Strange Equine Afflictions
[Excerpted from Horses in the Yard (and Other Equestrian Dilemmas)]
Joanne M. Friedman
First-time horse owners are frequently baffled and shocked by the odd
maladies that afflict their new horses. My own panic when I arrived at the
boarding farm to find my first horse apparently dead in her stall has not been
forgotten. Nor has the barn manager’s hysterical laughter as she assessed the
corpse. “She’s sleeping. You’ve ridden the piss out of her, and she’s having a
There are lots of veterinary guides and manuals available, and I highly
recommend that all horse owners buy several. They are fascinating and full of
good information about serious ailments, and they lend a bit of class to dinner-
party conversation. I suggest that you buy a leather-bound one with color
photographs as well as line drawings. It will be far more expensive, which is in
keeping with the “Nothing is Too Good for My Horse” policy stamped across
your new breed-specific credit card.
While you’re waiting for the books to arrive, I want to share some
information on several of the more intriguing ailments your horse will likely
present within fifteen minutes of delivery.
Allergies: Horses get hay fever. They sneeze, cough, and blow mucous on
your new riding shirt. Not all of them will get this, but yours probably will. It
costs a lot to control allergies, so they are favored by many very inexpensive
horses as a way to make their owners feel special.
Bony Head Syndrome: The primary symptom is a black eye and swollen
cheek. You will develop these when your horse’s head occupies the same
space as your face. This happens most often during grooming and tacking-up.
Treatment is the same as when you tried your son’s skateboard in the
driveway. The horse’s head is supposed to be that hard.
Carrotismus: The symptoms are few and distinctive, including orange-colored
saliva and a refusal to work without a bribe. Treatment includes cold-turkey
withdrawal from hand-fed treats. Occasionally horses will cure themselves by
stealing an intact carrot from your pocket and choking to death.
Castration Complex: Suffered mostly by the male partners of female horse
owners. The horse generally recovers quickly from castration (“gelding” as we
in the trade call it). Men generally don’t. He may exhibit skittishness and
phantom pain, particularly if he was a witness to the event. Similar but less
severe symptoms may be evidenced after he has watched you clean your
Dysphonia: When you call your horse in the pasture, and he ignores you until
you walk the four thousand feet to where he’s grazing, then appears startled
that you are in the neighborhood, he is not deaf. In humans, this is called
“selective listening”. In horses it is normal, though often thought to be related
Dystonia: The same horse that just spent twenty minutes galloping wildly
around the pasture while you followed with halter and lead dragging behind you
will, in the arena, be incapable of anything faster than a walk. He may, in fact,
fall asleep at the halt. Acute cases pass quickly upon application of “leg aids”.
Chronic cases are expensive to treat as they require that you buy a new horse.
Equine Ericalosis: The only person who can ride your retired grand-prix horse
without being lawn-darted into the emergency room is the barn owner’s four-
year-old daughter, Erica. Symptoms include bucking, rearing, cursing, crying,
and paying huge amounts of money for more training. The affliction will not be
resolved until you give your horse to Erica and buy a new one.
Fragrant Desuscitation: This is a completely benign condition. Your horse is
not ill. His breath is supposed to smell like that. He will share it with you at
every opportunity, so get used to it. If you wish to treat the horse anyway,
mints will suffice.
Frequent Flatulation: There are actual equine illnesses that will cause endless
and well-timed farting. Sharing your lunch with your horse, accidentally or on
purpose, can also cause gastric distress which will result in creation of mega-
gas. Too much spring grass will result in flatulence accompanied by projectile
diarrhea (which, by the way, will be green—a nice touch as it blends well with
Tailored Sportsman breech colors). It is my considered opinion that “jet
propelled” horses are able to control their expulsiveness, and use that fact to
their advantage in confined spaces. Nothing says “School’s out!” like an owner
passed out on the floor of the barn aisle in mid-tack-up.
Graduated Gynasthesia: Your mare really was easy to handle when she lived
with her last owner. She did not develop an overwhelming need to get laid
until you bought her. Rumor has it that breeding her will help her get over her
“mare-ishness” and return her to her prior, semi-somnolent state. I haven’t
noticed an improvement myself. I suspect the treatment plan was devised by
a committee of men.
Gradyosis: Named after my daughter’s aged gelding, this bizarre affliction is
the result of Nocturnal Mysterymia in a horse suffering from Bony Head
Syndrome. The affected horse will return from a night in the pasture with a
lump the size of Wisconsin on his face and no other symptoms. Panic will
ensue in all human quarters. Diagnosis requires that multiple specimens be
taken for testing, vets and scientists the world over consulted, and lengthy
discussions launched with anyone who has even seen a horse and is willing to
look at the awesome digital pictures you’ve taken with your new camera. In
most cases, this is not a malignant growth. It is, most likely, just as it
appears: a lump. Treatment involves several martinis and the installation of a
night-vision camera in the pasture to prevent (or at least demystify) further
problems. NOTE: An unusual side-effect might be noticed as afflicted horses
frequently develop an irrational fear of veterinary jumpsuits.
Hackophasia: The horse appears lame or launches into bucking and rearing
fits only (and always) when you ride out on the trail. He’s forgotten how much
fun it can be to haul you and your equipment over miles of rocky terrain, in
and out of rivers and streams, and through bug-infested forests in all kinds of
weather. This is not a physical ailment. You can buy back his affection by
leading him onto the trail and feeding him apple chunks every hundred feet.
Or you can buy a new horse.
Girth Itch: This is a real ailment. If the horse is irritated by the girth, check to
see whether or not it is rubbing a sore spot or causing a rash. Treatment is
imperative. The condition is easily transmitted from equine to human in the
form of Hematoma Grande. Even in the cross-ties, an irritable horse can reach
around and nip or kick the crud out of you if he is not happy with the girthing
process. A new, chafeless girth is cheaper than the co-pay at the ER.
Ickynastymalaura: Horses are prone to the proliferation of stuff that is nasty
to look at, bad-smelling, and defies identification. Most of these things are
normal. Occasionally one of them is not. That’s why you paid the big bucks for
the leather-bound vet manual with the color photos. If you’re uncertain
whether the stuff coming from or growing on your horse is deadly, stop reading
this book and go get that one.
Justin Morgan Syndrome: Justin Morgan had a horse. That doesn’t mean that
you must have one too. In its human form, this illness causes irrational
purchase of multiple equines. The equine version causes horses to become
overly curious, too enthusiastic, and too smart for their saddles. Treatment
options are limited. Buying another horse will only cause the illness to
progress more quickly.
Kelso’s Disease: Primarily afflicts older horses who should have more sense
than to race the new two-year-old to the gate. Symptoms include abrasions
and contusions, rapid pulse and respiration, and occasionally a broken fence
Lameness: This is a vast category of ailments, some real and some imagined.
Briefly, if the horse appears to be walking funny, it probably is. If it wasn’t
lame until you brought out the saddle, at which time your horse did a passable
version of the death scene from Camille, he’s probably faking it. It is often
possible to determine the level of lameness by turning the horse out into the
pasture and screaming “Dinner!” We’ve also had good luck staring the horse in
the eye and whispering “Alpo!” Lameness is often not in the limb in which it
appears to be, which can lead to much hilarity. Causes can range from a
bruised foot through soft-tissue damage to broken bones, though all are
avoidable if you get out of the way before you yell “Dinner!” Lameness is best
treated by a trained professional. Forget the book and actually call the vet.
Macronomia: Unique to very small or ugly horses with overly-long, too-elegant
names. Symptoms include depression and refusal to acknowledge verbal
commands (see Dysphonia).
Neoplasma: Unrelated to “neoplastic”, which is a big, important word indicating
a tumorous condition requiring veterinary care, Neoplasma has as its primary
symptom a lethargy brought on by the discovery that the barn next door has a
new plasma-screen TV for the horses’ viewing pleasure while yours has only
windows and a radio. Horses are easily spoiled, so it is not recommended that
you treat this ailment by applying credit cards. Instead, increase stimulating
bonding time by sitting in the barn reading aloud from The Black Stallion.
Otolaryngeal Murkiness: There is a connection between the horse’s ear and its
nasal passages that will cause the production and discharge of copious stringy
mucous upon mention of show season or phone conversations with potential
buyers. Treatment options include fuzzy balls stuffed in the horse’s ears. This
should suffice until he learns to lip-read, at which point the condition becomes
chronic and incurable.
Partradean Miasma: Similar in symptoms to Neoplasma, this condition results
from the discovery by your equine that the expensive horse in the next stall
has much better stuff than your horse’s owner is willing to spring for.
Depression and an unwillingness to leave the barn in daylight are typical
indications of this syndrome.
Tail-swishing: This is a symptom, not a disease, though it is often mislabeled
due to the accompanying cough which recent research suggests is actually the
sound of your horse laughing. If your cheeks are turning streaky red due your
horse’s uncanny ability to time his “flay swatting” to coincide with your
hindquarters-grooming efforts, your horse has mastered tail swishing.
Accepted treatments include clicker training and tying his tail to his legs with
baling twine. Duct tape is not recommended as it can turn a fly-away tail into a
bat, which will cause far greater damage.
Variable Appendagitis: This condition is often mistaken for lameness, which it
closely resembles. The main symptom is the feeling that the horse has grown
an extra leg in the middle of a complicated pattern or on the approach to a new
jump. Either one or a brief flurry of oddly-rhythmed strides will cause you to
pull up and dismount to count legs. If there are six—two of yours and four of
his—he is suffering from this uncommon and intriguing disease.
Zygotaesthemia: You bred your highly-paperd bay mare to your neighbor’s
incentive fund bay stud, and the resulting foal is a dapple grey with ears like a
donkey. Also known as “misplaced zygote syndrome”, this often results from
the mare having made a midnight call on the ugly horse tied to the tree in front
of the ramshackle travel trailer three lots down. There’s no accounting for
taste, but this hardly qualifies as an ailment.
There are many, many more ailments and conditions about which you will
learn courtesy of your new horse. Remember, there are no perfect horses,
only perfect fools who believe there are.