‘For Sale… somewhat skinny 22 year old Appaloosa gelding’ I read in the local newspaper. Something tugged at me and before I knew it I had an appointment to see him later that day.
I climbed out of my car and couldn’t believe my eyes. ‘Somewhat skinny’ was the understatement of the year! I reached into the back seat and retrieved a carrot from the two-pound bag I had purchased on the way over. There is nothing like a carrot for a first introduction! I opened the gate and sloshed through the several inch deep urine and manure over to where the gelding stood.
“Hey there boy…” I said as I approached the breathing skeletal structure that stood before me. I touched his rib cage, realizing I could easily put my fingers around each rib with the slightest of pressure. The gelding turned to look at me, smelling the treat I had in my hand. Breaking off a small piece of carrot brought the ears of the gelding to attention. He pivoted around to face me, gentling using his lips to retrieve the carrot piece from my outstretched palm. He chewed with the care of a food critic, savoring the flavors as they danced on his palate. The gelding stepped closer to me and proceeded to bury his head into my chest while releasing a soft nicker. Needless to say, I paid for the horse and took him home.
His name was Jake. It was January and exceptionally cold for the time of year in the high desert mountains of Arizona. I called my vet and explained to him what I had. He gave me a list of supplements I would need if I were to give this horse any quality of life. I stopped by the vet office the next day and picked up a delayed release wormer along with a supplement called ‘Horse Back’ which is specifically formulated for emaciated horses. Jake had become accustom to sustaining life on very little hay and lots of dirt. My next stop was the feed store for Equine Senior, Red Cell and Psyllium pellets to remove the sand from his colon. He wasn’t used to food so I needed to go slow as not to kill him with kindness. I started off with a warm mash of Equine senior, the first dose of wormer and some Red Cell. Psyllium would be a part of his evening feeding ritual. I fed Jake a handful or two of mash, then give him some time to digest it a bit. Once it settled well I would give him another handful. Once or twice a week for the first few weeks he would colic and we would walk together for hours until his bowels moved. Sand in the colon, mixed with worms was the toughest thing to overcome in the beginning. I turned my garage into a barn for Jake. He had no fat on him or a winter coat for that matter in order to retain any body heat. I wanted him to use his food to put weight on as opposed to simply stay skinny and somewhat warm. I spread out two bales of straw, which gave a nice eight-inch base and wrapped him up in my Percheron’s heavy-duty horse blanket. It seemed to do the trick. Jake would spend his days in the pasture with my other two horses and run to the gate in the evening when I asked him if he was ready to go into his house. I never had to halter him for this short walk. I’d open the gate and he happily trotted directly into his house, eagerly awaiting his mash, timothy grass and his blanket. Gradually Jake was managing to gain weight.
Over time his spirit brightened too as he added several hundred pounds of body mass. Together we started taking short rides onto state land. He loved to go exploring. When he saw me with his halter and a lead rope he ran to the gate and nickered with excitement. Once healthy again, Jake was a gentle sweetheart who could touch the soul of anyone near him.
So, naturally I moved on to the next project on my farm to do list. I wanted chickens! When spring approached I went to the feed store to purchase baby chicks. Of course I went completely over board and ended up with seventy day-old chicks in my laundry room and two bags of pasture grass seeds to plant for the horses. I proceeded to build a brooder outside and moved the chicks into their new home because it became impossible to do laundry with that many baby chicks jumping in Rubbermaid tubs and chirping in their loud ‘There’s a monster in the room’ voices. Now they had space and a glow light to keep them warm in the cool evening temperatures, lots of water along with the recommended medicated chick starter. I kept this in an emptied kitty litter pail so it would be easy to feed each day.
A month later or so I came home from work to find that the horses had decided that the pasture was boring. One of the five horses had opened the gate and let everyone out in the yard to play. The two bags of pasture grass that I bought with the baby chicks (and had yet to plant) were now shredded empty plastic remnants strewn all around the porch. The kitty litter pail was tipped over and empty. I found the lid under a Juniper tree about fifty feet away. The big kids had made a big mess. I cleaned everything up and did the evening chores thinking nothing else of it.
The next day I was watching Jake in the pasture and he started to urinate. It started out cloudy yellow as normal, and then became pink followed by thick red blood. Naturally, I was panicked – this was my sweet boy! I ran up to the house and grabbed a small Tupperware container with a lid and collected a sample for the vet.
The vet called me a short while later. “It’s probably cancer. Appy’s are known to get cancer in that region. If you would like I can come out and put him down for you.” He offered.
“Absolutely not! We went for a ride day before yesterday and he was great. He hasn’t dropped weight, has a great appetite, how can it be cancer?” I replied.
“That’s my best guess. I didn’t send the sample to the lab and have since disposed of it.” He answered.
“Thanks for your time.” I said sarcastically before hanging up.
Cancer didn’t seem possible. It shows up over time, not overnight! I started to dig on the Internet. Searches for ‘Horse with bloody urine’ didn’t offer much. As I was falling to sleep that night I recalled the day the horses got out. I jumped out of bed and went back online. ‘Horse got into the chicken feed’ I typed into Yahoo search. The screen filled with links to websites. As it turns out, medicated chick started has an ingredient called monensin to control intestinal parasites in chicks. A horse’s metabolism is much slower than chickens. None of the other horses had the symptoms so as best as I can guess, Jake decided he liked chick starter. According to the article I found and conversations with Dr. O on HorseAdvise.com the monensin attacks the diaphragm, kidneys, heart and muscles. It wasn’t blood in Jakes urine, but muscle that had been attacked by the toxins in monensin. There is no treatment for a poisoning of this nature except time and hope. The ingredient monensin is also in some cattle and pig feeds. According to a study done by the government, if Jake could hold on for twenty-eight days he possibly had a chance of pulling through the poisoning. After two days, Jake lost his appetite. He would simply refuse to drink and stood with his hooves spread far apart for balance. His head hung very low as he began to drop weight. The spirit was once again missing from his eyes. I won’t go into the awful details of his struggle, but at day eighteen he began to perk up a bit. He started eating and drinking more though his head still hung low. His small step forward quickly became a giant leap back and I had to have Jake put down on day twenty-one. His gums became a dark blue purple and he simply collapsed. Jake had no more fight in him and his body was already damaged from being severely emaciated.
I share this very personal story in hopes that it educates other horse owners out there. Please be sure that all cow, pig or chicken feed is locked away from the reach of curious horses. The stuff tastes great to them and if accessible they will eat their fill. It’s my goal that no other horse owners have to go through the heartbreak of putting down their best buddy.
Information found on this type of poisoning is available by searching ‘Accidental ingestion of toxic substances is usually the cause of poisoning in horses’ on Thoroughbred Times.com or by searching ‘Horse got into the Chicken Feed’ on HorseAdvice.com.