The Road to Graceland

As if having one horse hadn't been complicated enough, I began searching online ad sites for another one. The heartbreak of not being able to really ride Francesca and not knowing what the future in general held for her was enough to make me just look at what else was out there. "Just looking" brought me to an ad for a horse that matched my search criteria. As with Francesca, I got that knowing feeling in my gut about this horse named Grey Girl.

She was located near the Canadian border (apparently location hadn't been part of my search criteria) but I emailed the owner about her anyway. Weeks passed without a reply, and I all but forgot about it. Then one day in late summer, the owner sent an email saying that a prior sale had fallen through, and she wanted to know if I was still interested. I was. So I paid a long overdue visit to my aunt and uncle's home in Bemidji, and the three of us made a foray to Williams, MN.

Grey Girl was even more beautiful in person than she had been in the pictures. It really was love at first sight. She had a sweet and gentle aura, and there nothing to not like about her, except for her tendency to be girthy. I figured that was something that could be fixed, so it didn't concern me. I rode her around the property and felt her natural athleticism right away. I took pictures of her teeth, her feet, and all sides, to show Lisa later for her opinion. But I think in my mind, I'd already written the check.

In September John and I headed up north with my friend's trailer. Within six hours we were in Williams. Thirty minutes later, the newly-dubbed Gracie - short for Graceland - was in the trailer and ready to go. Six and half hours after that, we unloaded her at her new home. Somehow along the way she had banged up her forehead in the trailer, but it was an otherwise uneventful trip. I was a lot calmer than I probably should have been about the whole thing. My biggest worry at that moment was telling my parents that I now had TWO horses.

I gave myself a timeline of three months to figure out what to do about Francesca. If she continued to improve and became rideable, I would lease her out. If she deteriorated, I would have to consider the unthinkable. I should have known that nothing is ever that cut and dry with horses.

Travel companions

That spring, Francesca made some small strides. Her weight stabilized (granted, she was getting high-protein/low-starch grain and beet pulp twice a day) and her mental state seemed to level out as well. I could actually get her to stand still for more than 5 seconds at a time and I felt as though she was graining trust in me. Perhaps all of the care-taking and time spent on the ground with her was paying off.

While grooming her in the paddock one day, I noticed that Francesca's topline was very sore near her sacrum. She shrank away from my touch, and I decided to have the chiropractor out. Before Dr. Blake even adjusted anything, he checked some of her acupressure points, which she really reacted to. He said that her reaction was typical in horses he had treated for EPM. Given her history, we decided to go ahead and start treatment on Francesca.

The first week involved IM injections in her rump (she was braver than I was about it) and the next few weeks required dosing her twice daily with a combination of dissolved sulfa tablets and a paste that is used to treat malaria in humans. The sulfa dose was huge and she understably disliked the procedure. The tiny amount of paste was equally as difficult to administer because she became skilled at flicking it out of her mouth, and she wasn't fooled by a paste-covered horse treat. I eventually ended up mixing the sulfa and the paste in with her feed and top-dressing it with molasses-sweetened water, watching like a hawk to make sure she ate every grain. It was a routine I was thankful to see end.

Around this time, I had Francesca's teeth done by a denstist who is one of the few in the country trained to use the type of hand tools he uses. It was during this appointment that I met Lisa Lancaster, a farrier and newly-graduated vet student. She was spending the summer observing different vets in the area before starting her own practice back in Denver. I learned that Lisa's expertise was in hoof pathology, and so we scrutinized Francesca's feet. I also asked about her thoughts on vaccinations and alternative medicine, and I was intrigued to find that she leaned to the more "unconventional" side of things. Right away, I could tell that Lisa was a good person to know.

The more I talked with Lisa, the more I learned from her. She took over the care of Francesca's feet and showed me how to rasp flares. Her theories behind not only the questionable efficacy of vaccines but the potential danger of using them really pushed me to do more research on the subject. With Francesca's feared neurological issues, Lisa said that there was a possibility that the West Nile Virus vaccine could actually compound the situation. But she also stressed that whether to vaccinate or not was something she left up to the horse owner. My gut told me to not further compromise an already compromised system.

To help support Francesca's immune system, Lisa suggested a product called Transfer Factor. It was expensive, but she had had success managing her horse's Cushing's Disease with it, so I figured it was worth a try. I put Francesca on this for a few months and I do think she benefitted from it. It's hard to know whether it was that or the EPM treatment or just nature taking its course, but over time her EPM symptoms completely abated, with the exception of the undiagnosed unsoundness. That was still a mystery to be solved.

Peaks and valleys

In March of 2006, when winter was on its last gasp, it was time once again for Francesca and me to move on. The owners of the current barn had decided to sell, and my friend and I found ourselves driving around in search of another barn that would suit our needs. Anyone who has gone through the experience of moving a horse know hows stressful it can be for both horse and owner. Francesca and I were becoming reluctant experts at it.

Through a friend of my boyfriend, I had gotten the number of a woman with a barn not far from my house that sounded like it might work. My friend and I wasted no time in seeing it. When we got there, a bonfire was smoldering in the yard, seeming friendly and warm on that soggy, chilly day. Chickens ran around freely, and dogs and cats came up to greet us. It was more of a farm than a stable, and while it wasn't fancy, it had a beautiful setting among hills, pastures and woods. Most importantly, they had room for four horses. We dug the horse trailer out from its cocoon of snow and moved the next day.

March in Minnesota guarantees three things: snow, rain and mud. The paddock where our horses were kept was evidence of this. Muck boots were essential, and grooming Francesca was pointless. There was no place for the horses to get out of the mess, and between the confinement, the conditions, and the inevitable boredom, they became increasingly irritable with each other. I ached for warm winds to dry up the paddock, then later cursed the peaks and valleys that formed because of it.

The mud played a part in another setback. Francesca slipped on a cement foundation in the paddock and ended up with nasty cuts on her left hind leg, leaving her swollen and bleeding. So began the unpleasant process of hosing off her wounds every day and wrapping her leg. (Needless to say, I was having flashbacks.) The cold water was even less fun for Francesca than for me. I could practically see her clenching her teeth as the icy water ran down her leg, but she stood still through it. Certainly she didn't deserve this. Bad luck just seemed to keep finding us. And it wouldn't be the last time.


Through conversations with fellow boarders regading Francesca's mysterious symptoms, I learned of diseases called EPSM (Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy) and EPM (Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis). EPSM is a genetic predisposition to fail to digest sugars and starches from grains properly in the horse. EPM is an infection of the central nervous system of horses. The protozoa is transmitted through droppings of its host, the opossum. The horse becomes a carrier through ingesting the droppings while grazing. Francesca displayed certain symptoms of each disease.

We first tried to rule out EPSM by changing her corn/oat mixture over to Re-leve, a low-starch, high-fat pelleted feed. After a week, there was no change in her behavior or weight. Granted, a week isn't a very long trial period but the barn I was at wasn't set up to accommodate special feedings for pasture horses so I was limited in what I could do. My gut told me that we weren't on the right track.

I went ahead and had Francesca's blood tested to see if she was a carrier of EPM. It came back positive, which meant that the next step was to bring her to the vet for a CSF test - an invasive, stressful and expensive procedure. The spinal tap would, in theory, indicate whether or not S. neurona antibodies were present in her spinal fluid. But it's not a totally reliable test, since false positives have been known to occur due to a transient immune response after exposure to the protozoa. Francesca's test came back negative. I was both relieved and frustrated. I knew that the likelihood of recovery from the EPM wasn't great, but I was also hoping for a diagnosis at last. Now I wasn't sure which direction to turn.

I was so sure that Francesca had EPM that I decided to keep her on the low-starch, high-fat diet just in case the test had been wrong. But this meant moving to a barn that could accommodate her special needs. So, for the third time in five months, I moved Francesca to a new barn. The only constants in her life were me, and now Hudson, the gelding in her pasture with whom she had bonded. His owner, who had become a friend of mine while at the barn, moved with me for her own reasons. I think Hudson helped make the transition easier on Francesca, and I was grateful to him for that.

The new barn was a small, privately-owned facility with a beautiful and quiet setting that better suited Francesca's (and my) needs at that point in our journey. There, she was on a customized feed plan and had a smaller herd to contend with for hay and shelter. I phased out the equine behavioral lessons. Francesca's life became about eating and de-stressing. Her feet were starting to improve with the barefoot trims, which was one positive wave in a sea of negatives.

Occasionally, I would bring Francesca in to the indoor arena to let her roll, or lead her up and down the driveway for exercise and to try to connect with her in some way. Over the next few weeks, she made noticeable strides in both her behavior and body condition at the new barn. Although I still didn't have a diagnosis, I was taking one day at a time and celebrating the small victories.

A slippery slope

Within weeks after Francesca's unfortunate hoof trim, I moved her to a new barn. I thought it would be a better fit for both of us, but in the end it was quite the opposite. It was a competetive eventing barn and I had visions of one day entering Francesca in a trial. Little did I know that by the time I left for yet another barn three months later, I would not even be able to ride her.

Francesca never quite settled in at the new barn. On the second day there, I decided to ride out to the cross-country field. After seeing the jumps, Francesca decided there was reason to flee and promptly spun around, dumped me off, and ran back to the barn. That would set a pattern of nervous behavior that was either part of her personality which was just being revealed, or that was a result of her ever-changing environment.

As time went on, Francesca became more and more anxious and it seemed that the only place she felt safe was in the pasture. She started to lose weight and muscle. She became resistant to me picking up her feet. She did not enjoy being groomed. Even leading her at a walk became a battle, as she would either drag me around or try to push me over in the process. And her spooky behavior became too acute for me to risk riding her. There was nothing I could do to connect with her, or comfort her. When I eventually had the vet out, he merely offered that her footsoreness was causing her stress and suggested putting shoes on her. Once again, my gut told me to resist this as a solution.

Even though I knew that Francesca's symptoms were not just blatant "naughtiness", I started working with an equine behavioral therapist simply because she had become so difficult, not to mention unsafe, to handle. I even hired an animal communicator in California to find some answers. Although she identified past physical trauma and problems with Francesca's sacral area (which would become recurring themes), it wasn't consclusive information. I had samples of her grain, hair and saliva tested for toxicity levels. The results showed high levels of toxins of a petrochemical nature. As long as I'd had Francesca, she hadn't been exposed to any kind of chemicals beyond fly spray that I was aware of. Anything that happened before she came into my life, though, was an unknown.

For all of my efforts, it seemed like I'd only succeeded in uncovering more problems for which there were no obvious solutions. I dreaded going out to to the barn because it was difficult to be around Francesca, yet I felt compelled to check on her and try to care for her in some way. My so-called dream come true had become a veritable nightmare.

But the practical part of life didn't pause for the emotional part. Francesca would soon be due for another trim her so I again considered the Strasser method. But the day before the appointment with Shelly, a fellow boarder who had been at my previous barn told me stories about horses there being made lame because of this trim. (I would find out much later that this was the work of one unqualified trimmer whose certification was eventually revoked.) So once again, I backed off. I found a Yahoo group for barefoot enthusiasts and through that, located a practitioner who trimmed according to Pete Ramey's and Jaime Jackon's principles. After doing some research, I felt more comfortable with this approach and I chose that path for Francesca. I was relieved at having found an alternative to Strasser, but I was still disheartened by Francesca's declining behavior and body condition.

The picture in this post is of Francesca when her symptoms were at their worst, October 2005. What the picture doesn't show is the emotional issues from which she suffered. So many people suggested that her behavioral issues were just that - behavioral. But in my heart and gut, I knew that Francesca was acting out the only way she knew how to in response to the disruption going on in her entire body. I just didn't know how to fix it.


Shortly after Francesca's overreach injury had healed enough for us to start dressage lessons together, she had another set-back. This one would be the start of downward spiral that in some ways I think she's still recovering from.

When I bought Francesca, she had shoes on her front feet. She soon threw one, and I had the farrier pull the other one while he was at the barn for another appointment. My knowledge of hooves at that point was so limited that it never occured to me she may experience some soreness transitioning from shoes to barefoot. Fortunately, Francesca appeared to be "sound" without shoes.

When I noticed that her hooves had started to chip and crack, my trainer suggested it was time for a trim. Shelly, the trimmer at the barn who had introduced me to the herbal product before, also introduced me to the principles of Dr. Hiltrud Strasser's barefoot trim methodology. I promptly learned what a coffin bone was, and words like laminae, callus and bars also became part of my vocabulary. However, with this new knowledge about the hoof came criticism from my trainer regarding the Strasser practice. She instilled enough fear in me that I decided to use a conventional farrier for Francesca's trim. While I would eventually learn that "conventional" is just as much of a label as "alternative" is in the realm of hoofcare, my first experience with the former happened to be a bad one.

Despite my intention to leave Francesca barefoot, the farrier had seemingly trimmed her hooves as he would have if preparing them for shoes. The next day, Francesca was so sore it was devastating to watch her try to walk. I consulted Shelly and she told me why my horse was lame. In short, the farrier had nipped off too much toe and removed sole, which made Francesca painful on just about any terrain. Shelly told me that despite the soreness, getting her moving on a flat, hard surface was critical to increasing blood flow and promoting hoof growth. So I began to walk my sore horse on the lawn beside the long, gravel driveway.

I recall the farrier's explanation later that he trimmed every horse the same way - dismissing that it was his type of trim that rendered Francesca lame. Even then, it seemed wrong to trim a hoof for shoes if you're not going to actually put the shoes on. My trainer suggested that I should put shoes back on her and get back to my dressage lessons. This didn't seem right either, having just learned about the virtues of a barefoot horse. I stuck to my gut, and to the hope that there was truth to Shelly's theory.

Starting down the natural path

Looking back, maybe it was an omen. Two days after bringing Francesca to her new home, she came in from the pasture with a nasty overreach injury to her left front pastern. It was bad enough knowing that she hadn't made any friends on her first day, but an injury just wasn't something I was prepared for as a new mom.

The pasture that May was very muddy in certain spots and maybe Francesca, in an effort to make a quick getaway from an unwelcoming herd member, had slipped and caught a hoof. It wouldn't be the last time she would show up with a mysterious scratch or dent. But this being the first time, and me being a naive and protective mom, I was mortified.

The vet came out and determined it didn't need stitches (more likely it was too late by then) and suggested I apply some Fura-Zone ointment and a bandage for the next few days. So I learned how to wrap a leg. And instead of riding my new horse, I changed her bandage and watched her convalesce in the pasture with her new buddy, Skylar. No stall rest for this girl - Francesca told me early on that she was not happy in a stall. So she became a 24/7 pasture horse that first week and the change in her attitude was like night and day.

It seemed to take forever for Francesca's wound to heal. I discovered that something called "proud flesh" was a common side effect to the healing process. So I sprinkled some sort of powder in with the ointment in hopes of fending off this potential hazard. Later, I ditched them both for an herbal tincture that Shelly had recommended. After battling the ankle-deep mud with new bandages every day, I finally gave up and just turned Francesca out without the wrap. Which is probably what I should have done earlier on.

Eventually, Francesca's wound did heal over, and today the only evidence is a small spot where the hairs grow in a different pattern. A little reminder of how much I've learned about holistic alternatives since those first few days.

The picture in this post is of Francesca (foreground) and Skylar, May 2005. Skylar had picked Francesca to be on his team that second day in the pasture, and they were inseparable from then on. I've never again seen a bond quite like the one they had. They were clearly in love, practically sharing the same blades of grass as they grazed side by side on those early summer days.