D and I found each other by the oddest coincidence; I was looking for Gypsy Vanners to experience, and she was looking for someone to spend time with her horses. She had a barn full of Vanners, gorgeous, well cared for creatures. D thought her horses would be happier with someone to partner with.
If you don’t know Gypsy Vanners, and I had only seen pictures and read about them, there are a few things you should know. First, they are delightful. D’s horses are the sweetest, kindest horses I have ever handled. They seem to be entirely content to do what you ask them to do. A large part of this is consistent, kind, handling and training. But the basic horse is a wonderful, sweet animal. My thoroughbred, given the opportunity, would use you as a straight man for his practical jokes. The Belgian would watch you dance around him trying to get him to move. These horses seemed to want to make you happy.
But the biggest thing you should know about is the hair. They are hairy like the ocean is big and wet. A brush is a futile waste of time. To groom their winter coats you need a comb. The feathers? Pffft. Good luck with that. Tails? Like combing out the ropes they tie up ships with. And (this is charming) they have tufts of hair where you don’t expect them. On either side of their tail they have a long tuft of hair. It is fluffy and soft, and extremely cute. They have shiny beards. Best of all, some of them grow mustaches in the spring. These moplike appendages usually wear away with grazing, but they can get quite long.
The first horse, Zor, was a delightful eight year old gelding, beautifully trained for western pleasure. I am not a western rider, so the fit wasn’t good, much as I loved him. Sue suggested Imari, with some hesitation.
Imari’s story is slightly sad. She is a piece of living history; the fourteenth Gypsy imported from Ireland, she was the queen of her barn. Her job was to be a model of her breed, carry riders, and produce foals. She did it well. Her owner loved her, and when her owner discovered she was dying of cancer, she did the best thing she could think of for Imari, and sent her to D to keep for the rest of her life. D had given Imari the best life a horse could have. She had the freedom of the pasture, shelter when she chose. Companionship of her kind. The best food, clean water and regular vet and farrier care.
But something was wrong. Imari was gradually losing weight. D started her on grain, and fat supplements. Imari continued to lose weight, and she seemed anxious. She began to lie down to sleep, more and more. Finally she was lying down three times to sleep, on bad days. The vet and the farrier couldn’t find the cause. At twenty, maybe Imari was just getting old. D thought maybe she was missing human companionship.
Remembering King, I checked her legs. Imari’s feathers were a bit worn, which isn’t surprising considering the muddy Ohio winter. However, as soon as I felt inside the hair the problem was clear: Imari had CPL.
The biggest thing I want to emphasize is that Imari LOOKED fine. It wasn’t until I felt the skin under the hair that I realized how bad it was. There was no odor. (Because her feet had been well cared for, the really dreadful necrophorum infection was minimal; you could smell the bacteria on my hands when I had drainage on them, but not from a distance.) However, her skin was ridged with scars, and in between the folds was heavily infected. Her legs, if you could have seen them without the hair, would have had a log-like appearance, from the swelling and thickened skin folds. (Often you will see tufts where they have chewed on the hair, or rubbed it. Sometimes the hair will be matted from rubbing).
D was horrified. She felt like she had failed in her promise to care for Imari. But she hadn’t failed. This was not a new situation; Imari had been this way for years. As the infection gradually worsened, Imari had begun to get “old,” but the condition had almost certainly begun before she was ten. It was, in fact, a testament to excellent care that she was still in fairly good condition.
We clipped her legs as best we could. Again, if you are suddenly in this situation, the hair is a major issue. You won’t do this with a scissors, or a light-duty clipper. Imari’s feathers are extremely coarse, which seems to make the skin issues worse. Fortunately, D had a first-class heavy duty clipper on hand. When you clip, you want the hair as short as you can get it, but this isn’t easy. Folded as it is, the skin still holds the hair. You don’t want to damage the remaining skin, so close clipping still leaves up to an inch of hair. That’s OK. You won’t be able to see the skin, but feeling it is enough.
I normally carry a stock bottle of Equinell™ Hoof Oil, because I often need to refill the supply at various barns. D had dishwashing liquid, which would work in a pinch, which this was. I mixed up some shampoo, which I applied dry, because Imari wasn’t keen on having her legs wetted. I used a spray bottle of warm water to work it in, and let her stand for ten minutes. Then, beginning with the first leg, I began to rinse it off. Horses with CPL generally do not tolerate having their legs wetted, but after ten minutes in Equinell™, water no longer caused pain, and Imari let me rinse her.
Advanced CPL causes appalling scars. These become ridges and folds, then become infected where they press together. Imari’s scars were terrible. It took me an hour to rinse the shampoo from between the folds, and afterwords her legs were streaked with blood and pus. But she was calm, and she looked less anxious. When I turned her out she began to chew on her fetlocks, then stopped, like she was puzzled.
Three days later Imari still looked calmer. D excitedly told me Imari had only laid down to sleep once, with the other horses. Her legs were still streaked with bloody yellow drainage, but the skin was cooler, and she didn’t react when I touched them. Over the next month Imari got shampooed, this time with Equinell™ Shampoo, and each time she looked a little better. The hair was beginning to grow back, and she stopped losing weight. At the flexion zones on either side of her pasterns she still had a stubborn patch of infection, but otherwise the skin folds were shrinking and drying.
The first time I was able to slip my fingers in between the folds to feel for drainage I got a rude shock. Imari, startled, stamped her foot on the concrete floor hard enough to remove a chip. Her body had interpreted the movement as maggots, and had instinctively responded by stamping. This happened two more times before I learned to rub her legs briskly before exploring the skin folds. Even then it paid to be careful. She never once tried to hurt me. The reaction was beyond her control.
Her skin folds dried, and her ergots, which had started so large that they broke off on the ground, began to return to normal. She still has skin folds, but they are now soft and moveable, and they do not press together. Some flaked off entirely. She gets shampooed once a month, and when I test her she has itchy spots. She presses these against my hands when I scratch her ankles. But she doesn’t bite her legs, or stamp. Even the stubborn areas are dry now, and her feathers look great. She has regained her weight.
Best of all, Imari is no longer old. Two months into treatment, I walked towards her with a halter and lead. Giggling wickedly, she thundered out of the barn. I tried to run and cut her off at the gate, but she dodged, and ran around me. She galloped down the field, kicking up her heels. In fifty years of handling horses, that has happened many, many times, but I have never enjoyed it before.
Thoughts on Imari’s condition:
You can’t see CPL under all that hair. When you finally stick your fingers in it can be pretty horrifying. Don’t waste time feeling guilty, especially if there are maggots. Deal with them, first. Your vet should treat for the maggots, probably with Permectrin, and he/she should give large doses of antibiotics and tetanus prophylaxis. Be very alert for new hatches of maggots. I suggest retreating every eight to twelve hours. Imari was vaccinated for tetanus and she didn’t have maggots, so she didn’t need any of that.
NOW you can feel guilty, but I encourage you not to. CPL has killed horses regardless of the owner’s care, because it is a diabolical combination of every pathogen and parasite you can pile on, and treating each thing individually is very difficult, expensive, and not healthy for the horse. So keep your head together.
If you have Equinell™ on hand you can shampoo immediately.
If you can’t clip the hair, that’s OK. It’s better to clip, because treatment is easier, but don’t race out and buy a heavy duty clipper. You will use more Equinel, but you will probably save money overall, unless you plan to keep the legs clipped. Use the pointed tip of the bottle to get into the skin folds, underneath the hair. You are not trying to wash the hair clean, you are treating the skin. However, rinse very carefully, especially early in treatment, when the skin folds are wet and pressed tightly together. When you think you have all the soap off, rinse again.
If you don’t clip, consider using a blow dryer on cool to dry the skin completely. Do not wrap until/unless the skin is completely dry. It is preferable not to wrap at all.
Most horses with CPL will fight you if they know you are going to use water on their legs. If this is the case, apply the shampoo dry, and use a spray bottle with warm water to work it in. Then let the horse stand for ten minutes. After that the water won’t hurt. The horse won’t know that, and might resist at first. Be careful. These horses are in pain!
When the skin is dry and the swelling has reduced, you will be able to slip your fingers in between the folds of scar tissue. These will feel like shelves. When you do that the horse may react, especially if you do it suddenly. The horse interprets the movement of your fingers as maggots moving, and is very liable to stamp or kick. He is not trying to hurt you, and he cannot control this reaction. If the skin is healed and the horse isn’t in pain, use a brush to stimulate these areas before you feel for moisture. This will reduce or eliminate the stamping response.
If the horse is itchy he will probably rotate the leg into the brush. This indicates he may be ready for another shampoo, but most horses enjoy being rubbed, so if he was recently shampooed he’s just enjoying the sensation. If you feel moisture in between the folds, and his legs are otherwise dry, it’s time to shampoo.
If in doubt, shampoo. If you can’t clip, or if you think it may be too late, shampoo. If you have a terrible mess on your hands and your vet can’t come until next week, shampoo.