Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Mustang's COPD or Horse Heaves: All in Her Head, Literally

Reyacita, my 5-year-old mustang mare, came to me more than a year ago with a pretty good case of horse heaves. Since I adopted her during the winter, I had to feed her hay. Unfortunately, she couldn't eat hay without heaving. She developed a heave line, breathed heavy, and had this horrible rattle in her throat or chest.

I turned her out to pasture, fed her soaked feed, and gave her an herbal supplement called Eleviv. That seemed to take care of the problem until the grass returned in the spring.

Horse Heaves - The Problem that Wouldn't Go Away
Only, the problem didn't really go away. Whenever I tacked up Reyacita or tried to do any training with her, she would start to rattle when she breathed. The rattle was so loud that people could hear it all the way across the arena. But the rattle wasn't a straight case of COPD, it was a case of nerves.

Reyacita is a Metal horse personality, and this type of horse likes, no needs, to know exactly her job description. Unless and until she knows that, she's concerned that whatever we are about to do might be a surprise. This type of horse HATES surprises. They LOVE routine and doing their job well.

So all spring and summer, Reyacita rattled until I actually got into the saddle, and we started on some familiar training exercises. As soon as we started doing something familiar, she stopped rattling. Then she would spend a few minutes with her head down coughing up this giant green loogie that looked like some sort of science experiment. After that, no rattle, no heaves, no COPD.

If I wanted to introduce a new horse training element, then I had to do it after we did some exercises with which she was already comfortable. Otherwise the rattle would kick into high gear.

Giving Reyacita 2-4 capsules of Eleviv about 30 minutes before I tacked her up helped quite a bit, but didn't totally eliminate the rattle. That rattle continued to puzzle me because it seemed to have more to do with what was going in her head (or with her nerves) than with anything physical.

Horse Heaves: Where it Starts with Reyacita
With Reyacita, the horse heaves start in her head, meaning she rattles when she feels nervous or uncertain about something. I checked in with my vet, and it turns out that, when nervous, Metal horse personality types often suck their tongues into the back of the mouth against the soft palate. This sucking action can cause a pool of saliva to gather back there, irritating the soft palate … and causing that horrible rattling sound!

The reason the Eleviv helps to lessen the rattle is because it helps Reyacita feel more secure and less nervous about her situation. But it never totally got rid of the rattle. So I got curious about how to alleviate that problem.

My vet, Dr. Madalyn Ward, suggested I reach up under Reyacita's jawbone and do a slight adjustment on the hyoid bone. The first time I did this, Reyacita was standing at the trailer, tacked up, and rattling away as usual. I adjusted her hyoid bone, and an interesting thing happened. She dropped her head, coughed a few times, and popped out this oogie-green-loogie. Then she licked and chewed for about 3 minutes, and shook herself.

The rattling had stopped! Wow!

The rattling didn't start again until I led her away from the trailer. She wasn't sure about the day's training agenda so she started rattling again. I adjust her hyoid bone again, she coughed, and stopped rattling. That first day, I had to adjust her hyoid bone about 6 times during our training session. But it got to so familiar that she would stop rattling almost as soon as I touched her hyoid bone.

The second and third days, she rattled progressively less and less. I'm excited to see what happens as I continue to practice this adjustment on her. It is obviously very soothing to her, and she feels reassured when I do it.

Horse Heaves: Confirming My Suspicions
Almost everyone who hears Reyacita rattle becomes mildly alarmed and immediately asks me whether she has a lung condition. They also want to know what I am doing to treat the condition. I tell them about the Eleviv, of course, but because she still rattles when nervous, even with the Eleviv, some people insist that I should put her on some lung herbs or even drugs for lung conditions.

The problem is that the rattling is actually in her throat … and the horse heaves start in her brain, not her lungs.

I decided to test this out by doing a horse training session that looked like this
  1. Tie to trailer, feed 4 capsules of Eleviv. Stand for 30 minutes to allow the Eleviv to take effect. (rattling)
  2. Load into trailer, drive 10 miles to a friend's arena.
  3. Unload at arena and tack up (rattling)
  4. Walk into arena and stand next to RoboSteer (no rattling)
  5. Walk around perimeter of arena (rattling)
  6. Begin doing familiar stretching and warm-up circles at walk, trot, and lope (no rattling).
  7. Finish circles and walk around arena on loose rein (rattling).
  8. Stand in the heeler's box in the roping area (no rattling).
  9. Walk out to center of arena and stand while talking to friend (rattling).
  10. Lope fast circles (no rattling).
I don't know if you can see a pattern here, but it was as clear as day to me that Reyacita's horse heaves show up whenever she is uncertain about her job. Any familiar exercise or landmark, like the RoboSteer or loping circles, makes her feel secure. When she is secure, she doesn't suck her tongue into her mouth or rattle.

On the flip side of the coin, any unfamiliar action or location is cause for insecurity, and hence rattling. For example, standing next to the RoboSteer is OK because that matches her job description of "chase the steer." Standing and chatting with my friend while standing in the center of the arena matches nothing in her job description, so she begins to rattle.

But the true test, for me, was the fact that she never rattled or ran out of air when we loped fast circles. If Reyacita truly had a lung condition like COPD or asthma, then she would have limited lung function. However, she is as happy as clam when loping circles and never short of breath. She also doesn't rattle when she lopes. Also, I have tried several lung herbal tonics on her, all to no avail. They made absolutely no difference whatsoever!

Conclusion? Reyacita's condition is ALL IN HER HEAD!

At least, it starts there. The Eleviv is her saving grace because it ensures that she can eat hay without heaving, whether I'm watching over her or not. But when it comes to horse training, I'm realizing that until Reyacita totally trusts me AND fully learns all facets of "her job" she'll probably continue rattle, on and off, for a while.

I'll continue to give her Eleviv and adjust her hyoid bone. I do repetitive tasks with her, and incorporate ever more new tasks to her job description until she feels comfortable. At the point, I'm sure her rattling will disappear forever.

Is This True of All Horses?
Could lessons learned from Reyacita be applied to all horses with heaves or COPD. No. But the lessons could be adapted. For instance, if a horse has COPD, you might try to figure why the horse has COPD. Is the cause mental, emotional, or purely physical? Once you figure out the cause, then you can develop a horse health care and horse training regimen to address the problem. But if you don't address the cause, you probably can't do more than palliate the symptoms.

Do you agree?

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  1. Thanks so much for your blog post!
    I have never heard of this. I work with human subjects in a clinical research facility in Florida.

  2. Hey Don and Weekend Cowgirl - Thanks for dropping by. Don, glad you enjoyed the blog post ... maybe it will apply to some of your human subjects. And Weekend Cowgirl, Reyacita is doing better every day. Sometimes mustangs have a hard time adapting to domestic life, but she's well on her way! Cheers, Stephanie