The Death Of Horses

The text said, “I need to talk with someone I trust.” Her 7-year-old horse had just died from impaction colic. What words could I say to help her overcome her loss yet allow her to grow from it?

Our phone conversation, boiled down to its essence, was about two things. The first was anger over the inept handling of the event by the attending veterinarian. The second was the impossible task of doing the right thing in caring for our horses while being given wrong and harmful instructions and misleading information.

1) Inept Veterinarians

There are a lot of talented veterinarians filled with integrity doing amazing things to care for our horses. Sometimes there are limited resources and these vets do what they can with what they have. However, there are some things that every vet does every time no matter what and one of those things is a rectal exam of a horse with colic. The attending vet in this story, a recent graduate and new associate in the practice, refused to do a rectal exam. Her reasoning was that her arms were too short and because of this, she wasn’t very good at rectal exams. Because of this she missed the diagnosis and delayed the referral of the horse to a well-equipped hospital. Time is always of the essence in colic cases. She also said that her truck was inadequately stocked to handle horse emergencies requiring large volumes of fluids. She had 2 liters available which were enough for a large dog. The horse waited 24 hours before adequate treatment could be given.

Who should this horse owner be angry at? Let’s look at the possibilities. Obviously, the attending vet comes first to mind but why her and not the training she received at her vet school? There should be minimum standards of practical expertise beyond the ability to hold information in the brain. Firefighters who are smart people can’t effectively fight a fire without the skills of climbing ladders and the bravery to enter burning buildings. Why would this person be considered for a job involving horses when she didn’t possess the basic skill of a rectal exam? The answer to this is even more troubling for rural horse owners where events like this are more common.

Horse vets are divided into two categories: good horse vets and bad horse vets. It doesn’t matter what criteria I use for this because it’s irrelevant to my point. The good ones generally go to horse-dense areas and the bad ones generally (or eventually) end up in less-paying jobs in rural areas. It’s pure economics as the dense horse areas generate more income in a day and the practices there can afford to pay the good vets more money. The rural country vet practice has 20 to 50 miles between farms with 1 to 3 horses per farm. This thin distribution of horses brings in just enough revenue to support little more than the owner and an inexpensive associate. But the owner of the rural vet practice is human and needs time off. They hire anyone they can find with a vet license willing to work hard for less money and less time off. They don’t ask about their rectal exam skills. They just assume the skill comes with the degree and license.

The rural vet practice also can’t afford to adequately stock the vehicle or set up a hospital. In a small animal clinic, the animal is brought to a building near town (no trailer needed) and using a tight scheduling system and efficient staff, a lot of small animals can be seen in little time. But horse vets need to go to the horse farms where most horse owners are unaware of the traffic and idiot drivers they fought through just to arrive on time. The horses are often not ready in the stalls with the halters on but rather they are still turned out in the furthest field from the barn. Rounding them up adds up to 30 minutes at a farm and at the end of the day, these delays add hours. During a busy breeding season, a horse vet may work from 6 am until 9 pm or later 7 days a week. This becomes dangerous and unhealthy as well as unattractive to the good horse vet. In today’s society, people want “quality of life” over career advancement. A horse dense population provides this quality of life but the rural horse vet rarely gets this. They only have the scenery out the front windshield to lift their lonely spirits as the never-ending day turns into night.

The reason for the split between rural areas with sparse horses and urban areas with horse-dense populations is the high cost of land. Rural land is less expensive. Horse owners (including most horse vets) want land for their horses and farms and the affordable land is in the rural areas. Unfortunately, this more affordable land is spread over a large geographic area leading to a sparse or less dense horse population. But there’s more to it than horse density. The people in these areas want the same services and technology as those in the wealthier horse dense areas.

The horse owner reads about the quality of horse care available and wants all the high technology but at a rural price. A digital x-ray machine used on 20 horses a month will cost more per use than one used 200 times a month. A dense horse population easily provides the need for the technology but the rural practice works hard to develop the demand for its use. The cost for high-tech veterinary care rises and that cost is distributed over the limited number of horses in the rural practice which the rural horse owners have more difficulty paying. What is left is a rural practice with a debt load that can’t afford to hire the best vets who don’t really want to work the long hours anyway. This leaves the practice owner in a burn-out position, hiring poorly trained associates that provide lackluster care that leads to frustration of the horse owners who feel they are being treated less than their wealthy counterparts in the horse dense areas. The end result is that when a horse owner loses their horse to colic at 7 years of age they are unwilling to go out to replace that horse. The rural horse population gets thinner and the rural vet goes out of business when they retire leaving no vet to care for the rural horse. This is happening now throughout the United States.

2) Lack Of Mentorship

The simple solution is for the horse owner to provide a perfect environment for their horses to remain healthy. Then there would be little need for a veterinarian on an emergency basis. No colic would occur and owners would know how to dress a wound. This doesn’t happen because horse owners today have had poor mentorship and are misinformed on how to keep horses healthy. In the past, the vet was the mentor but today they lack horse husbandry skills. They are trained only to “fix” the horse but not to prevent disease. If horses didn’t break, how would they earn a living?

The current owner of the 7-year-old in this story had gotten him only 5 months earlier. Before this the care was unknown but it had been sent with feeding instructions which the new owner had followed. The most important thing to consider when receiving a new horse on your farm is that the horse is stressed. New places with new horses are as stressful on a horse as it would be on a human. Often it is more stressful because the actual transport of the horse, the new weather, the new herd dynamics and the change in food are usually more extreme.

Stress can lead to disease susceptibility. This is especially true if the horse comes from a farm where there are too many horses for the land and the sanitation is poor. It is important to either treat the new horse effectively for parasites or contain him in a quarantine area where feces are removed daily. The idea of a quarantine is also important to prevent the spread of diseases that can show after stress such as strangles.

The number one cause of stress in all animals is inflammation and the number one place to have inflammation is in the gut. The vast majority of our immune system lies in and is active in our gastrointestinal system and the horse is no different. The food recommended for this horse was very inflammatory. The first 5 ingredients included wheat middlings, rice bran, ground alfalfa, distillers dried grains and soybean oil. Four of these Ingredients are byproducts (waste) of human manufacturing and are inflammatory. There is also no assurance by the manufacturer of quality (molds, contaminants) and freshness (how were they stored and for how long) of these ingredients.

The stress from shipping, a new environment, lack of adequate parasite control and the inflammatory effects of the feed ingredients coupled with little shade in the hot summer sun all predisposed this horse to colic. Without mentorship, all of these risk factors were not even seen as risk factors.

Where Do We Focus Our Anger?

Owning a horse today is an example of the blind leading the blind. Guidance comes from agenda-driven sources rather than from mentors with a vested interest in your success. Farmers want to sell their grain. Distributors and feed dealers want to sell the farmer’s grain so the feed store promotes the grains with inflammatory ingredients. Magazine owners want to sell magazines and make money, they sell ad space. To attract readers they use content from authors who write compelling articles filled with inaccurate and misleading information or they offer up unproven theories as facts. Often they reflect positively on the ads used in the magazine. People want to make money by selling stuff to horse owners and they use marketing and advertising to do so. Selling things to horse owners is only half the story.

The other half of the energy that drives horse owners into making their horse care decisions is actually what they want for their horses. This includes winning in their sport, having the best-looking horse or having the best connection. To do so, horse owners become susceptible to marketing without researching the facts. They trust the person selling to make the right decision for them. This is how charlatans survive.

Beyond this though is something I constantly hear horse owners say. “I just want what’s best for my horse.” This is code for “I’m overwhelmed with information and I don’t know who to trust.” We all do this in all aspects of our lives such as car repairs, health care, investments, and home repairs. But in a horse the owner has grown to love almost more than anything else in the world, this attitude becomes dangerous. It leads to suggestive marketing and bad decisions. Then when something doesn’t go as planned we get angry.

Do we focus our anger on the inept vet who made the diagnostic mistake? The poor training of that vet? The overworked and underappreciated practice owner? Should the anger be focused on the misinformation about parasite control? How about the trust placed in the nutritional care of our horses who expertly market inflammatory ingredients never meant for consumption by horses?

Why not be angry at our parents and grandparents who knew nothing about horses because the car, truck, train and plane replaced the horse during their lifetime? Unfortunately, our relatives and our schools no longer think that horses have relevance in today’s world. To them, horses are dead – at least in America where they are not used as beasts of burden. There are approximately 90 million horses, asses and mules outside the USA where they are still needed for human production and survival. Ethiopia has the largest number of horses, asses and mules compared to the human population in any other country. However, in the United States, horses are mostly recreational and without mentors to teach about their care, charlatans will move in and young horses will be lost prematurely. Eventually, all horses will be gone.

There is little to be done to correct this. I can only offer what I know and over the years I will continue to do this through this website. Hopefully, anyone looking for help will find this information and use it to advocate for the horse. This is the best way to do the best for them. Through knowledge the veil of uncertainty will be lifted, the charlatans will be discovered and the horses will thrive in a human world.

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  1. Karen and Doc, I feel your pain. We all hate not being able to know everything about or be everything for our horses. I’ve owned both of mine for about 15 years. They were told the days they came to me that they had a forever home, and I meant it. They’ve both been seriously injured and grievously ill, but they are both outside my window as I type this. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can’t do it all for them and that one day they will pass from my life, but in the mean time I will be their advocate. I will learn what I need to know to deal with whatever comes up. I will use a variety of vets for a variety of reasons. I will try new things if they make sense to me. I will think outside the box and try to figure things out on my own, but ask for help when I can’t. And sometimes I will just have to go with my gut and pray I’m right. Because loving horses takes guts! And because I never met a horse that didn’t deserve to be loved.

    Doc, I don’t think you’re insane for thinking you can make a difference, but surely you can give that up and take satisfaction in knowing you already have influenced many people, and those people have influenced people, and those people … and both the people and the horses are better for it!

    1. Than you for this comment Antionette. I and I’m sure others reading it appreciate it. We need more mentors without agendas so that more can learn. Each of us that thinks like you needs to pass on good information without seeking significance from it. Being an advocate for our horses takes a village and I’m glad you are part of that village.

  2. I feel for that owner. I get caught up in wondering if I’m using the best vet and should I switch to another of the myriad of choices I have where I live, while there are owners like the one in your story who don’t have the luxury of choice. Unfortunately choice doesn’t always mean we as owners can relax and trust our horses will receive the proper treatment even in more populated areas. My horses seem to have been learning cases in the last few years. One incurred a puncture into a tendon sheath that was initially misdiagnosed and I ultimately lost her because of the delay in proper treatment for that type of injury. If I had checked her one more time before I left the barn that day my vet may have been able to better see sooner what was going on. I had never heard of how dangerous an injury like that is and clearly my vet didn’t know. She said she learned a lot. I’m glad she did but I wish it wasn’t my horse that she learned from. Another vet didn’t do a rectal when my horse colicked this summer since the horse seemed to have recovered by the time she arrived. I, relying on her and seeing a seemingly recovered animal, agreed. We thought it was gas. It was a displacement and instead of catching it in the afternoon and getting a head start on treatment, we were racing down the highway at 11pm on a Sunday night with the hospital team waiting on us. I don’t blame my vet but I do wish I would have insisted on a rectal just to be sure. I won’t make that mistake again and I doubt my vet will either. I was lucky and surgery saved my horse but I was sure it was going to end differently. Seventeen days later he had an impaction and this time there was no hesitation about doing a rectal. He’s has colicked twice since then (gas) and the vet has been adamant about getting to him quickly knowing his history. Honestly, and this won’t be a popular statement, I’m not always sure we did the right thing by going to the lengths we did to save him multiple times given what he has been through (previous injury). I’m often angry at myself for not knowing what I didn’t know. I’ve done everything I can within the limits of semi-urban horse keeping to improve how this one particular horse is managed and I’ve learned more in the last few years than I had to know in the previous 40 (when my horses lived at home and never had problems.) Now I’m always waiting for the next problem and the stress is unbelievable. I think we as owners have to learn where our own knowledge is lacking and educate ourselves so we can make the right choices. I don’t want to be part of the problem ever again, and I certainly can’t afford to.

    1. Thanks Karen – This is such a common problem with owning horses today. Your statement, ” I’m often angry at myself for not knowing what I didn’t know,” is felt by many. In an age where there is so much agenda based information and worse, misinformation, that many often give up. This is especially true with stories like yours or the one in this post.

      I often become frustrated as a vet as I go from farm to farm seeing the same mistakes being made with the owners either unknowing or worse, unwilling to change. As I state if the story, there are no mentors with a vested interest in your success. The professionals and experts often have little experience to cope with the horse in front of them.

      Without change, the industry will drive itself into the ground. I’m insane to think I can make a difference but I have no choice but to try. I am so grateful for you and the other horse owners who read these posts and take action to improve their knowledge. I am re-doing website so that it ca be a place for all to learn from. Thanks for being a part of it. Doc T

  3. I had a paint mare colic 3 years ago. My regular vet was out of town, so I called another. He did an exam that included listening to her gut. Period. He then tubed her with oil and recommended waiting. We walked and waited for two days. She died the second night. I noticed three days later that a wire fence was badly misshapened and it appeared she had gotten cast in the fence and finally kicked her way out. I believe she probably had a torsion in her gut. I think if the vet knew more or had more experience, we may have had a better diagnosis, and the choice of an operation or euthanasia. Usually no gut sounds in a quadrant means some blockage? Thanks for listening. BTW My regular vet is a traveling vet who goes across the state to a different area every day.

    1. Thanks for this story. While most vets do an extraordinary job in responding and diagnosing, there are unfortunately many stories like this one that substantiates my belief that horse owners in very rural areas may not be getting the same care as horse owners in more horse dense areas.

  4. You have captured exactly what is happening in my small town in an agricultural part of my state. When I first had horses here, we had excellent vets with reasonable prices. I was away from horses for 10 years, and returned to find that my good vet had left town for a new location because of exactly the problem you describe. Only one vet who remains does farm calls or responds to emergencies and she is so stressed out that she’s considering giving up. I was looking after a friend’s small farm last Christmas and one of their horses (a young horse) colicked on Christmas Eve. There were no vets available. The owners talked me through giving her a Banamine shot over my cell phone in the dark. Three hours later the mare was feeling better and the emergency was averted, but we were lucky. By the way, in this situation the mare had every advantage, living on a large multi-acre rolling pasture with three other mares, no grain, just homegrown grass hay and grass from the pasture. The pasture was dragged and mowed regularly and she got regular hoof, parasite and teeth care. She was four, I believe, and had just been started by her owners, who are seasoned and gentle horse trainers.

    To get good care, we need to drive four or so hours to the nearest vet hospital, and the expense is prohibitive for most people. I live in dread of something happening to my mare, and do everything to assure that she stays in good health. Thank you for you articles.

    1. You are welcome and thank you for this comment.

      Colic is a funny thing but I think about it a lot. Why, if given the advantages you state, did she colic? The answer may surprise you but ask yourself this – how is what you are doing working? I am becoming suspicious of everything including having lots of rolling hills of green grass AND hay access throughout the day AND throughout the year. I will be writing about this soon so stay tuned…. Hint: hormesis, autophagy and apoptosis. LOL – big words but also big answers.

      1. It’s not what I’m doing. It’s a local farm where my horse used to be boarded and it’s how they do things. The hay is given in the winter months when no grass is growing. It’s homegrown on the property. During the time of year when the grass is growing, those particular horses don’t get hay. Some horses are in smaller paddocks with less grass and they’ll get supplemented with hay. It seems better to me than some other barns I know that have small pens, no turnout, and grain supplements.

        Also, for this particular mare it might be genetic? She’s by a local stallion and a lot of his offspring seem prone to colic, from what I’ve heard. I’ve not known any other horse to colic at that particular farm.

        Anyway I’m interested in hearing about what you have to say about hormesis, autophagy and apoptosis.

        1. I’ll get to it towards the end of Nov – this is a very busy part of my season with just enough time to answer these.

      2. Am looking forward to this post on hormesis, autophagy apoptosis!!
        I think you may have misread my earlier response in this post. I was singing the praises of the vets in rural TN, not the vets here in Aiken, which compared to TN is down right urban, even to the point of a coffee shop!

  5. I also want to thank you for all the good information. I love reading it, and yes sometimes I read parts of it more than once. I figured out the feed problem before I knew of you. i do know that feed will make a horse act crazy. The feed companies and supplement companies are not your friend.They are just trying to get in your pocketbook. Keep it coming!!!

    1. Thanks – now become the mentor to others so they understand this too.

      Tony Robbins said there are 6 basic human needs: certainty, uncertainty, significance, connection, growth and contribution. Learning all there is to know about horse care fills the growth need. Mentoring others with this information fills the contribution need. Let’s do this!

  6. As the preacher man said, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” As a horse owner, I am grateful for all the info you post. I have a hard time “gettin’ it,” and prefer to leave it to the professionals myself but have come to realize that for the sake of my critters, I need to learn as much as I can to keep them healthy. Thanks, again, Doc T.

    1. We all want to trust the professionals yet I countered almost everything said to my son by the professionals as he lay in the hospital on death’s doorstep several years ago. Who advocates? The ones who don’t have an agenda or have a vested interest in the successful outcome.

      I just heard a podcast where the person suggested we have the incentives backwards. Doctors shouldn’t be incentivized to sell treatments but rather incentivized to become healthy. To do this a person would pay a lump sum every year. If the patient remained healthy the doctor received most of that sum. I thought it was ingenious.

      1. I heard that it was the Chinese who practiced medicine that way. Don’t know if it’s still true today.
        Anyway, my condolences to the owner of the 7 year old horse who died from colic.

  7. Ugh, I’m so confused with all the conflicting information that I don’t even know what’s considered “grain” vs. “Supplement” or “sweet feed” vs. “Ration balance”. I do the best I can to learn, but where’s the peer review studies, where’s the documented studies? Heck, where’s a simple dictionary?!
    Frankly, it’s all well-intentioned opinion, and it’s all conflicting. I’m a frustrated owner. I live in a horse rich area with an agricultural research university nearby, but still one expert or professional’s advice differs from the next expert/professional.

    1. It’s like the blind leading the blind because there are few if any wise (old) mentors willing or able to set things straight. Especially hard to do with the insurmountable marketing misinformation fighting against common sense. Thanks for commenting.

  8. I believe we are in an era of needing to be advocates for our horses and ourselves when it comes to healthcare. We absolutely must be educated. We have to be willing to ask for what we want. Personally no colic at our farm goes without rectal. Every one. Doesn’t matter if the vet is 5’2 and the horse is 18h, sorry, get a stool. Just the way it goes. I prefer they are all tubed as well. That can lead to disagreements if the horse is asymptomatic by the time vet arrives. I recently caught an episode of Dr. Pol on NatGeo. He had a foal born in his pasture. Based on small size and shape of ears it was dysmature. They let it lay there. long story short, it died out there. A perfect example of horrendous vet medicine. This is an educated man with the ability to strip a mare and tube a foal. Administer plasma. Etc. Try something. Your story screams lack of trying. The vet in question will never become skilled if she fails to try. I have no problem with inexperienced vets. They have to learn. Colics die all the time. Those that have been euthanized here have been tubed, rectaled and have had a bolus before we make that decision. Those are all critical.

    1. Thanks Beth for this comment. Hey – we should do a reality TV show! My agent will call yours, OK? We’ll call it “All Creatures Great and Small” – no wait, that’s been done.

    2. Your are truthful and people in the Horse Community should take your advise,I personally know that you have lead the way for many horse owners ,myself as well.My horse is so much healthy listening to you about the two week stop all grain,the inflammation on her back legs ,stopped as soon as I took her off grain.
      I believe if the horse has a good diet and Keep the gut moving the horse will be healthier,Thank you Doc T for all your wonderful knowledge.

  9. Doc, I read this one with quite a bit of trepidation. I guess the part that upsets me the most is the forcefulness of your statements — your all or nothing bents (small practice/country vets bad, big practice/urban vets better; horse ownership is the blind leading the blind, etc.). I just moved from rural Tennessee where I assure you there were ample qualified vets who worked tirelessly and in tandem with their competitors to provide horses with the best care possible while charging reasonable fees. Yes, they realized they could make more money elsewhere, but they loved their jobs. More importantly, they loved horses. Yes, there are good vets and bad vets everywhere. One of the best vets I’ve known did poorly in vet school, yet excelled in the field. I learned to trust her opinion over all others, except my horses’. One vet I knew graduated at the top of his class, but had no clue about horsemanship. There is a lot wrong with our degree-driven society. The same can be said for equine industry certifications. I’ve seen egregious farriery, useless bodywork, and abusive training done by highly certified, well-respected “professionals.” The equine product field is also bad from food and snacks to gizmos and gadgets. And owners? I’ve seen horses treated as everything from over-grown dogs to chattel. I actually had a man tell me he could beat his horse because God gave man dominion over animals!! Trust me, that you have so many people reading your blogs and trying your protocols gives me faith that horses are not doomed, as you suggest. More and more people are starting to see horses as the sentient beings they truly are. And these people are looking for accurate, useful information and searching for willing mentors to guide them. Thank you for providing some. If, in the future, there are fewer horses (at least in this country) that would be a good thing for the horses. Maybe then, the ones there are will be given the attention they deserve. As for the death of this poor horse, I truly believe that the animals who come into our lives do so to teach us something. It is up to us to figure out what that is. Perhaps, this horse’s untimely death was meant to call attention to the failings of the vet, or perhaps to inspire his/her owner to a greater understanding of all things equine as they continue on their journey with horses.

    1. Thank you for this comment on the blog. Often my blogs need re-reading to fully understand what I am trying to say especially when I write something after an emotional time. It wasn’t just the death of this horse but several other incidents recently including a small animal vet who refused to talk with my wife about our very sick dog because it was 10 minutes until closing time. It sounds like you have seen a lot of “bad” professionals. It’s like the Farmer’s Insurance commercials – “We know a lot because we’ve seen a lot.”

      The horse owner in this story is about 2 hours from ANY populated horse area and only has one vet practice to go to for any help. I cover many of these very rural areas as well as the horse dense areas. You are in Aiken SC which is a horse dense area. So is south FL, Westchester, NY, Boston MA and Seattle WA. However there are places I go to with no cell service and where Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are unheard of coffee shops. The horse owners, like the one in this story, want first class care but they are not getting it. Practices in these areas cannot sell their practice because their financial statements reflect the decline in the rural horse population and the income generated from it. This is where the horse lifestyle is dying now.

      A friend is the director of a veterinary school in the US. I asked him how many good horse vets were graduating that year (2018). He said of the nearly 120 students, there were 2 he would consider as “good” horse vets. He added that with a lot of work, maybe there were 2 more. With about 32 vet schools in north America (Canada, USA, Mexico), we can extrapolate that 64 “good” horse vets would appear that year. The attrition rate of horse vets is not known to me but I would assume that it is equal to or greater than 64.

      The horse population in the US has dropped from 10 million to 6.5 million in the last 10 years. The schools are developing about 2% equine vets and 98% other (mostly small animal vets). The attendance at the AAEP meeting continues to drop. Veterinarians are starting legal battles to maintain their importance in the medical field against equine dentists and integrative practitioners.

      The blind leading the blind is a call not only for mentors to come forward but for horse owners to seek out mentors. This becomes difficult when few mentors come without also an agenda such as feed companies and supplement makers. How can one choose who has the good information versus who is just trying to sell you something? This is where I hope to make a difference. Using the internet we can all partake in the discussion. Soon Elon Musk and his Star Bright program will bring an internet signal to every corner of the planet. Maybe then the mentors will have an unfettered avenue to be heard. Maybe then rural horse ownership will become easier through telemedicine – a blood sample and an iPhone scan of the horse replacing a rectal exam and the diagnosis correctly made over the phone.