Tomax, as I have written in previous blogs, was a breeding purebred Egyptian Arabian stallion until he was 19 years old. From the beginning, when we got him as a four year old, he had a high energy output and demand. At that time, in rural central Florida; he would graze several hours a day and eat hay with a small ration of a pellets once a day. In 2001, I moved him to South Florida where he was kept in a high-density suburban equestrian area. His diet consisted of roughly 60% forage (hay); he would seemingly melt weight at the drop of a hoof, so I fed him about 3 lbs of a complete feed meant for high-energy requirement horses along with fat supplements twice a day. Over the years, he would eat any one food for a period, then abruptly stop. He was never very food motivated, and if I tried to sneak in too many supplements he would refuse the food all together. To this day, there is an inverse relationship- the more expensive the supplement, the more quickly he refuses it (of course after I have opened the package and can’t return it). As my demands on his training increased, so did his pickiness. I would get him looking sleek and strong, but then he would nearly stop eating and lose weight at an alarming weight. When he would drop all this weight, we would check teeth, and for diseases like cancer, parasites, etc—nothing. However, he would become debilitated and then struggled with getting cellulitis multiple times over simple things like ant bites. His whole system was obviously struggling. Finally, at age 19, I was in so much angst over this cycle that I gelded him based on a veterinary recommendation just to help him maintain basic health and avoid this seasonal anorexia.
This was around the time we moved to Montana, and Tomax got to experience lush pastures and rich hay like nothing ever seen in the South. His weight improved, but he would still have bouts of anorexia. I finally met my veterinary mentor, Dr. John Smart, who convinced me to try a hind gut program to heal hind-gut dysbios. He explained to me that picky, hard keeper horses can often have lurking microbial imbalances in their hind guts that can last years, and have profound effect on their behavior. A simple fecal occult blood test did reveal some blood in feces- we then put him through a nutritional program to heal his GI tract- both foregut and hindgut. That was several years ago, and miraculously, Tomax grew the round barrel and shape typical to most Arabians. This experience led to my current passion regarding true understanding of the hind gut of horses. Problem solved? No. As Tomax’s age has advanced, our strategy has had to frequently adapt to keep weight on him while maintaining gut health.
For the last couple years, Tomax’s diet has been a nutrition textbook dream: Almost 100% forage, with a couple cups of soaked small hay pellets to carry supplements, and a handful of senior feed mixed in to convince him to eat his hay pellet mash. He generally maintained his weight beautifully and was active and bossy. In this time he has developed age related Cushings and eventually we had to place him on pergolide when his back and lower leg ligament structures started breaking down . Once we put him on a small dose of pergolide, he perked up even more and his inner stallion came back out, much to the chagrin of my very placid mare Tess.
Tomax’s most recent bout of anorexia came with an infected tooth. He has had consistent, twice annual teeth checks (floats as needed) his entire life. Despite what every vet has ever said to me regarding that horses will generally eat regardless of tooth pain, Tomax will not. I apparently have a horse who is a delicate hothouse flower when it comes to any tooth sensitivity. His teeth have been steadily wearing down, to the point where we check them for points but try to conserve the teeth and not float. This past December we knew a tooth issue was coming on, unfortunately it came on the same day the temperatures plummeted to -15 to -30 BEFORE the wind chill for a solid 8 days. It was too cold to sedate, and we tried to manage with antibiotics, pain meds, and tempting foods. Tomax pulled his usual joke- he would eat whatever I would offer once, twice, then stop. Even on Bute to knock down the pain, he completely refused all grass hay, soaked hay pellets, fancy bran mashes with molasses, shaved organic Pink Lady apples and organic, spicy smelling carrots; soaked alfalfa pellets, a complete feed made specifically for debilitated animals “guaranteed not to be turned down”, and even chopped orchard grass forage. By the end of the week my feed room looked like an advertisement for a feed store- I virtually had one of everything.
I would sit and plead with him to eat, hold runny bran mash in my hand under his nose—he would sniff and walk away. Then it warmed up enough to sedate him and look in the mouth for the evil tooth. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a smoking gun. Much to my horror, in the 6 months since we had last looked at his molars, they pretty much had all gone away, with mostly smooth rings of dentin almost flush with the gums. My poor horse literally has no back teeth.
As I watched my horse not eat and look depressed, I came to the conclusion that it might be time- I couldn’t let him suffer. My husband, vet and I all discussed this and gave him a few more days. I talked to another mentor with a lot of old- horse end of life experience and she suggested I try a couple more things. My vet also said as a last measure to try straight alfalfa—which I had not considered because of a strong diarrhea reaction he had had the previous summer.
I got some straight alfalfa feed, and some extruded senior pellets. I put the hay out and he was somewhat interested but not totally convinced. I gave him an acupressure and moxibustion treatment over some acupoints meant for the hindgut and for pain in his face. He was so sedate that he just stood in the snow, not even tied up, and let me work on him. Amazingly, I treated one point, LI-4, on his right front leg; this is for pain in the forelegs, face and also has the effect of balancing the large intestine. He turned around, looked at me, licked and chewed, and went over to his pile of alfalfa and started eating. He hasn’t stopped since, and that was almost three months ago.
Because of the overnight extreme diet change (from 100% grass hay to pure alfalfa) and dramatic increase in his concentrates (from about ½ pound of senior to four pounds), we were very concerned about Tomax’s gut health. We were trying to balance the need to get calories in my old guy versus sending him into a potentially deadly colic. Again, my vet recommended a product, made by the same company as the stuff we gave Tomax years before to heal the gut. This was a liquid which has microbes proven to survive the harsh low pH of the stomach. It also had stem cell derivatives. I gave Tomax 2 oz of this liquid for a week and then switched him to the 1 oz maintenance. He never skipped a beat- no colic, no diarrhea, good appetite.
Today I am happy to report Tomax is back literally kicking up his heels and being naughty as ever. He has taught me another lesson- that with the older horse, sometimes you really have to think outside the box. Horses are living longer these days, and as their teeth and their nutritional needs change, their diets may also have to change. I am certain that without my vet’s wise guidance and willingness to try a combination of holistic nutritional remedies with conventional medicine, Tomax likely wouldn’t be with us today.
Thank you to all my teachers- Tomax, Tess, and Dr. John Smart!