Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why I Have One Skinny Horse

By Laura Crum

Okay, I can’t resist doing this. I’ve been reading fugly horse of the day, and yes, I agree with her that its evil for people to starve their horses. I agree that if old horses are properly cared for they should not be thin. Then I went out and fed my old rescue gelding his seven gallons of equine senior. I stared at his skinny little self and thought about all those photos of skinny horses on FHOTD. I looked over my shoulder, hoping no one was nearby with a camera. If said imaginary observer took my old critter from the right angle, oh, and managed to include the top strand of barbed wire on the hogwire fence, I’m sure I could be the next asshat of the day. (For those who don’t read this blog, that’s what she calls those she’s picking on—often for good reason.)

And then it struck me. I may be a good example of something that’s worth pointing out. Not everything is quite as black and white as it may appear. So, let me tell you ET’s story, and you be the judge.

I rescued ET about ten years ago. I first saw him about twenty years ago, when a tough young team roper I knew slightly showed up at a roping I was competing at. The kid was just in from Arizona, where he’d bought this horse cheap. He unloaded the horse, saddled him, and entered the roping on him. I couldn’t help staring, and I wasn’t the only one. This was, bar none, the funniest looking horse I’d ever seen. To begin with, he had the longest back I’d ever seen, coupled with real short legs. This gave him somewhat of a dachshund appearance. Add to this a very long upright neck, which created a sort of giraffe-like twist. And the horse was missing his right eye-—just an empty socket remained. To say the least, he wasn’t pretty. We all wondered why the heck that kid had bought him. We found out.

Our tough little cowboy friend won the first pot he entered on the funny looking gelding, who turned out to be a spectacularly good heel horse. He could run, turn with the cow and stop as well as any horse in the arena. And he was a real pro. Nothing bothered him. Endlessly curious about horses as I am, I went up and talked to the kid about the little gelding. Turns out the horse was real well bred (for a rope horse)—he was a son of Two Eyed Jack (kind of ironic) out of a daughter of Blondy’s Dude. Not bad, if you know anything about those old Quarter Horse lines. It passed my understanding how he wound up so funny looking, but if you studied him, you could see why he was athletic. Despite his odd looks, his hip and hind leg were set on just right, his shoulder was perfect. I could only conclude that a long back and short legs do not necessarily make a problem, same for the high head carriage. The eye had been lost in a pasture accident, so his new owner had been told. He had named the horse ET—that movie had just come out. The horse definitely had a distinct resemblance to the little space alien.

I watched ET at the ropings for many years after that. The cowboy kid was a horse trader and soon found a way to make money on ET. All the young ropers traded him around among themselves. Anybody could win on him. Anybody could ride him, including little kids. He was obviously very gentle, well broke, and talented. He was always sound. He had every imaginable virtue besides looks.

As the horse got older, he was bought by some rough types. I once tried to get the toughest cowboy I knew to deck ET’s current owner, who was beating that sweet old horse up at a roping I was at. (The horse had done nothing wrong—the asshole of a rider had missed his steer and this guy always beat his horses up when he missed.) I realized that ET was being traded steadily downhill. He was in his late teens. No one had ever owned him who had cared anything about him. He was not going to be retired. I could see the writing on the wall. And no horse ever deserved to be retired more than that one.

The horse was still sound and a useful rope horse. He was once again for sale. I needed him like I needed a hole in the head. I bought him anyway. I loaned him to a friend who roped on him for several years and let his kids ride him. He kept the horse turned out in a big pasture with other horses. All seemed well. The guy gave the horse back to me when ET was in his early twenties. “He’s the hardest keeper that ever was,” my friend said. “He can’t live turned out on pasture and hay.”

Sure enough, the old horse, who was built like a snake, anyway, was too thin. I found a home for him with a neighbor woman who just wanted to lead her little girl around on him. The horse was still sound, and perfectly gentle. The woman promised to feed him well.

I checked on him for years. He looked good, for ET. (This long skinny little snake of a horse looks “good” if you can’t see any ribs.) The woman had his teeth floated, she had him trimmed and wormed regularly, she fed him well. So far so good.

I began to trust that ET was cared for. Years went by. I still checked him, but not so often. The woman lost her job (so I found out), her daughter grew uninterested, she reduced ET’s ration to just hay and declined to buy the more expensive equine senior that he needed. I went to see ET after a six months hiatus, and the horse looked terrible. Ribs and spine sticking up. To make a long story short, I took him back.

I turned him in with my old gelding, Burt, who was eating 5 gallons of equine senior a day (Burt was in his late thirties and had no teeth left—for his story, see Farewell To A Friend, June 08). ET’s teeth were fine, but he clearly had a difficult metabolism. On the five gallons of Senior a day, along with free choice pasture, he gained weight. In six months, he looked fine. We were all happy—though those two retired horses were costing me a bundle.

Then Burt died. ET pined. He wasn’t happy living in the 5 acre field by himself. He fell in love with the mares in the pasture next door. Owner of said pasture begged me to turn the pathetic old guy in with the mares. It was spring; the grass was long and lush. ET looked fine, weight-wise. I agreed to try it—though I doubted he could stay there forever.

Well, for four months ET was the happiest looking horse you ever saw. He loved his herd of mares, he thrived on the grass, all was well. But the season changed, the grass dried out. The mares looked fine, but ET began to get thin again. I knew I had to separate him, but I was having a hard time doing it. I also knew how upset the old guy would be.

I finally took him out of the herd and gave him my horse, Gunner, as a pasture mate. (Both of these horses are 28 this year.) Gunner was a little underweight, and I figured they could both use the senior. ET was thin again, and I felt bad, but was sure he’d rebound. To cut to the chase, it didn’t work out. Gunner got fat, and ET stayed thin. Though ET was dominant, Gunner was a faster eater. After a month, it was clear I’d have to keep my skinny little horse by himself.

So that’s where I’m at now. ET lives alone in his 5 acre field, and he has finally settled down to it and is gaining his weight back. He looks a lot better than he did a month ago. He still doesn’t look great. If you drove down the road and saw him, you might wonder what asshat owns this skinny little horse. And now you know the story.

Am I an asshat? Or a saint for rescuing this critter and caring for him? Or something in between. Do I have lousy judgement? Yeah sure, I should have separated him from the herd sooner. But what is life about, after all. That was the happiest I’d ever seen the old horse look. What do you think I should have done?


Leslie said...

Laura, I think you're doing the best you can for ET. Some things we can't forsee, we just learn as we go through it.

Seems to me, you always had ET's best interests at heart. He had a tough life. Loved the description of him! Made me chuckle...and to think he was such a great working horse! Horses and animals can be so resilient sometimes! Suppose it depends on their heart and will.

There are two aged horses down the road living in good sized pastures. A neighbor mentioned to me how skinny the mare looked but I explained to her sometimes aged horses do get thinner. I know the people who own the horses and they would be the type to care for their animals so I know there's no neglect going on.

The gelding was a BLM mustang they adopted back in 1983 so he's at least 27. A couple years ago, his pasture buddy had died and he was grieving. A local farrier asked the couple if they would be willing to take on an aged mare (late 20's) as his pasture buddy because her people didn't have room for her anymore. They accepted.

Both horses appear content. And really, the mare, who I call Godiva because she's all white, isn't all that thin. You can see when a horse is actually starving compared to age related. But, maybe if I didn't know the backstory, I might think differently when I drive by. Guess it all means we need to be more careful about jumping to conclusions too quickly.
I agree, not everything is as black and white as it seems in the first glance. I've had to remind myself of this at times too.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, LJS82. One thing I didn't even mention, though it doesn't apply to ET, here in California, if we don't let our pasture horses get a little bit thin in the fall (I'm not talking starving here) they have nowhere to put all the weight they will gain in the early spring (grass season here) and then we have a big problem with obese horses and founder. Its all a management issue--if you can remove them from pasture periodically, fine. But for those who live turned out year round, its best to let them lose a little weight in the fall, and put it back on in the spring. Another reason some horses might look lean right now (in these parts), which is not necessarily a neglect issue.

Chad said...

As you said, nothing is black and white...but I would have the same problem on my hands if I owned ET. I stress soooo much about their social needs and who will scratch their back when they are alone, that I would have done everything in my power to get him a buddy! I probably would have followed your exact path. My next step would have been pretty much the same, pour the feed to him but then I would look for a buddy...again! LOL!
I would suggest a mini donkey...only because its worked for me. I know some horses aren't safe with the mini's... We had an old mare who needed to be fed alone at night and was on pasture during the day. She HATED being alone,and couldn't be stalled. She also couldn't defend her feed. I already had the mini's so I took the pair and put them in with her at night. I could place her grain and supplements above donkey level and feed all the hay I needed. They usually stared at her and waited to see if she dropped or tossed out any grain until it was gone... She didn't love them, but tolerated them and would come to the gate when she saw the little nerds being led down the lane. (They were dry lotted during the day.) Also she didn't call for her daytime friends. It worked really well for us for 14 months or so, then the mare had to be put down, for an unrelated issue.
An asshat you are not! I too now look over my shoulder when things aren't "ideal", and think, are there any fuglys in Idaho!! LOL!!


mugwump said...

I had a period of time in my life when we had ranch horses who wintered alone at a mountain property above 7000 feet. There was no access from about mid November to May or June.
I was new to the situation and FREAKED OUT.(being a suburban horse girl)
I called my vet and told him about it.
He told me that he also owned property near our ranch, and he deliberately rotated his horses so they each spent one out of every three years in the mountains.
He said, "Nature intended for horses to eat as much as they can spring through fall so they can survive the winter. They'll get really, really fat, then pretty darn thin by spring, depending on the winter. But they'll be healthier than you could ever keep them in town."
He was right. Those two horses lived up there for ten years, along with the neighboring ranches 6 head, and none of them ever had an issue.
Made me rethink a lot of previous assumptions.

Laura Crum said...

Good points, mugwump and Chad. And its not that I don't agree with fugly's crusade to prevent needless equine suffering. I just think that many things are not quite as black and white as they appear. Most things, actually.

suvalley said...

Laura, I can make a couple of suggestions as to your diet.

First, beet pulp, ride bran, and soaked alfie or timothy cubes. Any combination that works for him that he will eat without dumping.

Add lysine. There are a number of really great fat supplements on the market nowadays too. Try splurging on one bag of Empower and top dressing.

Personally, I shy away from senior rations as a rule these days. They are so full of sugar and "grain by products" that you don't even know what's in them :(

And for heavens sake, saddle him up and find a cow for him to push around...he needs mental stimulation too ;)

horspoor said...

Laura, I don't know if this will work, but it worked for my old Swedish mare. I swear she was the hardest keep in the world, and not real interested in food anyway.

I kept three kinds of hay on hand. Alf, alf/grass, and grass. Some days she wouldn't eat the other two kinds. She liked variety. I then made her 'bucketfood'. Soak beet pulp, and alf pellets, add some grain mix, MSM, ricebran and vitamins, and half a cup of oil, sometimes I'd add cool calories to it. So, I'd start the beet pulp and alf pellets soaking each time I fed. So they'd soak from morning to evening, the next batch from evening to morning. (Just a heads up, two or three years ago when I was feeding this to my two EPM horses it was costing $200 per horse a month). The mare wouldn't eat senior feed. Picky mare. For this ungawdly mix, she'd bang on the gate for me to hurry up.

I dont' think anything is ever really black and white.

Karen V said...

(1) He may have a worm load that you’re not aware of. Worm with Ivermectin and then again in two weeks.

(2)Senior feed – I’m confused which one you are using, since the only ones I’ve used are fed by dry weight. I.E. – My senior hard keeper did fine on 4 pounds per day of Purina Equine Senior. (LOVE Purina products!)

(3) Try adding a probiotic. My favorite is Equerry’s Large Animal Meal Formula. Comes with a scoop. Give two scoops per day.

(4) Add beet pulp. Start with one cup dry, soak in warm water for at least four hours. You could also prepare it at night and feed in the morning or vise versa.

(5) Add alfalfa pellets. Guaranteed to get 100% into the horse, rather than pushed around on the ground. Add to the beet pulp, either before or after soaking.

(6) Add Purina Amplify. Contains 30% fat. Start with 2 pound per day, then reduce to 1 pound per day for maintenance.

(7) Get a goat. Less care required than a mini, and they make for good companions.

I think it’s great that you asked for help/input. Hopefully you will get a LOT of different suggestions that will allow you to choose the best course for you and ET.

One thing I learn from FHoTD is: Sometimes good intentions aren’t enough. You are either committed or you are not. When you notice a problem, act NOW, not when it’s convenient. I’m merely pointing this out because you posted that you something going on but didn’t do anything for a while.

The feed program above is what I use, not only with my oldsters, but also rescues that come through. Will put 150 pounds on a horse in 45 days. Good luck!

Laura Crum said...

suvalley and horspoor, thank you, I will remember your tips. The equine senior that I feed comes from a little mill near here (its not Purina or some big national brand) and its very palatable and puts weight on old horses beautifully. It literally saved many of my horses. ET does just fine as long as he eats as much of this stuff as he wants, which is what he is doing currently. And he's gaining steadily. He really is beyond riding; though still sound, his gaits are pretty rickety. Not that all twenty-eight year old horses are too old for riding, certainly, but each individual is different, and this horse is past his using years. We try to pet on him a lot, and he can see the other horses from his field and socialize with them. I put the post up because I feel that its very easy to look at a thin horse and think the owner's an "asshat", but things aren't always that simple. I do agree that most of the folks fugly picks on are doing pretty awful stuff, however.

Laura Crum said...

KarenV, those are all good suggestions. And yes, I wormed ET two weeks apart with ivermectin; it was my first thought. As I said above, the feed I'm using does work well. My error was in not separating the horse sooner, you're right. When I did move him, he pined and was miserable for weeks, despite the companion I gave him. So, you see, the whole thing was a mixed bag. I'm sure ET was glad he got a little more time with his herd. There are just no easy answers. There might be ways to manage this horse that would work better for him, but they wouldn't work for me, as I am a woman with ten other horses to care for, a lot of critters, a son to homeschool, a garden and house to maintain, and my eleventh novel to complete. I think we all know that if you max yourself out too much in one area, everything else suffers. So I try to keep the whole thing in perspective; I do my best to do well by ET without letting that problem take away from what I need to give in other areas. Most of you can probably relate(!)

Karen V said...

If your feed is working, stick with it!

I would definitely add the probiotic though. I use it as a normal course of action every time I worm and on every rescue that comes to "visit".

I'm assuming that you've resolved the "No Duh" questions - teeth, access to salt, etc.

And I can totally relate to how concentrating on one leads to others suffering. The probiotic is an easy "fix". It certainly won't hurt.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Karen V--I'll try the probiotics. I use them on myself and my son, so why not on the old horse, too.

horspoor said...

I've used the Probios probiotic, and have had good luck. The other thing you may want to try is the PowerPac wormer by Panacur. It's a double does of fenbendazol (sp?) I think. It is the only one that will get rid of encysted strongyles. It worked wonders on my TB mare.

LatigoLiz said...

Highs and lows are ok when it comes to weight, but it’s just harder on the oldies. I had a mare that I got for free off of Freecycle. She’d been used and abused to get babies out of her for years. I got her from a family that loved her very much, but they knew they didn’t have the means to care for her in the winter. She had one last good summer with us, but never got back to what I would have liked weight wise. I will post about her on my blog soon. I am working on the post and it’s going to be a good one, all-be-it long.

I have had good success with pelleted hay and free choice hay. Also, I have my hay tested and consult with a feed company to supplement in a balanced fashion. That is the best way I have found to put on weight. I will probably make a post about that someday, too.

There are lots of “experts” out there, but folks just need to find what works for them and stick to it. Move on to something different if things stop working well.

You’ll be fine. :)

Mary Paine said...

Hi Laura,

What a wonderful thing you did rescuing ET! My Spencer was always really tough to keep weight on, too, even though he lived the life of a king!


Anonymous said...

ET has a good home now. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but viewers often interpret their meanings in different ways. Your mind also remembers him as he was when he was a young athlete, so you may be seeing him through that filter, too.

Maybe he'd like hanging out with a goat?

michealle said...

The right angle with the barbed wire might lead you to be the asshat of the day, but I think a picture of a happy, obviously well-loved skinny horse would be wonderful to put in conjunction with the well-writ imagery.