I walked down to the paddock and noted that Snoox (my horse) looked pretty sleepy. Not unusual since we had just had quite the change in weather, and as he lives out, he can be affected by the weather if its been pretty rough in the night. We had just had our first bout of heavy rain after a long hot summer, so I wasn’t surprised. As I got closer however, I noticed that all four of his legs had filled, pretty dramatically.
Now this, was unusual. He also looked more than sleepy, he looked like he’d been sedated!
I grabbed the headcollars and walked Snoox and his ex racer girlfriend, Sally, up to the yard, trying not to worry. Since I have had Snoox in my care, he has been SO easy health-wise, I have never had any worries with him and he’s always been very low drama, care wise. To find him like this, was very odd, and very worrying.
On reaching the yard, he was still listless, and showing a vague interest in his hay, rather than tucking in with his usual gumption. I pinched the skin on his neck to see if he was dehydrated, all seemed normal there. He didn’t seem ‘colicky’, I could hear gut sounds, he wasn’t tucked up, and I then checked his gums, all seemed normal there too. Honestly, I was stumped, in ‘all my years’ working with horses, I’d never seen a set of symptoms like these, especially that appeared seemingly, overnight. So next, I took his temperature. 40 degrees.
I called the vet surgery explaining his symptoms, and a vet was arranged to come out ASAP. I waited with Snoox, trying very hard not to give into the building anxiety, and remain positive. What the hell was going on?
On arrival and initial examination, the vets first question, was ‘have you found any ticks on him recently?’ I was taken aback by this and replied I hadn’t, and he explained that his symptoms pointed to possible lymes disease, OR some kind of viral infection. Lymes disease had not occurred to me for a moment, I had never even considered that it was something that horses could suffer from, this was certainly the first I’d heard of it! The vet explained further, that lymes wouldn’t be detected by a blood test at this stage, but as a precaution, he would treat with a round of antibiotics strong enough to treat a viral infection, AND possible lymes if that was what he had, so then he would have started treatment as soon as possible, which is key with Lymes Disease.
A week, later, to my relief, on finishing his first round of antibiotics and some anti inflammatories, and having a week off work, Snoox had picked up and looked much better…normal, in fact. Sadly however, this only lasted afew days, and I noticed his legs had started to fill up again. I was gutted, and called the vet once again, who arranged a blood test for Lymes Disease, and a further course of antibiotics.
Almost straight away, Snoox responded to the antibiotics, and I convinced myself that maybe it was a remainder of the possible virus, that just needed cleaning up, with more drugs. I had purposefully not looked into equestrian lymes disease further on the internet, because I knew it would add unnecessary worry to the situation, and honestly, I thought ‘neeeh, the chances are slim, and it won’t be that’.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. The following week (due to badly timed postal strikes and bank holidays) the results were in, and Snoox had tested positive for Lymes Disease. I was shocked, and honestly devastated, I knew so little about lymes other than anecdotes I had heard from in humans, and none of what I had heard there was good. The vet, however, was incredibly positive, and assured me that because we had caught it so early, and already begun treatment, the outcome looked like it would be good. He prescribed a further course of 4 more weeks of anti biotics, with a view to reviewing his symptoms and a further blood test on finishing the treatment.
So, what exactly IS Lymes Disease when referring to the horsey form?
According to an article by Andrea Caudill in the AQHA Journal Online (one of the best articles I found in my search) ‘Lyme disease gets its name from the town where it was first identified as a unique syndrome–Lyme, Connecticut–in 1975.
The disease is caused by the spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and is transferred to horses through infected ticks. There are several types of ticks that can transfer the bacterium, but the most common one is known as a deer tick (Ixodes scapularis).
To transfer the bacteria, the infected tick must bite the horse and, researchers believe, must stay attached to the horse for at least 24 hours to successfully transmit the bacteria to the horse. Horses do not transmit the disease to other horses.
Because the bacteria must be transferred via tick, the disease is common in tick-hospitable environments, such as woody areas.
“The thing to know about Lyme disease in horses, and people and dogs too, is that many, many horses will get infected with borrelia but never develop clinical signs,” Dr. DeNotta says. “So you can be exposed, you can be infected, you can develop antibodies and even an immunity to borrelia, but never actually have any negative effects that could be attributed to Lyme disease.”’
As it turns out, the area of Devon that Snoox and I now reside in, is a common place for ticks to be found. There are also plenty of deer leaping about, to transfer ticks around. Lovely. It was just bad luck that an infected tick (or horse fly, as they can also transfer the disease) found its way to Snoox.
Lymes is actually quite rare in the UK, especially when it comes to horses. Cases of Lymes Disease in America are much more prominent, which is where I managed to find the most information from. Annoyingly however, even still, there is a lack of information, particularly around the recovery process of horses with the disease.
Common symptoms of the disease include, but are not limited to, swollen joints, uveitis, stiffness, lameness, general changes in behaviour, raised temperature. The above symptoms can vary, be very vague, and horses may show only one of the above symptoms. As a result diagnosis can often be missed, and I am very lucky that my vet was so switched on. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
To add to the joy of this disease, there is also an even rarer variant, called neuroborreliosis, which is even more serious, because the bacteria invades the horses central nervous system, causing severe symptoms such as muscle wastage, skin sensitivity, trouble eating, and neurogical issues.
The good news is, as Snoox responded so well to his treatment, it appears this is not the form that he has. Phew. The most common treatment for Lymes in horses is an aggressive course of antibiotics, for 6-8 weeks, and USUALLY, that is enough to stamp out the disease for good. There are cases of relapse, and honestly, some places I’ve read that symptoms can flare up now and then, and in some places I’ve read that once its gone, its gone. I also read somewhere that this type of bacteria can ‘hide’ and avoid detection if its not caught soon enough. Delightful. I do not recommend visiting facebook groups for information, as I found to my detriment, the majority of the posts (especially in the USA) are not positive, there are some worrying horror stories in there (horses ‘never being the same again’ etc) and there was also LOTS of conflicting information.
The best and most positive article I found was the one I referred to above, so I decided to stick with that, and just to trust my vet, and trust that Snoox was going to be OK, I was doing everything I could, and the horse I knew and loved, was going to be his old self again soon.
So how has his treatment gone so far?
I’m happy to report that Snoox is now ‘drug free’, and has been for 8 months now, with no returning symptoms. He had a second blood test, afew months after treatment, which showed he still had anti bodies, so not totally clear at that point, but that’s to be expected, and after a full physical examination from the vet, he is now looking much healthier and happier, and unless anything pops up again, he’s been discharged! The advice from the vet moving forward was to slowly bring him back into work, to keep a close eye on his progress, and continue to support his immune and digestive system over the winter and ‘see how it goes’.
Alongside the veterinary prescribed treatment, I delved into the world of herbal remedies, and turned my tack room into something resembling Holland and Barrett. He has had all sorts of herbs and spices complimenting his diet over the last few months to help support his immune system, reduce any remaining inflammation, and help his body fight the disease, and return to some sort of normal. I even found a supplement known to eradicate spirochete bacteria, so added that to the mix to help stamp it out from a herbal angle! I’ve also been careful to supplement his microbiome after being on such strong antibiotics, and he’s been on a good pro biotic supplement to support his digestive system.
To really fire at it from all angles, I have also had regular appointments with my Equine Physio, who is incredibly knowledgeable, and who by chance, had an extensive knowledge of Lymes Disease, as her sister in law had been diagnosed with it earlier in the year. She provided some treatments to help ease any stiffness/soreness he was feeling from the effects of the disease, and again, I was left feeling very lucky to have such a great professional team helping return Snoox to health.
All of the above seems to have really helped, and he is now looking shiny again, he’s happy, and in our work he has started find his ‘mojo’ again and is definitely showing me he’s feeling good. I am taking things VERY slowly, we are avoiding stressing his body and his immune system still, and I have been very slowly building his fitness back up, and being mindful of any potential soreness still lingering in his body from the disease.
As frustrating as it was not being able to jump on board and lope off into the sunset, I would rather have played the long game and have a happy, healthy horse at the end, than get over excited and push things too far, potentially causing damage. So, we’re taking it slow, and I’m reminding myself to practice what I preach, taking small steps, and enjoying the small things in every session.
For now, everything seems to be moving in the right direction, and 9 months on I am positive he is going to make a full recovery. We’ve just started ridden work again, and so far so good!
So I imagine at this point, the question you’re asking is, so how can I prevent this happening in my horse?!
Unfortunately, unlike in dogs, there is no pill you can give your horse to avoid making friends with a tick.
The best preventative measures include checking your horse over fully at least once every 24hrs ( because it can take up to 24hrs to transfer the disease) to ensure there are no ticks, and if you find any, to remove them safely with a tick remover. You can also apply fly sprays that include tick repellent, or there are some essential oils like lavender, lemongrass, and eucalyptus oils that they do not like!
Because the symptoms are so vague with Lymes, being vigilant regarding ticks is the best line of defence, and if you suspect something is wrong, after a consultation with the vet, a blood test might be your next line of enquiry.
My hope with this article, is not to alarm, but to raise awareness of this rare disease. I had no idea it could effect horses, and as a result, because of my total lack of awareness, coming to terms with it and helping my horse, has been a much more worrying process than it needed to be.
My advice if you come across this with your own horse, is to stay positive, trust your vet, and to stay away from facebook groups! Every case seems to be different, so trusting that you know your own horse is also key. I have definitely thrown everything I can at it, and so far, so good. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and Snoox and I will keep heading towards it!
Important note I am NOT in any way and expert in Lymes Disease, this article is my own experience of the disease, always consult your vet if you have any suspicions that your horse is sick.