by Linda Chamberlain
This is an urgent plea from a horse that had too many toxins in his life.
As the European Union considers whether to ban the controversial weedkiller glyphosate his voice may not be heard. But Otto has suffered life-threatening illnesses for years and his owner is in no doubt where the blame for some of his torment lies. Farming chemicals and antibiotics are thought to damage the gut and Otto has had plenty of exposure to both.
Otto, seen here at the height of his illness, mystified vets and hoof experts on both sides of the Atlantic who struggled to find the cause of his sore muscles and painful feet.
At one point a leading vet suggested he may have to be put to sleep unless he responded to the latest attempt to give him some relief.
His owner, Helen Jacks-Hewett, who bought him as a yearling colt said: ‘I felt so guilty, so utterly helpless and responsible for Otto’s illnesses because something was very wrong and despite having a degree and years of experience and trusted, specialist vets on the case I was still none the wiser about the cause of his problems.’
His symptoms were enough to fill a medical encyclopedia…
From the age of three he had a tight back and sore muscles.
His behaviour was irritable.
His enzymes were raised, indicating muscle breakdown and inflammation. Tests, however, were inconclusive.
Vets advised treating him for myopathy (muscle disease) using a high fat/low starch diet. But as Helen explained: ‘Within three months he came down with laminitis!’
And once the laminitis was under control his owner watched in horror as he suffered repeated abscesses in both front feet. Seven in total.
Powerful antibiotics, so more toxins, were prescribed in a battle to save him when x-rays showed an infection near his pedal bone.
Helen said: ‘That’s when my vet had the discussion with me. If he didn’t respond to the drugs then it would be game over.’
OK, trust me; I’m not going to give you a miserable ending to Otto’s story. His insulin levels eventually returned to normal; he got over the laminitis and he beat the abscesses. Helen had the joy of riding him once more. She began to hope she had her lovely horse back.
Sadly, there were more setbacks over the coming months and years. He kept showing signs of a myopathy, his hooves were weak, sometimes inflamed, and he was prone to infections. He was very familiar with antibiotics, he was fed conventional horse feed and the customary doses of wormer. Let’s be honest, a lot of owners might have decided that Otto was too ill for this life. As you can see, he didn’t look well…or comfortable…
Then someone gave Helen the name of a woman who ran a small feed company and might be able to help. Really? Helen was not impressed but in spite of her cynicism decided to phone Dr Debbie Carley from Thunderbrook Equestrian.
You see, Helen didn’t know it in 2013 but she and Dr Carley had something in common. They both owned horses who had suffered life-threatening illnesses that had eluded the treatment of conventional veterinary medicine. Dr Carley nearly lost her entire herd when she moved to a home surrounded by arable farms, exposing the horses to high levels of farming sprays. The battle to save her animals is featured in an earlier blog about the feed industry – Beware of the Bucket.
Helen takes up the story again. ‘As far as I was concerned I had tried everything to help Otto. I had liaised with the best vets, nutritionists and hoof trimmers in both the UK and US so how would this lady from a small, relatively unheard of feed company be able to tell me anything I didn’t already know! I don’t know why but I called her anyway and thank goodness I did.
‘The first phone call I had with Debbie lasted ages and it was a revelation – she suggested ALL of Otto’s problems could be related to his hind gut being damaged and not functioning properly. She talked to me about the farmers’ fields that are adjacent to Otto’s paddock and what they probably get sprayed with many times a year that can cause gut damage.
‘All of this seemed plausible but I needed proof, so I ordered all the relevant supplements to help repair and restore Otto’s hind gut. I was still feeling highly suspicious that this approach would work but to my amazement within five days I started to see improvements in Otto’s muscle soreness and his general demeanour. He started to become the lovely, inquisitive boy that I’d seen when he was a yearling.
‘Over the next couple of months Otto blossomed and he became a normal horse for the first time in years. He became a proper Arab under saddle and would hack for miles without getting tired. The complete lack of muscle soreness and tension pretty much made my vet agree that Otto probably never had a myopathy in the first place and most likely his damaged hind gut was causing malabsorption of key vitamins and minerals essential for muscle function and a healthy immune system.
‘The only flare ups we have had since have been after crop spraying in the fields next door and rain water drainage from the same fields into our paddock. On the whole his feet are now rock crunching but again crop spraying locally causes rapid soreness for a couple of days. On advice from Debbie I give Otto activated charcoal on crop-spraying days to help mop up any chemicals that he may have ingested.’
So, Otto was saved but other horses will be suffering these worrying symptoms. Will they be so fortunate?
Glyphosate is a weedkiller but since coming out of patent farmers also use it to dessicate, or dry out, crops before harvesting thereby increasing the burden of chemicals on the outer layer of cereals. This is the part that is low in nutrition but commonly fed to animals.
Dr Carley is an expert in equine nutrition and is convinced glyphosate exposure damages the gut. She minimises the risk to her horses by stabling when neighbouring farmers are spraying, cleaning out water troughs and providing mostly organic feed and hay. Seeing her own horses struggle against life-threatening diseases led her to set up Thunderbrook Equestrian feed company.
Should something so high risk as glyphosate be sprayed on our food crops? It has been linked in studies to liver damage, kidney failure and Parkinson’s. A report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer has warned that it is ‘probably’ carcinogenic.
Do we need more evidence before it is banned?
‘Potty’ about horses since the age of two, Helen is a McTimoney Animal Practitioner (chiropractic techniques) and Sports Massage Therapist working in North Somerset. Shoes were removed from her first horse Sapphire for retirement at the age of 29 but the mare gained a new lease of life and was ridden barefoot for another six years. Sapphire had unbalanced hooves for most of her shod life and this spurred Helen’s studies. Her degree dissertation ‘The Effects of Unilateral Laterocoudal Tungsten-carbide Road Nails on Equine Mediolateral Hoof Balance’ helped to secure a first class degree and also won the 2001 Eqvalan Thesis of the Year. As a result she presented her dissertation to the prestigious National Equine Forum at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. ‘Speaking to vets and farriers was the most daunting thing I’ve ever done,’ she says. Her website is here.
Otto’s rock-crunching hooves…
Otto is a purebred Arabian gelding, a descendant of one of the Polish state studs. His proper name Czarovitch means Crowned Prince in Polish. Barefoot all his life, he is 10 years old and Helen has owned him since he was a yearling. ‘I didn’t set out to buy a colt, especially not a grey one, but my heart ruled my head and I had a very strange feeling I’d met him somewhere before!’ she says.
He is turned out 24/7 in a field which is modified into a paddock paradise track in the spring and summer. It has two shelters and he has a pony called Jet (owned by Helen’s mum) for company. Ad lib hay is put in feeding stations to encourage movement. The track comes down in the winter to reduce poaching. The paddock is downhill from neighbouring farmed fields giving problems with spraying and surface water run off. Otto had a liver problem last September which occurred only a couple of days after a pre ploughing glyphosate spray. He became lethargic and blood tests showed his liver enzymes were high.
Helen says: ‘He got better after a few weeks on a liver supplement but it was too much of a coincidence it happened straight after spraying.’
Now they are to move to a property on the Mendip Hills, which is within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This will help avoid exposure to agrochemicals and flooding in future.
I’m a writer and a journalist who has a passion for horses especially if they are barefoot. A Barefoot Journey, is my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. Horsemanship Magazine said – ‘The writing is charming, warm, and (gently) brutally honest about a subject which is so obviously dear to her heart and central to her life. The big issues of hoof trim, equine lifestyle and human understanding are all covered. From the agony of self-doubt to the ecstasy of equine partnership, it is all laid out here, clearly and thoughtfully. It really ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off.’
Natural Horse Management said – ‘I loved reading this intelligently written book. It’s so good I think every hoof trimmer should hand this book out to clients who are going barefoot for the first time.’
A Barefoot Journey is a small but perfectly formed field companion for my novel, The First Vet, inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelSociety. Here’s one of the latest reviews – ‘I work nights & this book made me miss sleep (which is sacred to me) – I could not put it down! I loved the combination of historical fact & romance novel & it is so well written. I’m going to buy the hard copy now – it deserves a place on my bookshelf & will be read again. 10 gold stars Ms Chamberlain!’
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