Well, Consolation and I did get to go for our ride Wednesday. Saddling up took extra time, as she clearly anticipated discomfort. (How was she supposed to know she had dexamethosone on board?) I lunged her briefly before getting on just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything, then led her out to the driveway and mounted up.
It took only a few steps to know she wasn’t 100%. She didn’t want to move off well, and her tail was too switchy for the bugless day. Then again, she wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as she has been over the past few weeks. The obvious question: How much of this was actual discomfort — and how bad was that discomfort — and how much was the cleverness of a horse that is figuring out that fidgety behavior will earn her a day off?
Decision time. With horses, there can be a fine line between “I want you to be absolutely comfortable” and “Suck it up, Princess.” Endurance horses in particular need to be able to work through a bit of discomfort. If the first cloud of gnats or trickle of belly sweat sweat snaps their delicate psyches, you’re never going to get down the trail.
For the moment, I chose to proceed. Half a mile later, we were still going along reasonably well, and I asked for a trot. She moved out slowly. Hesitantly. I kept asking, and after a while she seemed to discover that her skin wasn’t going to bite her, after all. She did still lash her tail and snap her head around a couple times, but nothing like before. At the first intersection, we took a turn that often loops us back toward home. That sped her right up. Look, mom, I can trot! Wheeee!
Until the first turn away from home. Oooh, then her skin seemed much more troublesome. She switched her tail and flung her head around some more. Trot? Gosh, I dunno, mom… Uh-huh.
Again we pushed through, and again she recovered considerably as she became distracted by passing tractors and a herd of horses across the canal. Now, I don’t mean to say she wasn’t feeling anything at all — I do think she her skin was legitimately bothering her to some extent — but she was obviously able to get beyond the “I’m a fragile Christmas bauble, so please bubble-wrap me” stage. In fact, for the last several miles before our cool-down, she moved out quite normally, steadily and with enthusiasm. When we slowed to walk the last mile in, she remained normal.
Afterwards, she had just a hair of swelling on one side, well away from the saddle area. She was just about 24 hours out from her last dose of dex, though, so it’s unclear whether the ride or the timing was the issue.
So…maybe we’re making progress. Or maybe she’s just leaning on the dex crutch and will relapse as it tapers off. I’m worried about the latter because the affected areas were a bit warm last night — and yesterday was her first day off the dex. She’ll get a smaller dose today, tomorrow off, then still smaller doses ever other day twice after that.
Aaaaand, Sunday’s ride on Consolation…wasn’t.
The skin issue returned. Again. That makes twice I thought it was resolved, only to have it reappear within a day or two. Time to bring in reinforcements.
I’m pleased to announce that the vet’s visit confirmed I am neither crazy nor stupid. He’d never seen anything like Consolation’s skin problem, either. Its nature remains uncertain — not readily identifiable as bacterial, fungal, allergic, or anything else he recognized. We discussed a biopsy but his opinion was that the liklihood of learning anything useful was minimal.
Instead, he put her on anti-inflammatories to keep her comfortable while the skin takes time to heal itself. No topicals, just time, since it appears the problem is capable of resolving on its own. Hopefully, now that the inflammation is down and the mystery problem has moved away from the saddle area, I’ll be able to start riding very soon.
I swear it’s a curse. Every spring, I seem to have some issue that prevents me from participating in the season’s first endurance rides. This year it was Consolation’s mystery itch — the undiagnosed skin condition on her back that made her utterly unable to tolerate being ridden.
Well. I’m pleased to report that we finally (after 6 weeks of trying) seem to have reached resolution. I’m going to post the details of her symptoms and attempted treatments here in the hope that someone else will find it useful one day. Why? Because in all my googling — and believe me, I did a LOT — I found not a single condition whose description matched Consolation’s presentation.
Week 1: Horse restless under saddle, beginning with tail switching and refusal to maintain trot, escalating to bucking and head-slinging regardless of gait. Behavior persisted when ridden or in tacked-up in hand. Horse was obviously extremely itchy under the entire saddle area from withers to loin. No other symptoms. Attempted another ride next day with similar results. Horse unable to settle into any gait. Sweat pattern was wet on off side and dry on near side, apparently from horse traveling very crooked due to discomfort.
Treatement Attempt: At this point, the bucking/head-slinging/inability to maintain gait (which was completely new behavior for this horse) seemed more likely to be a pain issue than a skin condition. The itchiness, while intense, was believed secondary. Horse was adjusted by equine chiropractor, who is also her vet. Suggestion made and followed to back up toes and lower heels to improve foot and shoulder comfort. Decision made to postpone further conditioning until new, custom saddle arrived.
Week 2: Horse resting, still itchy when rubbed by handler, but not in apparent discomfort in paddock. No excessive rolling or scratching at liberty. Shedding winter coat appeared somewhat thinner over affected area, but not so obviously that it caused further concern.
Treatment Attempt: None.
Week 3: New saddle arrived and appeared to be an excellent fit. However, attempts to test ride resulted in same behavior, but worse. Skin still itchy but not heated or inflamed. No sign of flaking, leisions, bumps, bites, swelling, or alopecia, though coat did still appear somewhat thinner in affected area. (I realized later that the coat was not actually thinner, but was raised so it only appeared thin.) Use of shedding blade revealed that skin was dirty and oily from winter. During one bath, small bumps, like mosquito bites, were barely detectable on withers. These disappeared quickly and did not return.
Treatment Attempt: Bathed 2x on different days with Selsun Blue medicated shampoo (active ingredient pyrithione zinc). Soaked affected area daily with 50:50 Listerine:water dilute. The original, amber-colored Listerine has long been used as a home remedy for sweet itch (reaction to mites) and various skin fungi. All brushes and tack disinfected with bleach dilute after each use.
Week 4: Horse still itchy with thin-appearing (raised) hair over affected saddle area of back. Still unable to tolerate tack. Scraping with shedding blade after application of Listerine sometimes removes gray/black specks that seem moist. Uncertain whether these were dirt, dandruff, or insect-related.
Treatment Attempt: Continued with Listerine application. Double-dosed with Ivermectin in case issue was caused by lice or mites, though this did not appear to be the case. Dusted 3x on different days with livestock flea dust, also as precaution to cover the bases.
Progress: Horse’s discomfort appeared reduced (was less itchy when rubbed by handler, and behavior improved significantly on a test ride). I realized later that this was because the skin condition had mostly resolved along the topline, but had “slid” down the horse’s sides in a characteristic drip pattern. Discomfort resumed within a day.
Week 5: Topline now returned to apparent normalcy, with itchiness gone and haircoat no longer raised. However, new affected patches appeared lower along the sides and loin, as though the condition had dripped down in the same pattern that water would cascade off the back. These patches showed raised hair and swelling. After a couple days, they felt hot to the touch. Horse again unable to tolerate tack. Even saddle blanket causes extreme “cringe” reaction, particularly when horse is in motion. The inflamed patches appear increasingly more tender and less itchy.
Here’s what the coat looked like at this point. Note gray areas that appear thin, but are actually raised.
Treatment Attempt: Applied Vetricyn to affected area but saw no change over 2 days of repeated use. Following phone call with vet, began 2x daily applications of over-the-counter athletes foot creams. These come with various active ingredients and cost about $4 per o.5-oz tube. Over the course of several days, applied creams with broad-spectrum antifungals clotrimazole and tolnaftate with no apparent results except increased inflammation in affected areas. Switched to a third broad-spectrum antifungal, miconazole (found in over-the-counter vaginal yeast infection medication), as a last-ditch attempt before scheduling vet visit. Cost is similar at about $12 for 1.5 oz. Also added daily baths with medicated shampoo (active ingredient salycylic acid) and full-strength iodine rinses over affected and surrounding areas.
Progress: After 2 days of bath/iodine/miconazole treatements, inflammation and tenderness appeared reduced in area, but not intensity. After 4 days, inflammation and tenderness are nearly eliminated in both area and intensity. Inflammation is always lowest in morning, following iodine soak. Continue with iodine soaks 2x daily but eliminate baths (worried about overdrying skin; also, weather too chilly) and miconazole. Improvement continues. Affected area possibly weeps a little (iodine on the coat interferes with judgement here) and shows some black flecks again, just as the topline did shortly before returning to normal.
This morning, on Day 7 of iodine rinse treatement, no heat, swelling, itching, or other discomfort can be detected. Will continue treatment just in case and try saddling up tomorrow.
- I think the Listerine worked as well as the iodine.
- 2x daily treatment seems to have been important.
- Both iodine and Listerine took at least a week to resolve the issue.
- I should have treated a broader area to start with, in order to prevent spreading beyond the presently affected area.
- Mystery skin issues are really frustrating.
Dear Consolation: Next time you decide to cultivate a fungus, please select morels or truffles or something else worth selling to local chefs. Thank you.
UPDATE: It transpires that the skin issue was not resolved, after all. Details here.
She’s not 100%, mind you, but she is much improved.
As a test this evening, I saddled her and lunged her for 20 minutes (in 80-degree heat, to get her sweaty since that seems to make the itch worse), then took her out for a few miles’ hack. She switched her tail a bit, and her trot was less than steady, but she didn’t feel the need for head-slinging and bucking every few strides.
Her back was still itchy, but nothing like it has been. If (and it’s definitely still a big IF), this progress continues, we might be able to go to Tough Sucker II next weekend, after all. Fingers crossed.
In other news, Acey and I had a nice ride in the hills today. We took it fairly slowly and soaked up a couple hours’ worth of sunshine over our 11 miles.
(Whoa, that photo looks terrible on my screen. I hope it looks better on yours!)
Well, I thought I had Consolation’s itching issue under control. She certainly seemed normal when brushed and worked from the ground. She still has no hives or bumps or scabs or leisons, just relatively thin hair over the affected area (not bald spots, but shorter and rougher haircoat).
And yet, yesterday’s ride revealed that she is clearly still very itchy — driven to distraction, in fact. She seems to want to move out, but can’t bear to trot more than a few strides without slinging her head around as if to whack a horsefly, or nearly bucking. She moves along with her back hunched up in discomfort It gets worse as the ride progresses (and the area gets warmer under her tack?), but the skin does not appear to change. The behavior continues whether I’m mounted or not.
Over the past month, I’ve tried anti-fungal shampoos, Listerine soaks, and livestock dust. I’ve double-dosed with Ivermectin and removed the only new item in her diet (Strategy). I’ve washed and triple-rinsed her tack and brushes. She already gets flax as part of her Show N Go supplement. She lives in the open air, has access to shelter, and is in a largely dry and sunny climate. Her skin doesn’t seem dry. I considered the season (estrous issues?) but she is obviously itchy, not just ouchy or grouchy.
I’ve scoured the internet for ideas and come up empty. Nothing seems to match her symptoms. I’m at the point of calling her vet again to see if he thinks a fungal culture or somesuch might be in order. On the one hand, I hate to fork over a few hundred bucks for a farm visit and lab tests, but on the other hand, I hate watching more time and endurance rides go by without being able to participate!
In the meantime, I am trying to let gratitude outweigh frustration. At least I have another horse to ride, and more beyond that to train, while we get this resolved.
But still, please please please, can’t we find a solution quickly?
Ha ha! Now you have the Calamine song in your head.
(Please tell me I’m not the only one who remembers that from summer camp.)
Remember when I mentioned that weekend of rides during which Consolation’s behavior was quite unreasonable, ranging from balking to bucking, when she couldn’t go more than a few steps without slinging her head or changing gaits? I noted her extreme itchiness on her back under the saddle area.
This was more than just an “I’m shedding” itch. More even than an “I’m shedding and I’m a mare and it’s spring” itch. This was a “GET OFF ME BEFORE I GO INSANE” itch.
Yes, your majesty. Right away, your majesty.
The itchiness was only one of several issues, some of which required waiting to ride again until her new saddle arrives. (Update: I got an email from Stonewall this morning — it’s on its way! Hooray!) But a few weeks off didn’t cure the itch. I thought it did, at first, because bareback ride #1 went well…and then came bareback ride #2. It was a warmer, sweatier day, and we’d gone less than a mile before her agitation resumed. She was clearly uncomfortable, and I ended up leading her home.
Time to investigate more thoroughly. I found no sign of pain, but boy, did she ITCH! Her withers were the worst, but much of her back was likewise affected. She was mostly shed out, but I took a shedding blade to her for investigatory purposes. Sure enough, it raked up evidence of dirty, oily skin flakes. No apparent mites. No sores or scabs or bumps. No clumps of lost hair. Just itching and oily, shedding skin.
I scoured my vet books and the web for a probably cause. Nothing matched her symptoms exactly. The closest possibilities seemed unlikely due to our dry environmental conditions or other factors. So, I decided to start with the old, cowboy remedy: Listerine. (Don’t worry, Ironman. I bought you a new bottle.)
After another, thorough brushing, I soaked the affected area with a 30:70 solution of mineral oil and generic “Listerine” (the original, amber-colored variety), gently rubbed it in, and left it on. The next afternoon was warm enough for a partial bath — thank goodness, because the mineral oil had left Consolation just as messy as you’d expect it to — and I gave her a good scrubbing with Selson Blue and one of those rubber pet-shedding mitts.
While she was wet, I noticed a smattering of bumps across her withers that I’m almost positive weren’t there before. They were much like mosquito bites — small, raised, and itchy, but not scabby or pus-filled. They didn’t compress like hives. I certainly hadn’t seen or felt them before. Were they a reaction to the Listerine? The shampoo? Hmm…
A breeze came up, so I trotted Consolation in the round corral while she dried, then re-applied the Listerine, this time in a 50:50 dilution with water, and left it on.
Come morning, the bumps were gone. The itch seemed somewhat diminished. It’s was a bit hard to tell since most horses like their withers scratched, especially this time of year, but she seemed more comfortable. The oily-flaky-skin issue seemed to have vanished.
I repeated the Listerine-and-water treatment. The bumps did not resurface. By evening, she seemed less itchy still. Today, I treated her again, and she seems back to normal.
I love it when the cowboy stuff works.
Saddle fitting has to be one of the most frustrating issues for any thoughtful equestrian. From endurance riders whose horses must carry them thousands of miles in a year, to dressage riders whose mounts must be comfortable enough to round over their backs, to casual riders who simply care about the comfort and behavior of their horses, we all face the same questions:
How, and how much, is a horse’s back likely to change over time? Do different body types change in different ways? Could we learn to predict changes within types? How much do bodyweight and level of fitness change a horse’s back over the course of a competative season? Over years? When is it safe to have a saddle fitted, or even custom-built, for an individual horse?
Right now, the answer is often: Nobody knows. Nobody has collected the data in a consistant format and documented their findings over time.
Jackie Fenaroli, owner of Stonewall Saddles, and I have decided to change that. Starting right here, at In the Night Farm, we’re going to collect data. We’ll use the card-fitting system I’ve introduced here before, and we’ll follow most of my Barbs as they grow, age, and compete. I’ll collect data monthly and create a chart to document our findings, and I’ll post periodic updates here at The Barb Wire.
NORTHWESTERNERS: If you attend the same rides I do and would like to volunteer your horse in exchange for his or her measurements, let me know. We’ll put your horse on a scaled-down version of the data collection program, measuring just a couple times annually, ideally at the beginning and end of the season. Measuring only takes about 15 minutes.
CALIFORNIANS: Stonewall Saddles will be at the Horse Expo in Pomona this weekend (Feb 2-4). They’ll be offering an Engineered Saddle Fit presentation each day, and will be giving away free Boomerangle kits to anyone who fills out a quick survey regarding saddle features for trail riders. I have one of these kits and it’s really handy for making quick assessments of whether a particular saddle is likely to fit a given horse.
I rode Consolation on the flats Wednesday. There’s an unbroken stretch of irrigation canal that winds between cow-dotted BLM land and vast wheatfields, where the footing is good and there’s no traffic or downgrades or fences to distract us from pure, exhilirating effort. It was Consolation’s first test on familiar terrain since I returned her to work after her spring weirdness.
I’ve suspected for a couple weeks now that she is back to normal, but it was hard to evaluate given that we’ve been riding in such different environs. To be positive, we needed to ride in one of our old haunts. Conditioning-wise, we also needed the kind of long, brisk trot that we can’t always do out in the hills. Wednesday was the day.
I was a little nervous. What if she wasn’t better? What if the balky, jumpy, witchy mare from our last ride along the canal resurfaced? What if I was wrong, and we wouldn’t be ready for Cheap Thrills after all?
I needn’t have worried. Wednesday’s ride was the flight of spring all over again, complete with ducks, but without the muddy hide or rain. We blasted through 12 miles at 10 mph, and at the end Consolation was still full of air and offering speed. It was just the ride we needed.
So, what was her problem? It’s hard to be sure, because I was too interested in finding a solution to waste time being methodical and scientific. I tweaked several factors at once, at least some of which must have been the right ones. My best guesses:
- She was footsore. Most of a month off, with careful barefoot trimming and vigilance against thrush in the wet weather, followed by rides on trails instead of gravel, could have addressed this. Her hooves have certainly done some remodeling of late.
- She was marish and/or magnesium deficient. The more I think about it, the more I believe this was an issue. It helps explain why Consolation exhibited some similar behaviors last spring. After a month of magnesium supplementation, she is no longer cold-backed or girthy, and her attitude has improved dramatically. I also tried a sample of Mare Magic that I had sitting around, and she seemed to benefit. I’m now awaiting a shipment of bulk raspberry leaves from HerbalCom. (At $20 for a year’s supply, how can I go wrong?)
- She was bored. Consolation isn’t a huge fan of trailer rides, but she’s learning to relax, and she surely does seem more intersted in workouts when we use them to explore new trails.
Now, if only I can remember all this and apply it next spring, perhaps we’ll be all set.
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…
The hoof clinic is cancelled, courtesy of EHV-1. Too many people dropped out. (On the subject of EHV-1, if you haven’t read Fandango head vet Dr. Washington’s thoughts, you should. Merri quoted him here (scroll down to the bold section).
As for my plans, I reckon I’ll haul Consolation along to Oreana tomorrow evening instead of today. Perhaps Christoph will be so kind as to take a quick peek at Consolation’s hooves sometime Thursday. I’d really value his opinion as I make my final decision about riding on Friday.
The search continues…
I spoke with Consolation’s vet yesterday, initially to ask whether he thought we might learn anything useful from a blood panel. I described her symptoms, and we ended up focusing more on a different theory from my list: Pain. Specifically, hoof pain.
He remembered that, at about this time last year (when she had similar symptoms), Consolation seemed footsore when trotted out at a ride. I’ve been more careful this year, booting her for nearly every ride, but of course that isn’t foolproof. (For starters, sole bruising is only one kind of hoof pain.) Sore feet would certainly be consistent with Consolation’s tendency to stock up lately, as well as her slowness, balkiness, stiff back, and general lack of enthusiasm. Also, she’s been a little clumsy lately, tripping more than usual — a symptom I failed to mention before but another potential indicator of hoof pain.
Of course, hoof pain isn’t the only possible explanation. It seems to me that back pain could be responsible for all of the above symptoms, as well. Furthermore, let’s not forget to think in cycles and systems: Consolation could be dealing with multiple issues, each of which exacerbates the others.
I think I’ll take my vet’s advice, though, and have him take a look at Consolation’s feet. I love working with someone who knows endurance and knows my horse!
On another front, the magnesium supplement arrived yesterday. I hear it’s not uncommon to get results in a week or so. We’ll see.