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May 2009

Founder Chronicles: We fight back

Founder Chronicles 1: Killer Lameness Strikes
Times have changed since my mother’s horse died when her coffin bone exited through the sole of her hoof in the 1980’s. These days, if you catch founder early and treat it right, your horse can survive and lead a productive life. Those words of encouragement from our veterinarian were worth more than gold to us. Bonnie had a chance. I would not have believed it unless someone told me because Bonnie stood in the darkest corner of her stall, unable to move because her feet hurt so badly. Our veterinarian prescribed phenylbutazone (“bute”) and ixosoprene, traditional anti-inflammatory, painkilling and circulation enhancing drugs. We called the gravel company and ordered a load of coarse sand, stripped her stall, and bedded her in 12 inches of sand. The bute relieved much of Bonnie’s pain, but she was still depressed. She was banned from eating anything but grass hay, and was now locked in the barn, on strange, scratchy bedding, away from her friends. We began a rotation of equine baby sitters, but Bonnie remained sad. Our athletic little pistol of a friend was only a shadow of her former self.
(Tomorrow: Encouragement, more remedies)

Founder Chronicles: Killer lameness strikes

One early summer in 2005, we haltered Bonnie, the little bay Morgan mare who stars in my novel, Winning Bet, and walked her out of her stall for her daily turnout with the other horses. Strangely, Bonnie was tender in her front feet. We turned Bonnie out anyway, because minor lamenesses often heal themselves. By that afternoon however, Bonnie, normally athletic and spirited, could barely walk down the gravel aisle of our barn back to her stall. We dreaded what we already knew. Bonnie had foundered. Our veterinarian visited the next day and confirmed the diagnosis. Also known as laminitis, founder is a horribly painful condition involving inflammation of the internal support tissues in the hoof. As founder works its course, the condition can become so bad that the arrowhead-shaped coffin bone in the hoof begins to work its way downward through the hoof sole. My mother’s horse died this way. I swallowed hard and tried not to cry, but the grim faces of another client veterinarian and vet student told me the truth. We were in trouble. Would Bonnie die the painful death of my mother’s horse?
(Next: We fight back)

(Read about Bonnie, a real-life horse character in the novel Winning Bet, available in paperback and on the Amazon Kindle.)

Horse owners score in property rights fight

Horse owners prevailed in a recent battle with the zoning officer of Lisbon, Connecticut who ordered them to take down their movable horse shelter. Traci and Richard Gwiazdowski, who operate Hidden Hills Farm, had to hire an attorney to defend their right to keep the shelter, which protected the animals on their 59-acre property. “I have every right to farm the land,” Gwiazdowski told the Norwich Bulletin. The community's zoning board of appeals overruled the enforcement officer in a May 26 vote to a packed house of Gwiazdowski supporters. The Gwiazdowskis' attorney argued that the order to remove the building deprived the family of its right to enjoy the land and depreciated the value of their property. (If you read the New York Times best seller, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, you will understand where the lawyer's verbage came from -- the Constitution.) Larimer County, Colorado is working toward new land use rules for horse stable owners with a vote before county commissioners set for December. Many thanks to reader Tammy Biondi of Blue Horizon Farm in North Carolina for alerting us about this story.

‘I think I can, I think I can’

Kalvin the Krazed, a pseudonym that pretty much sums up his history, may turn out to be something, after all. This 15-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, which we purchased for his flipped-over-the-hitching-rail vet bill about two years ago, made it over a course of poles yesterday without killing anybody. Not only that, he did it with style, which is one thing Kalvin always does. Even when he face-plants somebody, Kalvin does it with style. Perhaps as a failed race horse, Kalvin learned that life was fraught with fright, and that he would amount to nothing. Consequently, every time something did go wrong, he flipped into horse hysterics, bolting out from under the rider who slightly over-balanced, or leaping away from the truck backfiring on the nearby road. Yesterday, Kalvin braved the course of poles. He even mistimed a couple of poles and tapped the wood. Kalvin thought about bolting. Kalvin’s ears flipped back and forth in momentary panic. At the gentle brush of the rider’s leg however, Kalvin persevered. Kalvin transitioned down from the canter to a civilized trotting circle. He halted, let out a big sigh, and licked his lips. That was horse talk for, “I did it. I survived. I think I can, I think I can.”

Their kingdom for a colored horse

People recently spent a lot of money testing ancient horse DNA to learn that horse color swayed the rich and famous. More than 5,000 years ago, humans began domesticating horses, according to a study published in the April issue of the journal Science. Powerful people preferred white, silver, chestnut and other loud colors over the drab mousiness of the original horse. Thus breeding programs were born. For a pittance, you too can confirm the flamboyancy of human nature. Just attend any horse auction. Unusually-colored horses bring more money, period. The breeding farm where I worked as a teen and college student held an annual auction. Loudly-colored foals of average or poor conformation brought in twice the money of more correctly-conformed, but boring, liver chestnuts. Color blindness leads to regrettable purchases, however. Be careful when buying.
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Horse pastures of heaven: Take it easy

Bonnie, the start of the tween-teen horse novel, Winning Bet, enjoys a moment of grazing on the good stuff. We often feed our horses the old-fashioned way, on grass growing fresh out of the ground. After a brief ride, we turned out two of our geldings. This time of year, most horses at our stable are on supervised turnout for short periods. Our pasture rotations prevent permanent grass damage.

Ramping up exposure in gradual doses helps horses get used to the green stuff, and prevents laminitis, aka: founder. This terrible internal hoof inflammation can kill a horse. Founder is similar to slowly peeling away your fingernail, only you have to support a thousand pounds or more on the fingernail as it tears away. Ouch.

On a less painful note, imagine being forced most of the winter to eat Shredded Wheat™ and then suddenly being offered a salad featuring baby greens and whatever medicinal herbs you can find. Our two guys cantered off, stopped about 50 feet into the pasture and lifted their heads, watching us watch them. They galloped another 50 feet stopped, and plunged their heads into the greenery. For them, this was second heaven. If at all possible, set aside a green patch for your horse, however small, and give them a chance to be well, a horse!

Read about our founder survival tactics: Founder Chronicles

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Yes, I can!

Nugget Mohawk shetland ponies
Nugget and Mohawk, right, our Shetland Ponies. I am on Mohawk.

They tell me I slept in a bassinet in a window next to a pasture full of horses, and that the horses would hang their heads over the fence to look at me. You have probably heard of baby horses being imprinted by people. In my case it was the reverse. I was imprinted by horses.

For my parents, that meant I started asking for a horse at age five. My grandparents completed the conspiracy by purchasing ponies for my sister and myself a couple of years later.

I was horrified to learn that my pony’s name was Nigger. Here we were in the 1960’s, in the height of the Civil Rights Era, and I had a pony with a racist name. Because I loved Margeurite Henry’s Black Gold, and my pony was small and black, he morphed into Nugget. Like Black Gold, we loved to race, in our case, through the Big Sky pastures of Montana, and do things we were not supposed to do.

There is nothing like a Shetland Pony for building character and confidence. They can do anything and go anywhere, and Nugget taught me to ask no less of myself.

You might also enjoy:

Winning Bet, a clean horse read for 'tweens and teens.

Not quite Hallmark

Go on and scream

We competed, jockeying for the upper hand, until adulthood. My sister and I share the same birthday – two years apart. They stored my cake in the cupboard, forgotten for days after my mother went to the hospital in labor with her. I point to this fact whenever I stand accused of any emotionally aberrational behavior. The cake incident was the start of a competition that lasted until adulthood.
The two of us often found ourselves in the same age group at horse shows, in this case at the Almaden Horsemen’s Association near San Jose, California. We went through a particularly hot, grueling Hunt Seat Equitation Class, in which we posted the trot without stirrups for what seemed like hours. Imagine balancing, gripping a giant exercise ball with your thighs and knees as you rhythmically rise and fall. Try this for three minutes straight in a sauna and you have the stress picture.
Anyway, the loyal spectators, including my mother, sat through this equitation class, properly excited because they had a clue about what was going on beneath the poker faces that floated above bodies swathed in navy blue and black hunt coats, white ratcatchers (shirts), breeches, and black velvet hunt caps: It was a sweating, groin-thigh-muscle standoff between riders.
I know I worked hard, and my mare did her part, providing rhythm and thrust with the world’s smoothest trot. I did not know what was going on with my sister. Frankly, I did not care. It was all about me.
The endurance test ended and we lined up for awards, still mounted, in the center of the arena. They began to announce placings, and my mother screamed. I thought something had happened to my sister. (There was a reason we called her horse “Orbit”.)
Turns out, I placed first and my sister placed second. My mother’s offspring dominated our little world for 15 seconds.
I never understood the cathartic effect of a pride scream until my son made the winning soccer goal for the league championship in his last game ever for his school. You should give it a shot. Find your favorite horse person, get out there, and scream the next time they win a ribbon. (We take no responsibility for the reactions of those near you!)
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Horse careers: Not just a $$$ dead end

Like horses, but don't think you have the aptitude -- or the affinity for dirt -- for a horse career?  Think all horse careers are financial dead-ends?  Think again!  There's a great publication at, which all Horse Project 4H'ers or anyone interested in a new career should see.  Our little 4-H club "raised" one rider who worked for several years at the Arabian Horse Association, and another who assisted at a top-notch local dressage barn.  It can be done.
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Grazing for painkillers

Trees that looked like skeletons all winter suddenly boast tender, yellow-green leaves most noticeably, our willows. One of our horses loves fresh willow shoots and leaves. He underwent knee surgery several years ago, and I swear that horse is self medicating. Willow contains salicin, which is chemically similar to aspirin and has similar effects. North American Native Americans used willow bark tea as a painkiller for centuries before aspirin was invented. If you search the internet for “herbal bute”, commonly a mixture of devils claw, cat claw, white willow bark and meadow sweet, you can find many herbal mobility products. Anecdotal reports claim the herbal products have fewer side effects than aspirin or phenylbutazone (traditionally prescribed “bute”). However, some of these herbal products may be illegal for your horse show association, so know your rules before you dose. Personally, I have had great luck with Hilton Herbs (, but they quit using willow in their mixes. A number of other companies advertising on the internet still offer willow. You could also try mixing your own herbal remedies. Feeding Herbs to Horses, by Wendy and Terry Jennings is a useful, but hard-to-find book. (At this writing, I saw only five used copies on Amazon.) Most of us have no time to grow, harvest and mix our own herbs. I would still track down the book. With beautiful, full-color illustrations, Feeding Herbs to Horses is a soft-cover treasure that belongs on any horse lover’s shelf.