Our sweet, docile girl, Siete, turned very irritable this summer. She was a model student with her trainer until suddenly, she began resisting and pinning her ears. Was it changing the bit to a short shank snaffle and adding a curb chain? Was it asking her to side-pass? Was it too much too fast? My good little horse started rearing. To say that I was alarmed and upset would be an understatement.
So, I immediately insisted that we stop and go back to square one. We went back to the simple snaffle and easy walking and trotting. I didn’t want to push my horse if she wasn’t ready. She was trying to tell me something, and I couldn’t understand her. Then, the hoof abscesses started. I figured it was Nature’s way of telling us to take a break in Siete’s training. I really believed that her bad behavior was her reaction to some kind of pain. As the hoof abscesses healed, Siete developed a weird lameness in her hips. It was difficult to tell which side was sore. Some friends suggested it might be in her stifle. When John, the farrier, trimmed her, he mentioned that it could be Lyme Disease.
Since we’ve moved to Connecticut, three and a half years ago, I’ve dreaded the day when someone in my family, two or four-legged, got bit by a tick. Silk was the first one. Last Spring, she acted like she was going to colic. When I called the vet, she was at a horse show, and her associate came out and tubed Silk. Two days later, my dear mama horse wasn’t feeling better. She spiked a 104 fever and went into shock. I thought she was going to die. There was a moment when she started to lie down, and I forced her to walk with me because I knew that if she went down, it was all over. My regular vet drove here at ninety miles and hour, took one look at Silk and said she had been bitten by an Erlichia tick. She saved her with a massive dose of antibiotics and Banamine.
This time, I delayed calling the vet about Siete. My daughter had pneumonia, and I was consumed with nursing her back to good health. Siete was obviously stiff and hurting, but it was hard to tell where. The next day, she’d be okay again. I gave her a little Bute ,and it helped. Then, in the morning, she was so sore on her front feet that I feared she had laminitis. A friend came by to advise me, and my horse was lame on her back right and front right legs. My vet arrived three hours later, and Siete was painfully lame on her left back and left front legs. It was scary and awful, and the vet wasn’t sure what was going on. She decided to take blood and test for Lyme Disease. It takes a week to get the results, but we didn’t wait to start treating Siete with antibiotics.
I had to give her forty pills of doxycycline twice a day for a month. Crushing the pills was difficult. With a mortar and pestle, the doxy dust blew up into my nose and mouth. I tied a bandanna across my face like I was herding cattle. The medicine was so bitter that even with molasses and applesauce, my horse refused to touch it. I added sugar and salt to cut the bitterness. There was so much powder that I had to mix it and fill four big syringes full. It required my husband and my brother-in-law holding the horse and me jamming the medicine into her. Siete hated it. I hated it. Trying to dose her at 6 am and at 9 pm, before and after they got home from work, only made it worse.
When Silk had Erlichia, I had to give her the same medicine for two weeks. I just poured the molasses/applesauce concoction into a low bucket and left it in her feeder. She ate it morning and night, even though it obviously wasn’t a favorite treat. I realized that after over a decade, Silk knows that if I do something to her, it’s because I am helping her feel better. She trusts me.
I decided that treating the Lyme Disease was an opportunity for Siete to learn to trust me. She’s never been fond of having a syringe full of anything, dewormer, Bute, stuffed in her mouth. I looked at the medicine giving experience from Siete’s point of view. We came in with two strong men and held her down first thing in the morning. Then, at night, after she fell asleep, we turned on the lights, woke her up and forced that nasty stuff down her throat again. No wonder she didn’t like it.
First, I changed the schedule. I recruited my daughter and my neighbor to help me hold her. We dosed her mid-morning and mid-afternoon. It was still difficult, but having two females with me seemed to make my horse less agitated. I realized that ultimately, I had to be able to handle this alone with Siete, and my goal was that she would like to take the medicine. Siete moved without pain, and even though the blood test came back “inconclusive” for Lyme Disease, the vet and I believed that it was the cause of her strange, floating lameness. I was determined to finish the entire month of antibiotics since they were obviously making her feel better.
There’s a compounding pharmacy in Cross River, New York, that makes flavored medicine for pets. I called Stu, the pharmacist, and explained my problem. He mixed up packets of doxy flavored with apple for me. The amount of powder was much more concentrated than when I crushed the pills and added the sugar and salt. I could mix it with a tablespoon of vanilla yogurt and a teaspoon of molasses and fit the whole dose in one syringe. To entice Siete to open her mouth, I sprinkled sugar on the tip of the syringe.
We got into a routine. At first, Siete would spit the sticky stuff all over me and her stall. I discovered that closing the stall door, clipping the lead rope on her and holding her up against the door gave me a brace and gave the horse a sense of security. I wasn’t invading her space and with me holding the lead tight, she couldn’t step back or pull her head up. The dosing continued until the day before Thanksgiving. In the last week, I began to realize that Siete was enjoying the experience. She waited for me to come out with the syringe. I didn’t have to hide it behind my back anymore. Her mother, Silk, was jealous of the attention and the “treat” I gave Siete. Twice a day, Siete and I bonded over a syringe of doxycycline.
Yesterday, when I didn’t have to give her the medicine, Siete obviously missed it. I offered her apples instead. On the one hand, I was relieved that the ordeal was over. It makes me so happy to see my five year old running around the pasture and bucking with pleasure again. The difference between Siete’s reaction to the medicine on the first week and the last week was so amazing. She actually reached her nose out and opened her mouth for the syringe as I gave her the last dose. I am so proud of both of us. Once again, my horses have taught me that patience, kindness and perseverance can get us through even the toughest challenges.
So little is known about Lyme Disease. Even though there's a vaccine for dogs, they haven't invented one for people or horses. Most of my neighbors suffer from the long-term effects of this illness. I have no idea what will happen to Siete now that the disease is in her system. The vet suspected that it manifested so dramatically because my horses came from California and were never exposed to it. They didn't have the immunity that local equines have built up over time. It's all speculation, but it might offer some explanation for the mysteries of Lyme.