Part III - Conclusion
Now it was time to start the investigation into the mysterious problems distressing our boy Donnie. It should also be noted at this time that he had problems with the farrier. Donnie would stand quietly for his front feet to be done, but he would barely lift his back legs and the farrier noticed the muscles in his haunches were stiff. He was always nervous when the farrier or vet was working on him, so no one knew if he was stressed or simply unwilling to pick up his back feet due to resistance – or both. This was one more matter that definitely needed to be worked on.
We tried everything we knew to help him but nothing seemed to work. It became apparent during some of our procedures that Donnie had definitely been abused in one way or another and had the scars to show for it. The conclusion we came to was that he was most likely “broke” hard and fast. It always seems to me that “broke” is an apt description for the way some young horses end up after their early training. In addition to his suspected ear twitching, he also has a brand, and though faded now due to his gradual lightening, had white hair from pressure sores on his withers and back, and around his head where the bridle/halter sits, not to mention the evidence of several old wounds over his whole body. We don’t know what Donnie’s early training consisted of, but it’s easy to imagine the “tied to a post” and traumatized or “thrown to the ground” old-fashioned cowboy methods being involved.
We had the vet out repeatedly; sure, we were missing something. Our vet at the time could not find anything wrong with Donnie. He was “healthy as a horse.” His dental examination and floating went fine, and his teeth were in good shape except for a broken front tooth that he had when we got him. There had to be a story behind the broken tooth, and this led us to believe he may have been kicked in the teeth or been in some sort of wreck. By the way, his missing half tooth just makes him look cuter and adds character to an already adorable mug, and helps us identify “Donnie bites” on the other horses in the herd – they do play hard!
We also tried homeopathics, which didn’t seem to help, and Reiki was also administered; while it helped for a day or two it didn’t last. Then of course there was the - and I use this term lightly - horse psychic. She thought he had been pushed over by another horse in the herd and fallen hard on his back and head and maybe had an incident with a tree head on. However, she couldn’t give us anything concrete. So we were back to square one…
I do wish they could talk. Then again, maybe they do - with their actions they are trying to tell us what is wrong, and it is up to us to figure out the solution. We were still unsure if it was a physical problem or a psychological/training issue. Where do you go from there? We kept trying to play with him in the round pen, which was good as long as nothing was around his girth area. We kept our “work” with him focused on gaining his trust. There seemed to be progress with the trust, but an odd thing happened about this time - Donnie would only let me or my daughter approach him or touch his face; if anyone else would try this, he would run backwards, rear, or both. So, it wasn’t all hopeless; we did make some progress, but it still seemed a major backwards step from where he was when we started.
Nevertheless, he did continue to enjoy the time he spent with his herd. Nate, of course is his best friend and the two of them play constantly. It seems Donnie loves everyone and all the horses love Donnie. To the mares, he is “Don Juan” – though they usually have little tolerance for the boys and their antics, the ladies all love Donnie and never squeal or kick at him. He’s quite the sweet talker... and I remember he would follow Erik around and emulate him. Erik took him on as a sort of bothersome younger brother, but watched out for him and taught him how to be calm and fit in with the herd. Donnie is sort of a prankster, some of the funniest times were when Erik went down for a good roll, and Donnie would come up and launch a sneak attack from the rear, biting him on the butt and then gleefully making his escape before Erik knew what had happened. Erik would just groan - ugh, little brothers can be so annoying - and continue rolling.
When Erik was down in the field, colicing and in pain, Donnie was the only one out of the entire herd who went over to him and tried to help by trying to get him up. When he couldn’t, he was the only one who stayed with his big brother until someone came to help. That is Donnie’s thoughtful, caring personality that so endears him to us and his herd.
Things were getting a little better but still he couldn’t be ridden. Our quest for an answer to all-that-is-Donnie continued for years. He was dragged to various vet clinics, had full body x-rays, numerous blood tests, screening for ulcers, was treated for EPM (which was never diagnosed) just in case. We even, as a last resort, briefly tried medications like acepromazine (a sedative) and methocarbamol (a muscle relaxer) without any change. These were just a few of the many procedures we tried to solve the riddle of the girth. During this time, he was also diagnosed with Lyme Disease, which we feel intensified his sensitivity problems. Let me say that, other than this girth sensitivity problem, Donnie is sound, healthy, has never needed shoes and has rarely had anything else wrong medically. Which led us to think it must be a psychological problem and even wondered if horses can have panic attacks or develop PTSD or some similar disorder after traumatic events or negative training experiences.
It is painful to see Donnie suffer so much and, I might interject here that anyone who mistreats any horse needs to have the same thing done to them in kind. Despite all of his problems – or maybe in part because of them - he has won everyone’s heart during these difficult years.
The search for an answer continued. In thinking about his stiffness behind for the farrier, and the twitching of all his muscles when he’s having one of his episodes, my daughter, running out of ideas, wondered if he might have a mild case of “shivers.” She began researching the condition, which is usually found in draft-type horses. Luckily, Donnie didn’t meet most of the criteria for a diagnosis of shivers, which is a horrible condition that has no cure. It seemed like we were at a dead end. Until, during the course of that research, she came across another, somewhat similar condition common to draft types. Two veterinarians, working separately, had recently done extensive research and identified a common but previously unknown neuromuscular disease in quarter horse and draft breeds that they were calling PSSM or EPSM. It sounded similar to Donnie’s condition. And, there was a way to manage it! If this was the source of Donnie’s troubles, there was still hope!
This past summer, we had scheduled Donnie to go to our local vet clinic for a nuclear scintigraphy scan in a final effort to discover some injury or problem lurking where normal exams couldn’t find them. After talking with the vets about the possibility of him having a neuromuscular disease like PSSM/EPSM, we decided to also have the muscle biopsy needed to diagnose PSSM taken from his backside and sent to the University of Minnesota lab while he was there. As with all the other diagnostics, the scan turned up nothing; we were relieved, but still frustrated. There was only one hope left....
Here’s why we think we may have finally found out how to “cure” Donnie of his discomfort and girth/saddling/riding dilemma:
Donnie had come to us as young horse off a ranch out west. He was a bit thin and unused to being stabled. He likely grazed on scrub and didn’t have access to rich pasture designed for dairy cows like what we had at our farm. He most likely didn’t have much access to rich hay and he probably wasn’t being fed grain. So, after a while of being with us, his new lifestyle and his new diet began to cause him problems.
PSSM occurs in horses that have an inability to properly process and store sugars in the muscles.
"Glucose is normally stored as an energy source in the form of polysaccharide (“polysaccharide” means “many molecules of glucose”) called glycogen in the liver and muscles. Horses with PSSM actually have an excessive accumulation of glycogen molecules in muscle cell cytoplasm. Over time, this glycogen combines with certain proteins present in the cytoplasm to form abnormal glycogen-protein complexes. How these abnormal polysaccharides damage the muscle cell is not exactly clear but may involve interfering with intracellular pathways for generating energy and thus result in cell necrosis or death....
With the excessive accumulation of these polysaccharides, the muscle cell can be damaged and die. When this occurs, depending on the number of muscles involved, duration of the process and other stress factors, multiple symptoms can be shown by the affected horse. While symptoms can occur in 6 month or younger foals, most often signs are not apparent until the horse goes into training at 2-4 years of age. Depending on the severity of involvement, symptoms can include any of the following:
generally stiff, difficulty rising, reluctant to “move out,” tires easily, saddle issues (sore back), bucking, resistance to holding up the hind feet for shoeing, subtle lamenesses, abnormal gaits, cranky attitude, muscle tremors or sensitivity, kicks at flies that aren’t there (muscle cramps), swishes tail excessively (muscle pain), looks at belly or flanks as if colicky (muscle pain), having a preference for rubbing or rolling a lot, or the opposite, with resistance to brushing/grooming, especially over the back and rump. Affected horses may show a stiff, tense gait with difficulty getting that nice relaxed rhythmic swing that is so desirable in the dressage horse or any other athletic, sport horse. Symptoms of “shivers” where there is an abnormal hind leg action and muscles quivering have been described in draft breeds . If left unmanaged, over time the muscles can atrophy and the horse can show severe muscle wasting. The horse may eventually be unable to rise from a lying down position. In its most severe manifestation, an affected horse can “tie up”(also known as exertional rhabdomyolysis or Monday morning disease or azoturia). While the horse is exercising, they will stop moving, often quite abruptly, or sometimes just slow down. They may come to a complete standstill, refusing to move. Their muscles tremble all over their body and they break out in profuse sweating due to extreme pain as the muscles, especially their rump muscles, go into severe cramps." (from “PSSM....Could my horse have it?”)
Quarter Horses and draft breeds are most commonly effected, so poor Donnie, being half of each, didn’t have much of a chance…
Our guess is that, with the pain and muscle cramping associated with PSSM, the pressure of the girth, particularly when it tightened as it does when he’s taking a deep breath, or spooking at a dog or a hole in the ground, caused him to panic and react instinctively to rid himself of the thing that’s hurting. Combined with his history of abuse and his fear of certain people and certain training situations, this was a recipe for trouble.
But so far, with the change in his diet, there has been a very positive change in Donnie. For one, his muscle tone is softer. He also seems more relaxed. So far, experiments with putting a polo wrap or stretchy surcingle around him haven’t produced a reaction. So maybe he’s on the road to recovery? We’re cautiously optimistic. However, recuperation from this condition can take many months while the muscles recover and begin to repair themselves, and the horse becomes accustomed to his new diet and exercise program. We’re taking things slow. After so many years of guessing, we’re in no hurry and we want to get this right.
Of course, years of fear and pain, and the muscle damage that goes along with PSSM may have taken their toll, as has his abusive early training. The scars are always going to be there. It is possible Donnie may never be comfortable and confident enough to be ridden again. But if we can give him even just a little relief, and hopefully win back some of his old composure and contentment, we’ll be satisfied. Maybe we’ll sleep a little better knowing we’re doing our best for him. Whatever happens, we’ll keep trying, because Donnie, despite everything he has been through, has never stopped trying. We’re keeping hope alive for him.
Until next time
Quote for Today
In the steady gaze of the horse shines a silent eloquence that speaks of love and loyalty, strength and courage. It is the window that reveals to us how willing is his spirit, how generous his heart.