Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Long Weekend (or The Worries of Having a Sick Horse)

When I wrote my last post about Harley's Five Year Anniversary, I was sick with worry.  Harley was not right, but I did not know what was wrong with him.  My "long weekend" began on Thursday.

On Thursday, I made it to the barn with enough daylight to ride for the first time since the weekend.  Since it had rained for most of the week, I had groomed Harley on Tuesday, but we had not been able to ride.  During our grooming session, he was totally normal, except for five or six yawns, which is not really characteristic for him.  On Thursday, I marched out to the paddock to find him waiting at the gate.  The barn was full of activity and his paddock buddy was giving a lesson, so Harley was eager to see his human.  I immediately noticed that his legs looked a little weird, but since he was standing in mud I decided to walk him to the barn before his usual health inspection.  He walked so normally to the barn, and there was so much going on in the riding rings, that I completely forgot what I had noticed at the gate, until I reached down to pick up his front leg.

"OMG!  Harley, what the heck is wrong with your leg???"

Harley's left front leg was fluid filled up to the knee.  A quick glance around revealed that all four of his legs were stocked up like I had never seen before.  He had stove pipes for legs.  I looked into his face and nothing in his expression told me that he was upset or in discomfort.  I handled each leg, feeling for warmth, but there was none.  I did the same with his feet.  I gently squeezed the swelling and found that it was soft, when a small indentation remained where my fingers pressed into his lower leg.  He did not flinch or show any pain.  My next instinct was to test his soundness, so I grabbed my lunge line and whip and marched him out to the big ring.  Once on the line, I felt much better, because Harley looked fine.  He was sound as a whistle, walk, trot, and canter.  In fact, he even stretched his neck and back in trot after a nice canter.  He was more than willing to move out with long, pretty strides.  After a trip in both directions, I inspected his legs and found that the filling was going away.  He had been out 24/7, but I suspected that he had planted himself in the shed and stayed put during the rainy evening.  I tacked him up and rode for a little while.  He moved quite nicely under saddle after the lungeing, and I found myself making a mental note to try lungeing before riding when I have more than two minutes of daylight to rub together.  After the exercise his legs were about 80 percent normal.  He looked a little tired, but we have not been working that much this month, so I chalked it up to that.  He ate his dinner and went out with his blanket.

On Friday, I left work as quickly as I could and headed out to check on Harley.  Any semblance of reassurance was lost when I saw his legs.  They were worse than the day before!  There was still no heat, but the filling was severe in all four legs and clear up through his hocks in the hind legs.  My heart was in my throat.  Something is really wrong.  I walked him back to the barn and noted that he was walking normally with no signs of unsoundness or soreness.  Despite the impressive edema in his legs, he was not even noticeably stiff.  Meanwhile, I felt like I was going to be sick.  Fat legs are not something that any horse owner wants to find waiting at the gate.

I called the vet and left messages on two of her answering machines.  I resisted calling her emergency number, because I did not feel that he was really in an emergency situation.  I do not want to block up the lines for a horse that is colicking or seriously injured.  As luck would have it, the barn owners were away, so I could not go to them for help, but they left a very competent, wonderful horse person in charge and she helped me with Harley.  We took his temperature and respiration and she found his heartbeat with the stethoscope.  All of his vitals were normal.  His eyes were clear and his gums and tongue were pink.  He had some condensation in his nostrils, but no gunk or mucus.  We listened to his gut, which was the typical orchestra of bubbles and gurgles.  That is a beautiful sound, isn't?

I asked him to walk and trot on the lunge for a couple minutes and although he did seem a bit lethargic, it was not dramatic and he was, again, totally sound.  After this exercise, his legs were about 50% better, but this did not reassure me much.  It was our five-year anniversary, and I was worried instead of celebrating.

"What is wrong with you, Harley?"  His liquidly, brown eyes told me nothing.  At least they did not convey pain or distress.  He ate most of his dinner and went back out with his blanket.

Then I went home, waited for the vet to call, and searched the internet for ailments which cause fat legs.  This was a bad idea.

Most of the hits come back with scary things like "heart failure" and "kidney failure".  I basically made myself sick with worry.  I checked my cell phone for messages.  I watched a movie to try and pass the time and then I sat and soaked in my own despair.  What if my horse drops dead tonight?  Is this what parents feel like when there is something wrong with their child?  I was utterly miserable.

Saturday morning did not come fast enough.  I drove to the barn and reinspected Harley's fluid-filled legs.  I took his temperature, which was a degree and a half lower than the night before, and I called the vet's numbers again.  I left a message explaining that I was going to call her emergency number if I did not hear from her in the morning.  She called about an hour later.

We discussed his symptoms and she did her best to reassure me that he was not going to drop from organ failure.  I tried not to sound like a horse owner hypochondriac, but I think that I lost that battle when I mentioned kidney failure.  Sigh.  My vet was very helpful and assured me that we could set up an appointment for Monday.  In the meantime, I was to check on his manure, reduce his feed as a precaution, remove his supplements to eliminate variables, and give him bute and light exercise to bring down the filling.  Within an hour and half of force-feeding him applesauce and bute (which he actually seemed to like) and light exercise, his legs looked 95% back to normal.  I started to breath easier, but I did not sigh with relief until I saw his legs today.  He had joints again!  I took his temperature and it was almost a degree less than the morning before and two degrees less than the first time that I took it.  Maybe Harley had a low grade fever, afterall?

By this evening, he was heartily eating his dinner and eagerly looking to go out for his evening hay.  I was taken by how much pep he had.  Oh my.  Maybe he was down in the dumps before, just not like other sick horses I have seen.  My friend who was caring for the horses mentioned that he was walking out to the paddock much more quickly this morning than he had in several days.  Usually he walks much faster than his paddock buddy, but lately he had been dragging behind.  That is definitely not Harley.

So, although my horse is feeling much better and no longer has elephant legs, we are seeing the vet tomorrow morning.  After reading and searching and trying to ignore articles and links about organ failure, I think that I may have come across a plausible affliction: a virus.  Harley's dentist was here at the beginning of the month.  Did Harley catch a virus from another horse outside our barn?  Hopefully, he will continue to be on the mend and maybe my vet will be able to put my worries to sleep, because this has been a very long weekend!

The nights are finally cold enough for his blanket.

And his body can use the extra help while he is getting well.  Stay cozy Harley!


  1. Keep us posted! Hope it's just something minor like a virus. I'm glad he doesn't seem to be feeling too badly...

  2. You might try carefully checking his legs for scratches... sounds strange, but even low-grade cases of scratches (aka greasy heal, rain scald, etc.) can cause edema and sometimes cellulitis in horses. Hope he is better soon!

  3. I always read my blogs in order of when they were written, so I don't miss anything. Just a second ago I read about Harley's anniversary and how wonderful it was. And now this happens. I couldn't get to the end fast enough. I am breathing cautious sighs of relief right now. I can't imagine how worried you must have and probably still are just bit until you know why this happened. Oh Harley, you scared me! I will be thinking good positive thoughts for Harley and you.

  4. I'm glad he seems to be doing better. Let us know what the vet finds/thinks when she comes out. Sounds like you handled everything well despite being worried sick.

  5. My gosh that all sounds very poor thing! There is nothing worse than seeing signs of something and not knowing what is going on. Glad he is seemingly better, but good idea to have the vet anyway

  6. I hate that "AHHH!!" in your head when you see something definitely wrong with your horse. And I am just like you - straight to Google while I wait for the vet. Which normally just ends in torture.

    Hope this mystery illness goes as quickly as it came!!

  7. I checked his legs for signs of scratches and will ask the vet about it, too.

    Yes, this weekend has not been fun. He is feeling better, but I want the vet to see him for my peace of mind. Listen to his heart, lungs, etc. It could be a lot worse, which I am very aware of, but as has been discussed by all, "not knowing" is stressful.

    Thank you for the well wishes!

  8. That does sound scary. So happy that he is back to normal. And yes that is exactly the way a new mother acts the first time their child gets a low grade fever. But usually by the time #2&3 come along the child has to have a fever of 104 or have a broken limb to even warrent a call to the dr. Lol sad but true.

  9. Val - not that this will help in any way today, but it always makes me feel better when I'm faced with an equine emergency.

    Keep a stethoscope and thermometer at your finger tips. Know Harley's normal vitals. Add to the medicine bag this very famous endurance acronym: EDPP (Eating, Drinking, Peeing, Pooping). For a horse that just "ain't doin' right" (another endurance saying), checking his pulse and respiration, temperature, hydration (pinch test), gut sounds, way of going, and noting whether he's EDPP will tell you whether he's going to die (or NOT). We all leap to imminent death, don't we! :0)

    Every time I am faced with a problem, or someone I know if faced with a problem, I run through this list. If this is all okay, I know we're not at death's doorstop. When Speedy was sick last month, these were the things I did. When his temp came back at nearly 104 degrees, I knew to call the emergency number. The month before, when he was "ain't doin' right" I knew it was nothing as my check list brought up no red flags.

    If nothing else, doing these things will give you something practical to do and can help keep you calm and rational. It sounds as though your barn "sub" had a good handle on checking equine vitals, and your thought to work him on the lunge line was also a good one. Good luck with today's vet visit. I am sending get well wishes to Harley!


  10. Amy- Thanks. That was pretty funny!

    Karen- Thanks for the excellent advice. Harley has never been sick before, and I have never seen horse legs do that. All who looked at him were scratching their heads, which made me worry more.

    104 degrees! That is really, really scary!

    Thanks again, for the support. It does make me feel better.

  11. Hi Val, sounds like a classic case of lymphangitis - where Harley's lymphatic system has got blocked and the lymph (fluid) is not draining away - we see this occurring regularly at this time of year when horses start to come in for the night and are stationery for long periods of time, i.e. no movement. Light exercise typically helps get the circulation moving again and hey presto the swelling goes down! There are two fantastic herbs that help cleanse and detox the equine lymphatic system - calendula and clivers. Mix 500g of each together and feed up to 30g daily until finished - they'll help get everything moving again. They're also highly nutritious and full of goodness and vitamins too!

  12. I hope you keep us posted on how he's doing. What a mysterious and weird thing! I had to laugh about Amy's comment--the old PA who was used to seeing me drag my boys in for weird rashes used to tell me I wouldn't do well in medical school because I always wanted to know why things happened. I can't think of anything more aggravating than NOT KNOWING WHY something is happening! I hope you find out what's going on with him.

  13. Hi EquiNatural (Kate)- Lymphangitis is one of the many things that I read about, but Harley was not stalled. The weather was yucky, but other people at the barn reported that he had been walking around and even running a bit when his buddy was brought in for lessons. I will still ask the vet! (Our appt. has been pushed back due to emergencies. Thankfully, we are not one of them.) I will read about the herbs.

    Fetlock- I want to know why, but I suspect that this may be in vain. If we do not know why, then how can we practice prevention? Will let you know if anything comes to light.

    Pre-vet appt., Harley's legs look perfect today. The vet is going to wonder why I dragged her out here! ;)

  14. ...I was on the edge of my seat the entire read! I definitely want to know how the vet appointment goes. I have seen a leg swell due to a scratch... but why would all four swell? I will check back here tomorrow!

  15. Oh My Goodness! i can just imagine how you were feeling. I hope everything turns out to be okay.
    Keep us posted.


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