent your horse from suffocating before emergency treatment can be started by a veterinarian. Any way you can do this is the right way. Cut off pieces of garden hoses, syringe cases, or anything else you can find that is round and about 1 inch in diameter and about 5-6 inches long. The horse may not appreciate it at the time, but having sections of tubing stuck up his nose will save his life. Step 2 is to get some type of anti-inflammatory in them. Most horsemen will have Banamine® handy and the real cool ones will have some dexamethasone also. Giving one or both of them as soon as possible will not reverse the toxin, but will mitigate some effects of it.

Step 3 is to get your horse to the vet ASAP. Depending on the amount of facial swelling and whether or not the horse can effectively breathe through their nostrils will determine if an emergency tracheotomy is needed to by-pass the obstructed airway. Human snakebites are routinely treated with anti-venom, but in horses it is extremely expensive due to the size difference, and does not affect the outcome of the case. Therefore, I do not tend to use it. I do routinely perform complete blood counts (CBC) on these horses to assess hydration status as many of them have facial swelling so severe that it prevents them from being able to drink or eat.  The worst ones stay on IV fluids for several days till the swelling goes down enough to allow them to eat and drink semi-normal.  Broad spectrum antibiotics, anti-inflammatories (steroids and NSAIDS), and good nursing care return these horse back to normal. Facial swelling may take up to two weeks to resolve, and in a few cases tissue around the actual bite location may slough out and require more wound care. Be sure to have another CBC and full chemistry panel run on your horse about 3-4 weeks after to check for potential liver or kidney problems that can come from delayed toxicities related to the bite. In the rare, and very unfortunate event your horse is bitten on the leg, or abdomen do everything you can to get your horse to a veterinary hospital as fast as you can. These are the worst of the worst and require attention well beyond the scope of this article.

Hopefully, you will never have to deal with a snakebit horse, but if you do, it is a true emergency. Be prepared with at least the knowledge of what to do and where to go.  If you’re like me, it may have to wait till you get done screaming like a schoolgirl after you’ve seen a snake, but that usually doesn’t take very long.

The "Pre" Pre-Purchase Exam

Written by Dr. Justin High on .

Over the years, buying horses has definitely changed. What used to be a short transaction with a couple of cowboys trading horses and handshakes is now, for many horses, an all-day affair. I don’t bring this up as a complaint, or to cast a jaundiced eye to how things are done now. I am fortunate enough to do pre-purchase exams on some nice horses for a lot of good people. As technology and reliable information has expanded the horseman’s wealth of knowledge, it has also enabled potential horse buyers to make better decisions that ultimately result in getting the best horse. Veterinarians have been the source of this information as it relates to form and function and, more importantly, what the future may look like for a particular horse.

I remember being an intern in the late ’90s at Littleton Large Animal Clinic in Denver, Colo., while Dr. Marvin Beeman (the originator of the pre-purchase exam) was still practicing and him telling me how he got started doing pre-purchase exams.  He had a wealthy client that played polo and would send potential ponies to Dr. Beeman to get “checked out.” Basically, this gentleman had gotten tired of new horses going lame after he bought them from problems that could have easily been avoided. Now, Dr. Beeman was always a very busy veterinarian, and he saw these “exams” as not much more than a way to drag out his already long day. So, one particularly busy day, a potential mount was sent to get “checked out,” and Dr. Beeman thought he would put a stop to the inconvenience once and for all. Dr. Beeman proceeded to perform every kind of physical examination, laboratory test and neurologic assessment he could think of.  When that was done, he X-rayed every joint that poor horse had and looked in every body opening in which he could fit an endoscope. At the end of the day, Dr. Beeman said, “That’ll be the last one of those I’ll ever have to do when he gets his bill from this!”

Well, as it turns out, this gentleman was so pleased with the thoroughness of his exam and the wealth of information gained from it, he insisted they all be done this way from now on.  Eventually, Dr. Beeman would go on to travel the world doing pre-purchase exams for many people and speaking to countless more veterinarians about how best to examine a horse for purchase with particular respect to their conformation and purpose.

Now all this being said, pre-purchase exams are great things. When you are looking at buying a horse, you need all the information you can get to make the best decision possible. What does he look like now? What issues does this horse have that will affect how I want to use him? If I decide to sell him, will he still pass the vet check later on? There are a thousand questions that can be asked during a pre-purchase exam.  Well, just like eating a bag of powered doughnuts or laying in the sun too long, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and I think we are now there with pre-purchase exams. The information used to make decisions about soundness and potential performance is increasingly skewed to misrepresent variations in normal anatomy or physiology as leverage to devalue the animal.

I have a smart client that sells some pretty snappy barrel horses all over the country. She has, over the last few years, gotten quite tired of spending the week following one of her horses getting “vetted,” bickering over the findings of a pre-purchase exam and the obligatory discount in price the potential buyers now want. Granted, if you pick a horse apart with a well-trained eye, an endoscope, and 32 digital X-rays, you will invariably find something abnormal. This is a fact we all learn at one time or another in the horse business. There are no perfectly clean horses. There are ones that have much fewer concerns than others, but none are without some blemish. If they have the ability and desire to be a good horse, they will have a little wear and tear to show for it. If they don’t, you might want to consider the fact they never worked hard enough to hurt themselves.

So, that brings us to the “Pre” Pre-Purchase exam. Out of a sense of mental self-preservation, she sends me horses that are ready to be offered for sale. I go through them just like all the other pre-purchase exams I do, with physical exams, flexion tests, X-rays and various other tests that bore the visiting vet students to tears when I make them hold the horses as it all takes place. At the end of the day, she has a neat little type-written evaluation of her horse, complete with a set of digital X-rays and the knowledge she needs to appropriately price her horse according to the issues relevant to this particular exam. Now when buyers ask about a horse she has going down the road, conversations are quite different as she is fully aware of the good, the bad and the ugly of each horse. She’ll still gladly send one off to get vetted by whomever a buyer prefers, but she first hands them a copy of the exam and X-rays I did, followed by a quick smile as she says, “The price won’t change.”

I have therefore decided that buying a horse is a lot like joining a new church. If you think you’ve found the perfect one with no problems, no issues, and no troubles, don’t join it – you’ll just mess it up.

High on Health: Wear & Tear

Written by Dr. Justin High on .

Have you ever heard someone say that people should have to get a license to have kids? This thought goes back to having some proven record that you “know what you’re doing” and have adequate knowledge of what you’re getting into. Better yet, it would prove that you have enough gray matter to not negatively affect the child. Well, if that were so, very few people would have kids, and I would probably not be one of them.

So, have you ever heard someone say people should have a license to own a horse? I know I have, and depending on what day of the week you ask, I might tend to agree.  Not so much from a standard of care aspect, or an animal rights perspective (that’s a whole other topic!), but from the mind-set that if you’re going to ask your horse to do something, you should have a working knowledge of what it takes and what it feels like for you to exert a similar effort.

For some strange reason I have come to enjoy training for and competing in triathlons. Can’t say I am a very good swimmer, I like the bike, and the only (limited) natural talent I seem to have is running. But, I like it, and I take the training seriously because for some reason there always seems to be an older and heavier person that beats me. That being said, I know what it is like to have aching body parts, minor injuries that affect my performance, and more often than not be just plain tired when I start out. So, from a training and veterinary stand point, I believe I have a solid appreciation for what can be done when the wear and tear sets in.

Through the eye of the horse, I think that those of us who make a living on or off the backs of horses should consider this information when we say a horse is lame, working poorly or just can’t get things done. Training does great things for people and horses and is required to make us better than we are today. However, training only produces reward when followed by rest. We become stronger mentally and physically. It is in this manner things that used to limit man or horse are replaced with new abilities that far exceed the creaks and groans that come in the first mile.

The next time you roll out of bed and cannot stand up straight until you make it to your second cup of coffee, I would suggest you give the horse the same benefit of the doubt. If we could all do what we wished we were capable of, the world would be a very different place.

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