Archive for December, 2009


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.  It’s a special time of softness in all our lives. And it is a time that always brings two very special pieces of literature to my mind. One is “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens. Referring to the creatures under the cloak of Christmas Present, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

My other Christmas love is an excerpt that I first saw on the cover of a defunct catalog “Phelems.” Back in the  early ’90s I believe it was. I have never been so moved or felt a description so spot-on as I have this one. So while you are opening gifts, visiting family and friends and trying to explain why you are still taking lessons or schlepping  hay to the old retiree or missing coffee at Starbucks to check the barn, keep this in the back of your mind. If it doesn’t explain it to them, it will explain it to yourself.

Albert Borgmann,  “Crossing the Postmodern Divide” 1992

You cannot remain unmoved by

the gentleness and conformation

of a well-bred and well-trained

horse —more than a thousand

pounds of big–boned, well-

muscled animal, slick of coat and

sweet of smell, obedient and

mannerly, and yet forever a

menace with its innocent power

and ineradicable inclination to

seek refuge in flight, and always

a burden with its need to be fed,

wormed and shod, with its

liability to cuts and infections, to

laming and heaves. But when it

greets you with a nicker, nuzzles

your chest, and regards you  with

a large and liquid eye, the

question of where you want to

be and what you want to do has

been answered.

Albert Borgmann, "Crossing the Postmodern Divide" 1992


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Viewing where the horses go

The holidays are here and, in New Jersey, the festivities are going to be heralded with cold and snow. Relatives in the South assure me that “normal” has stopped for them as well. Most riding activities consist of a carrot and a promise, if there is a visit to the barn at all.

Come January 2, a line of horse trailers starts to form at the Delaware Memorial Bridge; the Northeast portal to highways leading to Aiken, Southern Pines, Ocala, and Wellington. Last year that line was identifiably smaller and a fair number of Southern horse shows, dependent on the snow-birds, were canceled. I am wondering what this year will be like. Friends who have played in the Southern winter circuits calculate it runs them about 10 grand a month- travel, training, board, turnout, grooms, show fees, their own housing and amusement.

What interests me in this disruption of the annual trek south is the soundness issue of show horses. I wish the AAEP would run a survey or study on this matter. Here is what I suspect- sounder horses next spring in the North.

It is only 20 years ago that winter in the North meant trail riding in the snow or three months of R & R for the horses. Whatever the choice it was slow work. The landscape saw only a few indoor rings. The ground being frozen, people just walked their horses undersaddle on sunlit days and left the animals to their own games in the field the rest of the time.

hanging out with friends

Rest is the operative word here. I had an opportunity to listen to some of the nations leading equine leg surgeons. They all stated, the number one cause for an unsuccessful surgery is lack of time to heal. The horse is a performance animal and everyone wants it back in work ASAP. Being an animal whose survival depends on flight, horses may get a quick, low-level of heal. Enough to get them out of the cougar’s path. But everything is knitted together with bailing twine at that point and the breakdown comes faster and harder or the top performance never comes at all if the horse is put back into serious work at this stage.

There is also the question of what structures  are compromised that we are unaware of and heading for a catastrophic breakdown with no rest. And what about the sour attitudes and vices that appear with all work and no play. Surely there has been 12 month show schedules for centuries in warm climates- but I’m talking about a Northern life cycle, here. But it does beg the question of comparison studies in soundness issues of horses in no-rest warm regions and imposed time off in frigid climates.

winter grazing

Offer a cup of coffee to your older vet (someone who has seen the half-a-century mark) and start a conversation of equine R & R. He/She will probably concur: limbs, backs and minds healed during the winter solstice. Even now, some older vets might confide to you that many leg injuries and ailments just need time. You may think it was the last shock-wave session that healed the injury, but, in fact, that session occurred at the injury’s six-month anniversary, a time frame it would have healed on its own anyway.

Before the 12-month show season your farrier would tell you to treat the thrush, but not to worry, standing in the winter snows would clear it up. It would help the foot bruise, the crabby attitude, the tense muscles, sensitivity to touch, girth sores, saddle hot spots. There might be a lot of mud and dirt on the animals, but skin afflictions due to constant washing and stripping of natural oils wasn’t on the vet’s treatment list during this solstice.

Smokin Mokes having some winter fun

This is not a diatribe against showing. Just some assurances to those staying home, that the time really isn’t lost or wasted if they let their horses rest and have some snow time. They might have sounder, happier horses to perform in the spring. The only way to know would be to do a study- now who’s going to pay for that?

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Earlier this week I attended the Rutgers Equine Science Update and got a peek into some of the research they are doing on horses. I have to hand these people a lot of credit for exposing themselves before a research project is complete. They are one of the few groups I know who really do try to be transparent, to use a word-of-the-moment.

The Equine Science Center looks at ways to prevent disease, as opposed to a veterinary hospital, which researches ways of treating and curing a disease. Throughout the years I’ve seen the Center produce some valuable information, and since they discuss the projects while “in progress” it gives the layperson, like myself, a better in-sight as to the complexity of research. A while back they did some research on the efficacy of supplements for joint pain. It took them a year to identify specific blood markers that would accurately predict joint inflammation.

Then they spent considerable time on sourcing specific ingredients in their pure form. After all, you may think it’s the yogurt in your daily dose of strawberry yogurt that makes you break out, when in fact, it may be the strawberries! Same with a supplement, you want to test the active ingredient by itself to eliminate the possibility that it really is the alfalfa meal that is providing all the benefit.

No wonder some medical cures take so long to come about.

So I was intrigued by one of the research studies the Center is sponsoring. Dr. Janet Onishi is actually a plant biologist with a pharmaceutical background. Doesn’t know a thing about horses and I wonder how she came out of the woodwork. How she came upon laminitis as an equine pathology and why it peeked her curiosity remains a mystery to me.

Janet Onishi, Mike Fannell, Dr. Michael Fugaro

Her interest is in the chronic laminitic situation. Chronic laminitis differs from the acute form in that the horse is never really free form it. The disease continually flares up in the horse’s life. An acute case can turn chronic, but many acute cases are one time events, are treated and the horse remains free from it afterward.

She also approached the question in a different light. The traditional thinking on causes of laminitis involve a carbohydrate overload killing-off bacteria and creating endotoxins, which churn up inflammation with a result of  laminitis in the hoof. Endotoxins are a structural component of the wall of gram-negative bacteria and are only released when the bacteria die.  What caused a big ‘Hmmm” from Onishi is that injecting the endotoxins directly in the horses blood stream does not create the same scenario. In fact, injecting these endotoxins in the blood stream doesn’t cause any laminitic conditions at all.

Coming from the outside, Onishi had no preconceived notions about the disease and her ponderings gave her wings. Looking at human literature she found evidence that microbes (bacteria) can cross out of the gastro-intestinal track into the lymph system and from there cross into the blood stream and have full access to the body. So she had a thought “What if the microbes were playing a different role in the disease then we imagined? Perhaps it is not the products of the microbes that are causing the problem, but the bacteria itself.”

So she got initiated into the world of animal research protocol, ethics and oversight and is working closely with area veterinarians on a current study. She has some initial findings that are showing there might be merit in her hypothesis. Lamina taken from horses who were euthanized due to causes other than laminitis had no, or very minute, bacteria counts in their hoof lamina. Horses euthanized due to chronic laminitis had significantly high bacterial counts in their hoof lamina.

There are over 77,000 horses suffering from chronic laminitis in the U.S. and I suspect there are an equal number of horse owners who are praying for a way to prevent or control this havoc in the lives of their animals.

The study has just started and even if the results prove the hypothesis, there is still the question of identifying the bacteria, what causes the movement, and how do you affect or interrupt the cascade. But, I find this project replicates one of the purposes of this blog. Talking to people in different mind-sets, careers, and experiences; crossing sectors of science, art, and sociology; going away from horses to bring back to them the best thoughts from other sectors, and not being afraid to say,  “I wonder, what would happen if…”

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I’ve been M.I.A. The holidays always bring close contact with people and I usually end up under-the-weather as a result. This year my malady is a bit more contagious and I have applied a self-imposed quarantine. That is, except for the animals.

color coordinated bacteria

Listening to all the H1N1 drama and cries for people feeling ill to stay home, I can’t help but feel left out. People who care for animals rarely get the luxury of slurping chicken soup while watching hours of Turner Classics or indulging in restorative naps. Instead we adapt to working while ill.

Why do I become so paranoid about getting sick? I use my own pen every time I sign something. Carry alcohol wipes with me, wash my hands constantly, and will flat out tell someone I’ll drive my own car or visit them next week if they are sick. I’m not as bad as Monk, but I also don’t get sick too often.

Perhaps the answer to “why” lies in past experiences. There was the vegetable soup that I thought might have been out for too long but ate anyway. Four days of intense retching with barely enough energy to get to the bathroom. Nay, I still donned the barn clothes, dragged myself into the car, resting after every action and retching after every third. I will admit it is much easier to throw-up in a barn than in an office. Just find a stall and a pitchfork and your good to go. But you just want to die.

There was the sinus infection that lasted for two years. Every month, once the antibiotics were overcome, I would wake up with heavy limbs and whimper as I rose from bed. I would be teetering due to congested sinus cavities and dizzy with fever. It was the only time I had a careless fall from my horse who was shocked at my indiscretion. Too bad it didn’t whack open the sinus cavities.

Then there was the fractured humerus. (which, I did not find to be humorous.) While figuring out how to use a pitchfork with only one arm and substituting a muck bucket for a wheel barrow; you get a great appreciation for the saying “necessity is the mother of invention.”

I was shocked to find out that you can get tennis elbow (aka tendonitis) in both elbows, and deltoids, even hamstrings. Gee, you can get tendonitis everywhere you have a tendon. I think I have discovered all of my tendons now. All because I reworked my body to compensated for the first “winter-water-bucket” tendonitis. I have become ferocious in the care of horses with bad tendons. I just listen to my own body to remind myself what can happen to their’s without enough rest.

And one gets absolutely no sympathy. The animals just want their food and to be let loose. The riders say “Awwww, that’s awful.  Did Polka-dot get her boots on?”  Your back-ups are often sick or injured themselves. Your family feels unimportant; they think the horses count more than they do. Family never seems to figure out the huge compliment they are paid in assuming they are capable enough to take care of themselves.

Misery loves company and it usually helps us empathize. The vet may be cranky because he too has a fever and his limbs feel like lead. The sick caring for the sick. Perhaps I should ask him about the new worming schedule next week. The farrier has a back brace on, an arm brace on, and I see him wince when he picks up the hoof. The cripple creating soundness in others. Maybe I should stay and hold the wiggle guy and really make him stand still.

wanna shake hands?

Well, I’m on my way to the barn. Hmm, husband drove the car last night. He was coughing. Where are those wipes for the steering wheel?

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