Essays of an Equestrian

June 28th: We are exhausted. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. For five heartbreaking days we worked on saving her, my best friends 18 year old Quarter Horse mare who was damn good school horse. She had done her job well being one of the most dependable school horses I’ve ever seen. She never hurt anyone and was trustworthy at a show or on the trail, one of those irreplaceable babysitter kinds.


It all began innocently enough. We didn’t know it then but our enemy was to be fate and circumstance. It was this night that we noticed she was chewing her hay with a slight tilt of the head. We didn’t worry as her teeth had been floated just a day or two before, so we figured it was because of that. Wait and see, we thought.

June 29th: An eleven year girl takes the mare for a ride in the arena. We’re there too, enjoying the beauty of the day, watching all the girls riding. The mare trotted around, nothing extraordinary, nothing to catch ones attention. When they were done the girls went through the usual post ride routine…. walking, hosing, brushing, pampering, and then putting the horses away. A short time afterwards we noticed the mare lying down in her stall.

We got her up, the instinctive “oh my gosh is it colic?” thing to do only to find instead the strangest thing. A muscle on her left shoulder, right where the leg and shoulder meet, began to twitch. Then, it twitched harder and soon pulsed so strongly that it began to vibrate the entire left foreleg back and forth.

We thought back to the ride not long before. We hadn’t noticed any misstep or stumble. None of us noticed the mare lame, yet now all of a sudden she was.


We called the vet. He arrived and began a series of soundness checks. I winced as he rotated the shoulder. It was the first time I’d ever seen a horse’s shoulder and foreleg stretch out sideways like that. Obviously he was checking to see if she’d pulled something somewhere.


June 30th: The vet returns when the mare showed no improvement and is in fact, worse. He draws blood for testing. She was under constant surveillance as she progressed further downward. Although she was continuing to eat and drink, she’d tilt her head oddly while doing it. There was no fever and her appetite was great. In fact, she would want to eat and drink all the way to the end. She seemed to be chewing each bit for a long time, sometimes with the odd head tilting. Her mouth was foamy. We could see her swallowing but when she drank small amounts of water dribbled from her nose. However, she was managing to drink healthy amounts of water.

We didn’t know then but swallowing was getting progressively more difficult for her. Thoughts of choke, or something stuck in her throat were bounced around. She was scoped. A myriad of conditions and ailments were tossed about. We felt utterly helpless and stupid.

Among those ailments on the hit parade were West Nile, Lyme’s Disease, and botulism. We searched the internet for what could have caused this. She seemed so sick but had not even the slightest fever. One by one we went through diseases discussing each with the intensity of a Middle East accord. We considered botulism but dismissed it as we figured an affected horse would expire quickly. We were wrong……..dead wrong.


The blood results were going to take a few days. In those few days we made a thousand phone calls and spent all nighters on the internet. Her twitches continued and eating was getting harder for her. I noticed that when I’d put my hand on the affected muscle and pushed, the twitching would stop. Remove the hands and the twitching would return. The twitching occurred whenever the mare put weight on that leg. We did the best we could to care for her.

July 2nd: We finally received the results of the blood work and the diagnosis was botulism. All the clinical signs were also by now apparent. She restlessly shifted her weight and couldn’t find comfort. The vet returned hoping to insert a stomach tube so we could keep her strength up by feeding her. However, the soft palate swelled, elongating to the point that it held open the flap to the esophagus. (In horses this flap closes when the animals eat or drink.) She couldn’t be tube fed. Anything passing would go straight to her lungs and not to her belly. She had been on IV fluids for a few days, but now her only mouth quenching moisture came from the licking of ice to wet her Sahara dry mouth.

We had our precious answer yet that answer only gave rise to more questions. Where did she get it?  She’s turned out in dirt pens and other than a trail ride is mostly at home. There had been a show, but it seemed too long before this happened. Other horses had been where she’d been, ate what she ate, and were turned out where she was turned out. Yet only she was sick.

Faced with a good horse’s mortality my girlfriend opted for the expense of the serum for botulism. This serum however, was only effective on two strains of botulism, and there were a total of seven. The vet explained that it would halt the worsening of the condition but it was up to the mare’s body to combat whatever damage had already been done. She was given a good chance of recovery…. given the serum was administered before too much damage was done and given this botulism was one of the two types which could be stopped by this treatment.

Things worsened and we waited and prayed. We expected the serum to arrive by overnight mail by the next day, but the next day was already too late.

We tried to get the medicine faster but couldn’t. The equine hospital had just used the last of theirs and they suggested not even trailering the mare, as the stress of travel seems to progress the illness faster.


The vet also explained that if the serum was given to a horse still capable of standing, and of the right strain type, that the odds of survival and full recovery were in our favor. Administered to a horse no longer able to stand and the odds would shift dramatically in favor of mortality.


Ever hungry and thirsty the mare was weakening. The kids continually offered her ice and took turns crying. We were all so frustrated and became frantic when she began laying down more than she was standing.

Fluids, painkillers and other things were given to her in a futile effort to help and diminish discomfort. She continued to fight trying to cling on to life as long as she could. Rising became harder and now her efforts occasionally caused her to bang herself around and she had scrapes on her face and head from stall walls.


July 3rd: We took turns watching the mare who was now under 24 hour supervision. With the arrival of both the vet and the serum the battle with botulism continued. All waited and prayed for improvement. None came.

What did come was her getting cast in the stall when she somehow managed to catch a hoof under a heavy stall mat, lift it, and then get her legs tangled in the mess. While we tried to free her, her IV disconnected and my pants became drenched in her blood. I remember practically laying on her head to keep it still and from hitting stall walls.

We had no idea it could be this bad.

Thrashing legs, her soft moans and lingering groans devastated us. Her breaths were now as rumbling as mine after a bad bout of bronchitis. She cast herself again and again on different parts of the stall.

We put on one of those leather head protectors horses use while trailering to help her from smashing her head so bad. I don’t think it helped much at all.

Once, at about 10 pm she managed to stand, and the “team” walked her slowly the ten feet to a nearby, larger stall. We thought it would keep her free of further casting. Didn’t work. The stall was thick with bedding, the perimeter lined with bedding bags, blankets, anything to keep her from thrashing and banging into the walls. All that night we watched and battled. It was absolute torture. We’d throw ourselves on her to keep her from thrashing so bad. It’s amazing that no hoof met anyone’s head. It was also painfully clear that despite our best efforts she had gotten much worse. It had been my friends wish all along that her beloved mare should not suffer.

This was suffering.

July 4th: Her tail is paralyzed. Eyes battered and bruised are very swollen. We should have put her down. We didn’t know it would be like this.

It’s 4 AM. It’s over. It must be over. Keeping her alive further would be too cruel. Her whole body had dings and bangs. We called the vet and at 5 am he arrived.

He checked her out as she lay there, then shook his head and sighed, wiping his eyes. Darkness became dawn in a surreal way. As chirping birds began their song two giant injections of purple phenolbarbital were given. We all sobbed as the mare quietly went to sleep and shallow breaths slowed to nothing. Only the chirping birds were left.

The struggle was over and finally she was at peace.


The vet cried too, but tried so very, very hard not to show it. I saw it though. Somehow it was most endearing to see that he cared so much. It meant a lot especially as he was such the stoic type. He was near retirement, yet after all these years, he could still cry.

My whole body hurts from soreness. Muscles in my back are locking up, strained to the max from the efforts in the stall. We can’t stop crying. We let her down. The only thing I could think to do to possibly, remotely feel better was to write this diary.

All should know about botulism, the silent killer. Perhaps I can find some self healing with the thought that through the dissemination of this information no other horse will ever have to succumb again to this (insert favorite expletive) condition.


Botulism sucks.


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The good will of the horse is like the scent of a rose. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.