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Pets Large & Small

"Doc, my horse got into the grain…"

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw
Walkersville Veterinary Clinic

(3/2012) Bo was a new horse owner. He had bought his first horse at the local auction. She was a pretty paint mare named Hope. He had gotten her for his daughter with the thought that she would take up riding and it would delay her interest in boys for a few more years. Unfortunately Hope was both poorly trained as well as lame. After the daughter had been bucked off a few too many times, Hope was sent for training where she was promptly sent back home as the trainer declared her too lame to ride.

Rather than doing a lameness evaluation and seeing if the lameness was due to something treatable, Bo decided he would turn Hope out with the neighbor's stallion in hopes that she would get pregnant and his daughter would then have a foal who she could start training from the beginning. At the very least he would get two attractive horses who could graze in his yard. Since Hope had good color and the neighbor's stallion was known to throw good color, a foal was likely to have that attribute.

As Bo was new to horse ownership, there were lots of things that he was unaware of. While he would ask people at the feed store and occasionally go to a clinic at a nearby stable, basically he was just lucky and his horses seemed to stay fairly healthy despite less than ideal care. He was fortunate in that Change was born without complication. Bo said he picked the name as the foal was supposed to be a change from Hope in that she would be rideable in regards to both temperament and soundness.

The first time I met Bo was when he came into the vet clinic with questions about deworming. He informed me that one of his neighbors had told him he was supposed to worm his horses but he thought they looked great and didn't need it. After all, he told me, he had never seen any worms. After a brief discussion, Bo agreed to drop of fecal samples for the two horses. The samples revealed large number of strongyle eggs. After discussing the many methods of controlling parasites (rotational grazing, deworming, manure clean-up), we also realized that the horses had not been vaccinated in the last two years. While Hope had been required to get vaccines to go to the trainer, Change had yet to receive any immunizations. Bo immediately agreed that I should come out to the farm and vaccinate the horses. He also asked that they have a physical exam to make sure that the combination of failing to deworm or vaccinate, had not done any permanent damage to the horses. For while Bo was ignorant on most topics of equine husbandry, once informed he wanted to rectify the situation.

When I arrived at the farm, Bo was out in the middle of the field trying to catch the horses. He explained that he hadn't caught them in awhile and now they won't come to him. After some coaxing with grain we were able to get the horses caught, examined, and vaccinated. I told Bo that he really needed to practice catching his horses, leading them around, and grooming them. During the exam, I noticed that the horses hooves had not been trimmed in a very long time. I told Bo that he needed to get a farrier out but that he would have to work on restraining and hoof picking the horses first as no farrier would want to work with the horses in their current level of unruliness. Bo agreed and said that he would immediately start to rectify the situation. While at the farm, we also discussed some of the hazards in the barn such as the broken boards, protruding nails, and barbed wire fence that had strands that were down in places. On the plus side, he was providing the horses with fresh water and feed, adequate shelter and pasture space.

One morning I came into work, and as my morning appointments had not arrived yet, I checked my e-mail. It had been almost six months since I had heard from Bo, yet there was an e-mail in my inbox with the subject "Expect a Call." In the e-mail Bo proceeded to tell me that Hope and Change had gotten into the feed container that night and when he had come out to feed in the morning he found that they had eaten almost the entire thing of grain. He went onto say that he had just bought more feed the day before and filled up the bins and must not have latched it well enough. He said he planned to call later so I should expect a call from him.

When horses break into the feed room and eat a lot of grain, it is an emergency situation and needs to be treated immediately. They can colic, founder, or a combination of both. If their stomachs are immediately lavaged and then they are treated with oil and and other medications, hopefully they can be saved. I was not going to wait for Bo's phone call and instead pulled his number out of the computer system and called him. I explained why this was an emergency and the horses needed to be seen right away. Bo said that he had already left for work and that he had to work late. The soonest he would want me out there would be late that evening. While this was probably a tactless thing of me to say I told him to call me in the evening if the horses weren't dead but otherwise 1-800-DEAD-COW could pick up their bodies. Later as I thought about the situation I questioned my response. Yes I wanted him to know the gravity of the situation but at the same time I was thinking that was a rude thing to say. He never called.

A couple weeks later I ran into Bo at the gas station. "Hey Doc. You were right. They died. I don't understand what went wrong. They seemed so healthy and it was just a little extra grain."

So this prompts my rules of grain storage. Have two barriers between the horse and grain. Keeping the grain in a horse proof container (e.g., not a trash can) inside of a locking stall is good. Or if you are going to use a trash can to store grain, keep it in a building that is outside of the horse pasture/ barn area. And to any inventors who may be reading the paper, I have a proposal for you on the ideal grain cart/ storage container.

  1. It should be on wheels and should easily roll down the aisle of the barn to dole out feed as well as easily roll into a locking feed room.
  2. It should be made of a durable and waterproof material so it can be left outside of fence rows.
  3. It should be self locking with one catch similar to what you find on the hood of your car (so horses can't unlatch it). There should be a second lock that is stronger that has to be manually applied.
  4. The feed cart should come in a couple of sizes with one for larger farms with the bin holding about 10 bags of grain and have 3-4 divisions for feeding different types of food. A smaller one for your backyard horse owner should hold 6 bags of grain with 2-3 grain divisions.
  5. It should also have shelves for storing SmartPaks (supplement/medication containers).
  6. It should either have an auger system or some sort of channel that allows for all of the old grain to be used before the new grain gets fed.
  7. It should have written on the lid of the container "if your horse eats a large quantity of grain call the veterinarian immediately."

Grain overload is unfortunately a common cause of illness and death in horses. Even though it is preventable, regrettably it remains a frequent problem.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw