Ask Horse Journal: 05/02

Unicorn Syndrome Is Rare, But Real
I enclosed pictures of my 22-year-old Thoroughbred gelding that is an ex-racehorse. I have owned him for 16 years. About a year ago, he developed a lump in the middle of his forehead, between or slightly below his eyes. The lump came on quickly, was hard, and was slightly warm and sensitive for a few days. Other than that, the horse looked and acted 100% normal.

A year later, the lump is still there, still hard and not at all warm or sensitive. To the best of my knowledge, this is not the result of a kick or other injury. My vet mentioned something about older horses sometimes “laying new bone” along the “suture” line (nicknamed “unicorn syndrome”).

Are you familiar with this’ Could this affect his sinuses’ He has had runny eyes ever since this happened. I had his sinus passages irrigated last October and it took several times before the saline came out through his tear ducts. My normally calm, sweet horse seemed to get uncomfortable and fidgety while this procedure was being done. Also, even though his tear ducts were cleaned, the vet felt they were still slightly blocked and the horse’s eyes are still somewhat runny.

Can you provide me with any additional information about what might be going on or where I can get more extensive information’ I haven’t found much on the Internet.

-Kristen C. Benson

“Unicorn syndrome” is essentially exactly what you described: a hard lump that appears on the midline of the face, usually in the forehead area. It appears and grows rapidly, then stabilizes and remains there. The cause is unknown, although the best theory is that it is related to mineral imbalances in older horses, a combination of unbalanced intakes and possibly reduced absorption, maybe with hormonal factors.

The location of your horse’s bump is somewhat unusual, however, as they’re primarily found higher. The bump itself shouldn’t be interfering with tear ducts, but there is a possibility at least that something is going on inside the nasal passages that is causing both things. X-rays of the head would be a good idea. Only one vet we spoke with reported she had a case that went on to develop a nasolacrimal duct obstruction.


Laminitis Treatment
I was shocked to hear your suggestion of using a door stop as first aid for laminitis. This isn’t a job for someone who is not experienced with the ailment. In addition, I’ve been told increasing deep flexor tendon pull by elevating the toe can cause further coffin-bone rotation. Aren’t X-rays always a necessity in severe cases’

-Kathy Mack
New York

We agree that drastic changes to the foot and shoeing must be done only with X-rays and only by someone experienced with dealing with laminitis.?? However, the door-stop toe elevation was suggested only as a temporary first-aid emergency measure, until professional help arrives.

The prevailing wisdom in the old days, and in some current approaches to laminitis as well, was and is to lower the heel to establish a more ground-parallel position for the coffin bone and relieve mechanical tearing forces on the laminae at the toe. In most laminitis cases, it’s the blood supply to the anterior laminae that is the most severely affected, result being the classical tip-down rotation if the laminae tear.??

Lowering the heels is controversial in some circles because of fear of greater deep flexor tendon pull.?? However, with severe laminitis involving more than just the blood supply to the anterior region, the result is a sinker, dropping down of the entire coffin bone with little or no rotation seen at the toe.?? We feel if the deep flexor was exerting as much “pull” as some theorize it to be, the bony column would not sink in this fashion but would be pulled into even greater rotation if all the laminar attachments had let go.


Chopped-Hay Products
I knew a lady who fed her two old ponies a product called Dengie, made by Lucerne Farms, which is a chopped hay product. It’s free of dust, mold and such and is more easily digested, thus providing a greater nutritional value for older horses. It comes as alfalfa or a mix of oats, timothy and alfalfa. Both have molasses added for taste. I believe both are fairly high in fiber.

When and/or why would you use this product’ I have an older horse who is currently eating Equine Senior and orchardgrass hay. Would this be a good substitute for a portion of the grain’

-J. Charrette

Chopped forages, like Lucerne Farms’ Dengie (800/723-4923), can be substituted for a part of the hay ration but won’t have sufficient calories to substitute for grain. Products like this, and the Triple Crown chopped forages (800/451-9916 or on line at, are good for older horses with problems chewing since the smaller pieces are at least a bit easier to chew and easier for the organisms in the intestinal tract to work on. However, since they aren’t processed in any way other than chopping them into small pieces, the calorie availability will be about the same as for hay.


Dietary Calcium Not A Blood Test
In December 2001, you said older horses need more protein, calcium and phosphorus. You then recommended a protein-mineral mix, like TDI-30 or Triple Crown 30. My local feed store can’t find these supplements. Can you tell me who distributes them’ My vet did blood tests on my older mare and said she was low on calcium.

-David Manis
North Carolina

Triple Crown 30 is made by Triple Crown Nutrition (800/451-9916 or TDI-30 is made by TDI Horse Feeds (800/457-7577 or In addition, we want to caution you that blood-calcium levels aren’t a good indication of calcium in the diet or the balance of calcium with other minerals, especially phosphorus. The calcium:phosphorus dietary intake ratio should be 2:1.


Deworming Foals
We’ve been told to deworm foals and weanlings with piperazine. However, the only product that contains piperazine is an alfalfa pellet dewormer from Farnam, and that label says not to use it in foals under three months of age. Do you have another recommendation’

-Bill Hutton

There are liquid 17% piperazine solutions still available, see or They are marketed for other livestock in addition to horses, although specifically for horses as well. Dosing is by dose syringe.


More On Oak Posioning
Can you be more specific regarding oak trees’ bark and acorns as being toxic (November 2001)’ Are all oaks equally toxic’ Our horses have lived under California coastal oaks all their lives and periodically “vacuum” up the leaves and acorns or “trim” the low branches. When the ponies have attempted to mine the bark from the oaks, the trees have a protective layer of either chicken wire or the newer black plastic fencing mesh added to their trunks. The only adverse effect noted over the years was that occasionally one pony was allergic to oak, which my veterinarian confirmed is not uncommon. She’d “savage” herself, scratching all the itchiness to the point of many large open and raw sores. When the mare was sold and moved to a location without oak trees, she healed. When she ret urned for a short layover between owners she again rubbed herself raw.

-Stephanie Abronson

The oak parts — acorns, buds, leaves, twigs — vary in the concentration of toxin they contain and there is also variation between species. The bottom line is that none are actually safe, although toxicity does depend on how much is eaten. Problems are most likely to arise when there is little else available to munch on. Therefore, except for animals with an unusual sensitivity — not necessarily even to the same chemical that causes oak/acorn toxicity — there’s no reason to keep horses sequestered from oak trees. Common sense measures such as you describe, of limiting access if their interest in the oaks seems high, and above all making sure there is always plenty of grass or hay available, will help.


Proper Needle Disposal
Getting stuck by an improperly disposed needle may cause a pretty nasty bacterial infection. And if it happens to your trash man, you could be in for some fines for improper disposal of “sharps.”

Putting the cap back on isn’t enough. Needles should be removed from the syringe and either placed all the way back through the stopper of an empty vaccine or medication bottle, inserted deeply into a cork or other solid object or stored in a puncture-proof container for later disposal.

Heavy plastic containers with tops, such as empty bleach, liquid detergent or shampoo/soap bottles will not puncture through and make good storage vessels. Keep one clearly labeled “For Used Needles” in your tack room. Drop the needle in, secure the top and simply throw away with needles safely inside when full. In addition, check with your local authorities for ordinances on needle disposal in your area.

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