Three years ago, I was asked to write about our experience with Equine Grass Sickness (EGS) for a website. I did, and then promptly forgot all about it. I came across this recently while looking through my files, and thought that with the three year anniversary of my horse’s admission to Leahurst coming up – today, in fact, 21 May – I’d give it a polish and post it. I have a shockingly bad memory so a diary is good for me to look back on – and maybe it will help other people to be more aware of the disease and why diagnosis is often missed.
Our livery yard has no winter grazing – instead, the horses are kept on hard standing during the winter months, and go back in the fields in Spring. This was just our second spring at the yard, and we were all looking forward to the horses going back out in the big fields – no more poo picking, hay-net-stuffing and water-bucket-filling! On the 18th April we turned them all out, glad to see the back of Winter.
“Within a week the first gelding had died of acute EGS”
Within a week the first gelding had died of acute EGS. We were all in shock. None of us had experience of the disease and we just couldn’t make sense of it. It was so fast. Not knowing better, we continued to use the same field, under the impression that if any other horses were going to get sick, they’d be sick already.
The following week, a second horse died. We were told the condition was different but (later) we suspected that EGS might have exacerbated the existing issue.
We were advised by the vet to keep the horses off the field for two weeks – apparently as long as it would take for it to ‘clear’ – and then start limited turnout supplemented with haylage, slowly increasing the time they were out.
During these weeks, Logan seemed quiet. I couldn’t pinpoint any problem, but he didn’t seem right. I put it down to the big changes in routine they’d all just gone through, plus, he’d just lost his very good buddy – surely horses grieve?
I also noticed at the time that he was pooing less. I never really obsessed over it, but when you hand pick from the stable and scoop from the paddock, you get a good idea what’s normal, so I did notice when it started to reduce. He wasn’t eating his hay, though – I guessed because he was grieving – which might explain the reduction in output…
These things are so obvious now looking back, but at the time we had no clue – the symptoms of acute EGS are hard to miss, but the symptoms of chronic EGS are more subtle and easily missed or attributed to other causes. In hindsight this is ridiculous when you know your horse is grazing the same land as confirmed cases!
“At one point I did call the vet, and he reassured me that it absolutely wasn’t grass sickness”
There was definitely something up with Logan, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. At one point I did call the vet, and he reassured me that it absolutely wasn’t grass sickness – I can only assume he was looking for the acute symptoms, as he wanted to know if Logan was acting colicy – which he wasn’t.
Two days later I actually called the vet out. I’d watched Logan have the briefest of chokes, and seemingly try (but fail) to poo. Not a whole lot to go on, but I was worried. It was a different vet on call this time, and she agreed that “Something isn’t right, but I don’t know what”. His pulse and temperature were fine. He wasn’t acting colicy. She took some blood and left.
It was three weeks after the first horse had been put to sleep. I had my weekly lesson the following day, and decided to give Logan a bit of a Spring Clean. I pulled his mane, trimmed his heels, oiled his hooves. He seemed uncomfortable and a little clammy. As I finished up, I noticed him trembling a little. I decided it was probably because he’d overheated and then got a bit chilly standing around while I fussed him. I took some photos of the ‘finished’ job, not realising at the time just how uncomfortable he looked. The sweat patches really show up under the flash. You can see the tension in his stomach.
The following evening was my weekly lesson. My instructor was teaching someone else before me and they were running a little late, so I tacked Logan up ready and left him tied up in the shade while I went to sit in the unseasonable sunshine and chat with my friend.
When the first lesson was finished I went to fetch Logan, and found him trembling and pouring with sweat. My first thought was that perhaps he had sunstroke – it really was a VERY warm day and he’d been running round the field before I caught him.
I called the vet who thought it best someone come out to see, because of the previous cases on the yard, and because I’d called them out once already.
There started the longest night of my life. The vet was on site from around 8pm and spent a couple of hours trying to do tests and take samples. Logan was stressed and resisting the tranquillisers. At around 10pm the vet decided we really should go to Leahurst – the University of Liverpool Equine Hospital – where they could scan properly and look after him better. After upsetting a number of friends with late-night panicky calls, I finally managed to find a transporter willing to do the job at that hour, though it would cost me £400 for the 80 mile journey.
They arrived around midnight and we set off. I followed in my car.
Due to roadworks the motorway exit we would have used was closed, and we were diverted 4 miles up the motorway in the opposite direction to the next exit before we could zip round the roundabout and start going in the right direction.
Then again, shortly before Liverpool, the motorway closed altogether. We followed the ‘diversion’ but both our sat navs kept insisting we get back on the motorway, which of course we couldn’t. Eventually we ended up driving through the centre of Liverpool, through the Mersey Tunnel. Three hours later we arrived. The transporter asked if there was any chance of a little extra pay, so I gave him the £20 I had on me for the lesson and the £60 I had for the farrier who was due in two days. At that point I really didn’t care.
For anyone in a similar situation I’d advise that transportation costs usually aren’t covered by your insurance.
By 4am they had fitted him with a drip and put him in a stable.
Logan was sweating and shaking in the padded stocks at Leahurst by 3am. He had flushing tubes put up his nose, and arms stuck up his bum (again). More blood was drawn for tests – he’d had so many jabs by now that he barely noticed, and this is a horse who hates injections. It was only at this point that it was made clear to me that he (still only probably!) had EGS – up until then I hadn’t known for sure, and because the only other cases I’d known personally had been so fast and fatal, I hadn’t made that connection.
By 4am they had fitted him with a drip and put him in a stable. When I went and got in my car I honestly thought I was leaving him behind for good. I had planned to have a sleep before driving home but dawn was doing its thing and I didn’t want to be in the car park when the staff and students started to arrive, so I drove home, arriving around 7am.
Throughout the following week I was given updates over the phone – he wasn’t pooing much but there was no blockage (which was the same we knew before he was admitted) – he wasn’t eating his haylage but liked his hard feed (again, I’d noticed this at home while he was getting sick). He was bright and happy, and one of the most important things was keeping him interested. The veterinary students were encouraged to talk to him regularly between shifts, and I was allowed to visit at the weekend, so when the Saturday rolled around, I made the long drive again.
I was told I could lead him out to graze on the patch of grass opposite the hospital stables. It was pouring with rain, and being worried about taking a sick horse out in the rain I borrowed a stable rug I found and threw it over him before we went out.
After half an hour I brought him back inside and to my horror saw how sweaty he’d become under the rug! I ran and found someone to ask and they said – yes, he was doing that. I still knew so little about it all.
The following day my mum drove down to visit, and took me to see him. He was always happy to see people, and he adored the clover in the grazing area 🙂 He looked so thin and frail, though.
He was incredibly uncomfortable after eating, and wanted to rub his bum on everything. Including visitors.
Logan’s first weekend at Leahurst was a bank holiday, so I was able to visit him for three days in a row. I was pretty horrified by his condition loss. Not just the weight, but his neck muscle and topline had just evaporated. It felt strange, because already looking back I could see that all the ‘oddness’ leading up to his hospitalisation were symptoms of chronic EGS – but physically, aside from a clenched stomach and patchy sweating, he really hadn’t shown any definite symptoms until this point.
The weight just dropped off him after he was admitted to horsepital.
At this time Logan’s physical symptoms were:
1. weight loss
2. sweating (combined with a horrid white residue that coated his skin, made more complicated by…
3. skin sensitivity – he hated being brushed but really needed it!
4. irritated nose – he sneezed out a scab once, which I put down to the numerous tubes shoved up his nose on diagnosis, but since learned an irritating nasal discharge is itself a symptom
5. itchiness – possibly just a side effect of the sweating, but he’d never been interested in bum scritches before his stay (now he’ll reverse into you if he thinks you’re ignoring him)
13 days after he was admitted to Leahurst, Logan returned home. He was greeted by shouts from all the other horses, even those he wasn’t turned out with – it brought a tear to my eye 🙂
A lot of people don’t understand why I would bring Logan back to the place where he got EGS. These were my reasons.
1. He’d had so much disruption already, I wanted him somewhere he knew and would feel safe while he recovered.
2. The yard owner and everyone else were so keen to help, I was offered round the clock care and attention for him which would have been much less likely if I’d moved him somewhere new. I work full time so this was very important to me.
3. I had reason to believe that specific field was the issue, not the wider area – a fence line had been moved in that field and the soil disturbed. While nobody yet knows what causes EGS, this was all I have to go on. It was the only field where horses got sick.
4. Many local yards had cases of EGS that year. At least on my current yard I KNEW for certain which field had been affected. If I went somewhere new I’d have no idea.
My birthday. Best present in the world was having my horse home, even if he was too busy sunbathing to come inside and I had to take his lunch out to him…
A visit from the vet confirmed that Logan was allowed to be on 24/7 turnout – which was a big bonus, because while the yard owner had been a saint in turning him out for me every morning, Logan was obviously feeling a lot better than everybody was expecting and turning him out in the morning had become, I quote, something like “flying a kite”…
Today Logan got the all-clear from the vet and was allowed to start work again, with no restrictions other than those you’d apply to any horse who had been out of work for so long. The vet was delighted with his progress (and even called him a little fat!), and was keen to report to the rest of the staff – apparently he was a bit of a celebrity, but only because, sadly, so few EGS cases come home.
Bringing Logan back into full work was a slow progress. He sweated a lot, in unusual places, for no good reason. I was however very lucky that he never really went off his feed. He wasn’t interested in haylage for a long time but slowly his interest was coming back.
The vet advised I supplement his feed with Equitop Myoplast, a dietary supplement designed to ‘support lean muscle growth’. It’s expensive (and wasn’t covered by my insurance), but his progress was good. I obviously have no point of comparison so I don’t know how well it helped, but I was happy to give it a go.
In October we clipped him, which helped enormously with trying to control his temperature – previously it had been very cold at night, but putting any rug on him during the day made him sweat up, because it was still very sunny. My working hours didn’t allow for frequent rug changes. A blanket clip sorted that right out and by the end of November, while he did warm up when working, his day to day temperature was a lot easier to manage.
Three years on
I wrote the above in November 2014, and just came across it today while I was tidying up my files.
Today Logan is fit and symptom-free. He is a very hot horse who sweats easily, but to be honest I don’t know that he wasn’t before all this. If you are having a conversation near him and he finds you a bit boring, he will reverse his bottom into the middle of the group and await scratches. This can be alarming for the uninitiated, as he’s 16hh, but as the only real legacy of hospitalisation it’s not too bad.
I don’t want to gloat about being one of the lucky few (though I am exceptionally glad) – nor do I want to seem like I keep banging on about this one thing that happened ages ago – but grass sickness is a killer. They still don’t know what exactly causes it, why it affects the horses it does (and not others), or how to vaccinate against it. I imagine most of the equine community are exactly like me – they’ve heard of EGS, maybe even know people who have been affected, but don’t really know (or think) anything about it – until it lands on their door.
And sometimes even then, it’s not always obvious what’s happening – myself and several vets proved that.
There are things you can do to minimise the risk. There are known symptoms to be aware of. So if nothing else, please familiarise yourself with them! Early diagnosis can be the thing that saves a chronic case.
· Difficulty swallowing
· Loss of appetite
· Mild to moderate colic
· Reduced gut sounds
· Reduced defecation
· Muscle tremors
· Rapid weight loss
· Spring, early summer and autumn (when the grass and our grazing routines change) are the high-risk times. In areas where the disease is prevalent, stabling during these times can reduce the likelihood of disease
· Feeding additional hay or haylage in the field at times of increased risk
· Avoiding fields known to have had cases – grazing them with other stock, particularly at high risk times
· Removing other horses from a field where a case is diagnosed
· EGS occurs in all ages from 4 months to over 20 years
· The greatest number of cases occurs in 2 to 7 year olds with a peak at 3 to 4 years
· There are cases reported all year but most are seen between April and July with a peak in May
· In some years, a second, smaller peak occurs in the autumn or winter
· Commonly only one horse is affected at a time but ‘outbreaks’ of the disease are not infrequent
The Equine Grass Sickness Fund is the only registered charity in the UK raising funds specifically for research into grass sickness. EGSF is dedicated to supporting and advancing research into grass sickness and further improving the treatment of chronic cases. You can find out more here: http://www.grasssickness.org.uk