Ask Horse Journal: 10/99

Breakaway Halters
My gelding was involved in a pasture accident in which his breakaway halter became entangled in a round-pen gate. Although he mangled the gate and pulled down half the pen, the halter did not give way. Instead, before he could be freed, the bones forming the midline of his face separated. Because this may result in permanent disfigurement, I am especially concerned about the safety of halters.

I have two questions: First, how can I judge which halters will be most likely to break when needed. Second, in your opinion, under what conditions can horses safely wear halters.

-Kate Fulkerson, Ph.D.
Durham, NC

The problem with breakaway halters is finding a range where it will break when a horse is in trouble — which varies with the situation and the strength of the horse — yet can be used to handle the horse. While some manufactures call halters “breakaway” simply because they are made of leather or have a leather crown, the breaking point on an individual halter may not be easily achieved by your individual horse.

We tested breakaway halters in August 1996, and our favorite is the BMB halter (800/842-5837). It allows you to choose a break point on your halter that may more closely fit your own horse’s needs. The BMB comes with three leather fuses of varying thicknesses (the thinner the tab, the easier it will break) that function as the breaking point. In our testing, we found this halter (with the middle fuse) broke at midrange between the halter most difficult to break and the one easiest to break.

The halter that came apart with the least amount of effort was the Miller’s BreakFree (800/553-7655), which uses a Velcro closure to keep the halter together. It is likely the best halter for releasing at low-level stress points with no replacement costs. However, it could come apart if your horse misbehaved strongly enough while you were leading him, too.

In a perfect world, we would never turn a horse out in a halter or leave him stalled wearing a halter. We use halters only when we handle the horse.

However, there are situations — such as boarding stables, breeding farms or overnight stabling at competitions — where keeping the horse haltered is necessary. Therefore, we suggest you keep two halters on hand: 1) A breakaway halter for turnout and stalls, and 2) A traditional leather or web halter for handling your horse.


Coughing Problem
I have two horses out on three acres of pasture, and they have developed a cough. It is not all the time, and sometimes they have a clear nasal discharge, but not most of the time. When they cough it seems to me that they have grass stuck in their throats.

I have not changed any feed or introduced anything new. Lately we have had a spell of hot and humid weather. I live in southern Illinois. I am wondering if this cough is weather-related or if they have gotten into a weed in the pasture, or if I should contact a vet’

-Catherine Swager

As you suspected, an environmental factor is likely at the root of these coughs. If your hot spell was also a dry one, mechanical irritation from dust is a common factor. This hot spell has also “burnt” off many of the pasture grass species horses would normally eat, leading horses to experiment more with weeds that may be irritating. Horses grazing closer to the dry ground than normal can lead to their inhaling a higher number of fungus/mold spores. The high humidity also concentrates molds, pollens and airborne pollutants. The combination of increased mechanical irritation and high concentration of potential allergens often results in dry coughs such as you describe. It may also be a single irritant responsible, something like the pollen of a specific plant that is blooming at this time of the year.

Since there probably is not an infectious process going on here, it is not absolutely necessary to call the vet, but he/she may be very helpful in trying to pin down the specific irritating substance(s). However, your vet may not have too much to offer in terms of treatments. Antihistamines are usually tried, although response in horses can be variable. Corticosteroids would work, but this problem is not really severe enough to warrant their use (too many side effects).

Be sure the horses always have plenty of clean water to drink, located in more than one area if possible. Water helps calm irritated throats. We have also seen good results with Bioquench (Uckele Health and Nutrition 800/248-0330), a combination of the potent antioxidant grape seed extract with hesperidin and other bioflavinoids, that also have potent anti-inflammatory effect along the respiratory tract. Boosting trace mineral intake can also help quiet down inflammatory/allergic reactions. Our favorite in cases like this is Vita-Key’s Antioxidant Concentrate (800/539-8482), which has generous amounts of chelated trace minerals and antioxidant and stress-related vitamins.


Scrambles In Trailer
I have a three-year-old Arabian-Andalusian cross mare that was shipped to me in Michigan from California two years ago. She arrived in good condition, and the company that hauled her said she was very well-behaved. At the time of her arrival, I had a two-horse, straight-load, bumper-pull trailer that she seemed to travel quietly in (even after she had jumped into the manger the first trip out).

A year ago I purchased a three-horse, slant-load, gooseneck trailer (similar to the one she rode in from California), and the problems seemed to begin there. It started out with her prancing in the trailer. Now it has progressed to full out kicking, especially over bumpy terrain. She has literally destroyed the inside of my new trailer.

I have tried almost everything, and nothing seems to work including: hauling with quiet horses, having her spend long sessions in the trailer while it is stationary, taking out a divider so she can move around more, turning her completely loose. I’ve tried Quietex and ace (which she seems immune to), kicking chains, shorter trips with stops to let her settle, covering the floor with pine shavings to deaden the noise, but nothing seems to be reaching her. She’ll stand in the trailer quietly after I load her as long as the trailer doesn’t move. She wears leg wraps and a head bumper while in the trailer for protection.

I have consulted trainers on this and even had one ride with me to make sure it wasn’t my driving. She seems to be a reasonable horse in every other situation, she has good manners and tends to be on the lazy side when it comes to work. She does, however, have the tendency to be nervous at times, but it’s usually something that is easily overcome.

-Lori Kirby
Davison, MI

It’s likely your mare is simply is not comfortable riding in a slant-load trailer, which may not give her as much space from head-to-tail as the straight-load. Is going back to a straight-load out of the question’

Some horses like to lean on a solid trailer wall, specific for that horse to the right or left, and the slat-load may not allow it. Otherwise, you’re doing everything we would suggest: take out the divider, check your driving, pine shavings on the floor, tranquilizers, hauling with company, etc.

We would definitely stick with the leg wraps and head bumper, but stay away from the temptation to try any kicking chains or the like. That’s only acceptable on 100% monitored situations, which a trailer ride is not.

It could also be physical. Usually a horse scrambles because they need more room, but you eliminated the dividers. Horses with hind-end and/or stifle problems scramble consistently because they can’t balance themselves during the movement and turning. You might have a vet rule out these possible causes.


Kissing Vertebrae
I have a nine-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who underwent surgery for “kissing spines” and had the tips of three spinal processes removed. Our only indications of his problem were an increasing unwillingness to bend left and to come through with his left hind. He also had a few isolated episodes of what my vet thought was tying up (we are unsure now whether this was back-related). Judging from the condition of his spine, the veterinarians concluded the injury to his back that led to his problems probably occurred quite some time ago. They also indicated that once he recovers, he should be able to function fully, including jumping.

Prior to the surgery, we were doing mostly flat work, with a bit of low-level jumping. As he tended to be somewhat front-ended, we concentrated on circles and shoulder-in and just generally coming through from behind. We weren’t using any special equipment on him, and he was responding well until we progressed to the point he finally let us know it was too difficult for him.

Can you give any advice on exercises we may use to help him when he goes back to work’ He is a willing horse and tries so hard. I want to give him every advantage I can.

-Karen Stotka

Back/spinal problems in horses are more common than was previously suspected. These include a wide variety of problems from congenital abnormalities to arthritic-type changes and other degenerative diseases, as well as problems initially caused by trauma.

If your horse’s pain and stiffness originated entirely from an injury to the upper, bony portion of his vertebrae (the “bumps” you can feel when pressing down firmly along the midline, especially in horses that are not carrying much fat in this area), his response to surgery should be good.

You may expect about a nine- to 12-month wait before returning to work. However, if the abnormality also involved the areas of bone that directly surround the spinal cord or bone in areas where the large nerves supplying the hind legs come off the spine, surgery may be less than 100% effective.

Work should begin from the ground without a rider to establish strength and flexibility. Carrot exercises — where you ask the horse to stretch his neck and back out at increasing distances, reaching for a carrot held out in front of him — can be excellent for teaching the horse to bend and flex and might be a good gentle activity to begin with. Line driving the horse, being sure he is a correct frame, is also excellent for stretching and relaxing the back.

Stifle weakness/looseness is a common problem in horses that have been out of formal work for any extended period but should correct on its own once the horse puts in a significant amount of trotting work. Longeing (preferably double lined) on a generous circle is excellent for restoring strength and flexibility to the spine and hindquarters. Side reins will probably be needed, at least initially, to maintain the correct frame and balance. (If you are not familiar with side reins, get expert guidance.)

If you have a great degree of difficulty with these initial exercises, it may help to stand the horse in a bitting harness for part of the day, beginning with very short periods of 15 minutes or so and extending it gradually. The bitting rig will keep his head and neck relatively low and long, stretching his back.

Physical therapy would also help. Use a good warming liniment and massage the muscles of the back and hindquarters. A magnetic therapy blanket with a range of settings may also help. Exactly what therapeutic options are best for your horse can only be determined through an examination by your own veterinarian.

When you do resume riding, consult the surgeon, your veterinarian and an expert on saddle fit as to what pads and saddle options will work best to protect the surgical area. After a lay-off this long, the saddle won’t fit the way it used to due to muscles loss. If you lay a solid foundation of stretching and strengthening from the ground before resuming work under saddle, and follow recommendations for pads and saddle fit, you should be able to pick up where you left off with little or no difficulty. If any problems do recur, X-rays are in order immediately to determine if postoperative bone formation is causing the problem.


Flatten Stirrup Leather Bulge
Riders who are bothered by the extra thickness of the stirrup leather and buckle under their thigh may want to try twisting the end of the strap forward and then back under the part that hangs down. This works quite well for dressage riders who ride with a very straight leg, so the bulge goes just in front of their thigh rather than right under it.


Moldy Corn Warning
Drought-stressed corn is at much higher risk for growth of fusarium mold, responsible for moldy corn poisoning in horses. This often fatal disease causes parts of the horse’s brain to liquify.

Corn with no visible mold may still be affected. Most dangerous are corn screenings, the small bits of corn/cob removed in cleaning. These are usually fed to other livestock but can find their way into sweet-feed mixes.

We suggest you avoid ear corn or any type of corn originating from a drought-striken area, if possible. Avoid locally produced horse feeds unless the feed mill says they are certified as having been tested for fumonisin, the toxin produced by this mold.


EEE Remains On The Rise
Alabama state veterinarian Bill Johnson issued a statement that a rash of eastern equine encephalitis cases has been noted in eight counties. Florida also has 20 cases in 10 counties, including four bordering Alabama. Residents in the southern states should be certain their horses are fully immunized for encephalitis, which generally means two vaccinations per year in these areas where mosquito season is prolonged.

EEE is also a problem in Louisiana, with 66 confirmed cases to date. ProMED, the newsletter of usahealthnet, also reports learning from extension veterinarian Steve Nicholson that five ill horses were identified east of Shreveport, on the Arkansas border. Dr. Nicholson believes the disease is underreported.

EEE can be transmitted to humans and has been confirmed in emus and one lamb in this southern region outbreak (see also September 1999).


Feeding The Stall-Bound Horse
Getting adequate nutrition for healing (essential amino acids, trace minerals) into the stalled horse without overfeeding grain is a real challenge. The best solution is often to stop grain completely, go with a high-quality grass hay (no older than six months since cutting) and feed about one to two pounds per day of a 25-30% protein mineral supplement. This will not make your horse too excitable but will provide the needed essential amino acids and trace minerals in the correct balance.


Beet Pulp Debate Continues: Wet Or Dry’
We had an unusually large reader response to our article on brans and beet pulp (August 1999), most expressing strong opinions regarding the necessity to soak beet pulp and dire consequences if you don’t.

One reader lost a horse after the horse was overfed dry, pelleted beet pulp. Another reported, “A local feed store will not sell it (pelleted beet pulp) because they don’t want the liability if someone isn’t informed of the dangers of not soaking it.” Still another, again referring to pelleted beet pulp, wrote: “They absorb more than eight times their volume in water, expand correspondingly, and if fed dry can and will result in serious problems for the horse.”

We canvassed experts and got the same bottom line: Beet pulp does not need to be soaked before feeding.

In his book Feeding and Care of the Horse (Williams & Wilkins 800/358-3583), Dr. Lon D. Lewis reports on two equine studies that fed beet pulp, one as 30% of the ration and a second using (pelleted) dry beet pulp up to 45% of the ration, balance being alfalfa pellets. No problems with choke, indigestion or colic were noted. They gained weight well, and there were no changes in manure, including water content.

Dr. Bill Vandergrift of the nutritional consulting firm EquiVision, Inc. (800/264-1028) considers shredded beet pulp to have a greater potential for digestive upsets than pelleted, simply because he feels that horses find it more palatable. However, he points out that the digestive upset concerns apply to horses that do not have a normal level of water in their digestive tracts.

The bottom line — and the reason for the discrepancy between research and field experience with beet pulp — is that problems are related to management practices, not the beet pulp itself. Choke can occur anytime the horse bolts his feed, regardless of what he’s eating. Pellets may be a greater problem than hays or grains since their small size does not encourage much chewing and saliva production.

Choke was reported on both dry and soaked beet pulp pellets. One reader’s horse jumped into a pig pen to get at soaked beet pulp and then choked. However, chances are this horse was not eating in a leisurely fashion. The reader who reported a fatal colic with beet pulp said the horse was overfed. The groom mistakingly fed a volume of dry beet pulp that was the equivalent of what the horse would have received if a smaller amount had been soaked.

Dry beet pulp, shredded or pelleted, is safe to feed IF:

• The horse chews properly and doesn’t bolt the feed.

• The horse’s water intake is adequate — about eight gallons per day for maintenance, much more if weather is hot and/or the horse is heavily exercised.

• Beet pulp, like any new feed ingredient, is introduced slowly (overfeeding is always dangerous. Feed by weight, not volume).

Insufficient water intake is a common problem in extremely cold or hot weather. If you have any doubt your horse is taking in enough water, by all means soak your beet pulp. Like bran mash, it can be a good way to get the needed water into the horse and will guard against digestive upsets.

It’s interesting to note that commercial beet pulp comes in two forms, with and without molasses. The molasses-added shredded and pelleted forms are already partially “soaked” from the molasses content (which can approach 50%). The molasses form is the one usually used in commercial grain mixes.

Always be certain the horse has a generous supply of hay and water overnight. Give your horse hay and water before feeding grains and beet pulp, and feed more often in smaller quantities, slowing consumption if necessary with rocks in the feed tub.


Illinois Illness Remains Undiagnosed
In late July, a veterinarian in Illinois noted 15 horses on a 70-horse dressage farm near Dundee, Ill., were ill with fever and edema of the legs and ventral lower abdomen. Three horses were also showing signs of laminitis. White blood cell counts suggested a viral infection. All affected horses were from the same barn, with horses in other buildings on the premises not involved. Serum samples were taken from nine of the horses. On Aug. 9, the USDA became involved because of similarity in symptoms to African horse sickness (Getah virus). However, laminitis is reported more frequently with Potomac horse fever.

The exact number of horses involved is unclear and appears to have been inflated somewhat in the lay press, although confirming mildly affected horses is virtually impossible. One horse was euthanized due to severe laminitis. Recovery is progressing uneventfully in the other horses.

We spoke with Dr. Gifford Jacobsen, the Illinois USDA veterinarian, who confirmed there have been no new cases on Free-N-Bold Farm. Surveillance measures in nearby locations also report no suspect cases. Serum samples collected from the horses have been negative (except for vaccine-related titers) for antibodies to African horse sickness, EIA, encephalitis, four strains of influenza and herpes virus.

One horse showed a high titer to equine viral arteritis, but without positive results in the other horses the significance of this is unclear. Serum will also be tested for Potomac horse fever. Samples for virus cultures have been sent to USDA facilities at Plum Island and Ames, Iowa, with all cultures negative so far but final results not yet released. Samples have also gone to researchers at Gluck, Davis and Cornell for specialized EVA testing and comparison to test results from a group of horses in New York who had previously developed a similar problem that may have been caused by a new, non-EVA virus. A final set of serum samples for antibody testing will also be drawn.

The symptoms shown by these horses does not specifically fit any one disease. The leg swelling is a prominent symptom of African horse sickness, however, it is also commonly seen with EVA, Potomac horse fever and active EIA infections. The absence of more specific symptoms, such as conjunctivitis/eye edema and nasal discharge with EVA, anemia with EIA and diarrhea with Potomac horse fever makes it difficult to say any one infection is more likely.

The USDA is doing an impressive job in attempting to pinpoint the cause of this illness, so that the most appropriate measures for prevention, surveillance and treatment can be recommended. They pointed out, however, that the only way they came to know of the problem was because of all the press it received (one of the horseowners was a local TV personality). They were not initially notified by the attending veterinarian.

We encourage all horsemen to be highly vigilant when it comes to all infectious disease outbreaks and contact the USDA regarding difficult-to-characterize/diagnose syndromes or atypical cases.


Send Us Your Question!
All questions should be sent to the editorial offices by regular mail or e-mail: 6538 Van Buren Road, Warners, NY 13164 or [email protected]. We’re sorry, but questions cannot be answered over the phone.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!