Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chewing the Fat

I'm not kidding when I say that Tonka is going on the equine version of the Atkins diet. There is a condition called EPSM or Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy that is especially common in draft horses and crosses. We have no clue what type of horse Tonka is (when people ask I answer "a big grey one"), but his thick build suggests that he has draft blood. More importantly, he has some of the symptoms associated with EPSM -- poor hind end muscling relative to his front end, and a stiff hind limb gait. Once again, the culprit is carbohydrate. Unused sugars are stored a glyogens in the muscle, most of which is found at the front of the horse. Because horses rely mostly on their front half to get around, the front end musculature remains well-developed while the rear end wastes away in a vicious cycle. This photo shows an extreme case:

The suggested approach is to replace energy from carbohydrates with energy from fat. Lots and lots of fat in the form of plain old vegetable oil or fat-concentrated feeds. Again, hay/forage with minimal sugar is the foundation of an EPSM diet. For now I'm planning to buy a big 'ol bucket of canola oil at Costco so that I can pour a bit into his daily hay rations. Here is the same horse after a year of high-fat, low-carb dieting:

Photos and the gist of the information come from here. Thank goodness for the internets!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What the Hay?

There's a surprising amount to know about hay. First, hay can contain different types of grasses (timothy, fescue, brome, orchard grass, oat grass...) and legumes (alfalfa, clover...). And, like human food, the nutritional content of hay is highly variable due to factors like soil composition, rainfall, sunlight and harvesting.

In Tonka's case the most important thing to know is that hay contains sugars -- sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Some of these sugars (fructan especially) have been implicated in the dietary imbalance that leads to bacteria in the hind gut producing an endotoxin that attacks the laminea holding the coffin bone to the hoof wall. An oversimplification to be sure, but an explanation for why laminitic horses need careful nutritional management. If you're really interested check out

So Tonka is going on the Atkins diet for horses. With the help of an acquaintance at Unifeed in Chilliwack I was able to secure 150 bales of low-carb hay yesterday. We expect the fellow to eat about half a bale a day, so this should last us through to the next hay harvest and then some. Unlike most horses Tonka will be allowed to free feed, so that he can eat as much or as little as his body dictates that it wants and we can try to bring his gut back into balance. Founder is not a problem with the feet -- it is a disease of the whole body that simply manifests itself in the hoof.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Natural Inclination

The tenets of natural hoof care are based on observations of wild American mustangs. These horses manage to live healthy, active lives without metal shoes, and natural hoof care advocates argue that domestic horses can too. By removing shoes, trimming the hooves to mimic those of mustang horses (short toes, compact heels, careful angles...) and providing domestic animals with as natural a living environment as possible (hard ground, maximum movement, dry grass forage...) we can help to alleviate many of the hoof pathologies that plague pet and working horses today. David and I feed our dogs a diet of raw meat because we believe it's more healthy than conventional dog food, and I am pursing natural hoof care for Tonka because I believe it's more healthy than conventional approaches.

Our partners in this adventure are Dr. Schwichtenberg (possibly unusual in her veterinary support for barefoot horses) and Christina Cline, a certified natural trimmer ( After seeing x-rays and photos of Tonka's hooves, Christina said this:

  • There's a teeny bit of remodeling at the tip of the coffin bone, a little lip that curls up just a tad. That can make it harder to get a really tight white line connection, as that little "lip" will tend to push the dorsal wall out a little. However ~ it's not horrible by any means, and I don't think it will interfere with healing. Just may mean that we have the back the heck out of his toes for the rest of his life. :) Could be a lot worse.
  • With toes that long (in relation to his bone), it's virtually impossible to NOT have underrun heels. The long toe pulls the heels forward ~ but as the toe migrates back over a few months, the heels should correct themselves.
  • It's promising that the hoof wall has just pulled away from the coffin bone ("capsular rotation"), but the coffin bone and pastern bones are in alignment. Prognosis tanks when the actual bones have rotated ("phalangeal rotation").

As an irrepressible optimist I take all of this as good news. Jaime Jackson's little book "Founder: Prevention and Cure" arrived yesterday in the mail thanks to a gift card from the Thomson side of the family, and I am devouring the information therein. Highly recommended reading for anyone exploring alternatives for the prevention and treatment of founder.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Down to the Bone

Today I picked up Tonka's x-rays from Dr. Kerstin Schwichtenberg in Agassiz, and so far she is my kind of vet -- straightforward, knowledgeable and kind. The images clearly show some rotation in both coffin bones, though it is more severe in the right. Both heels are underrun. The vet, the natural trimmer and I feel that we can give this guy a decent chance at a sound, barefooted life by feeding him appropriately, reshaping his hooves, designing a good paddock, and riding him out in hoof boots. It will not be a short process, nor an easy one, and there is no guarantee of success. The way I see it Tonka will have three options, and he can't loose in any case:

  1. Rehabilitation to soundness, in which case he will become our beloved trail buddy and pasture pet.
  2. Stabilization at semi-soundness, in which case he will become a beloved pasture pet.
  3. Degeneration into discomfort and pain, in which case he will leave this world humanely as a beloved horse.

Without our intervention at this stage Tonka is likely headed to the meat yard, either directly or indirectly. I cannot stomach the thought of such a good, sweet and willing horse going to slaughter, and I feel nothing but relief about making the decision to give him a more noble end, whenever it may come.

For the curious amongst you, here is a healthy horse foot. Notice how the triangular coffin bone sits parallel to the hoof wall at the front:

Here is Tonka's right foot. Notice how the tip of the coffin bone is rotated away from the hoof wall.

And here's the left side, which is still rotated by the separation is not so pronounced:

The Real Beginning

I saw this picture of Tonka (then Kelly) on January 3rd. Despite having looked at hundreds of horses online over the past couple of months, I had a visceral reaction to this one. Everything that's going to happen over the coming weeks, months and (hopefully) years is based on that reaction, which is pretty weird for someone as practical and level-headed as me. Honestly.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

In the Beginning

Let it be known that on January 26th, 2008 I made the fully-informed decision to buy a foundered horse.