Equestrian Life,  Holistic Wellness

Working with the Neurological Horse

Confession: My pony had EPM and now has been diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease.

I knew that Ferrous had recovered from Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis or EPM before I bought him and there was the potential for flares since it never truly leaves the body. I always made allowances for that when he showed signs of stiffness or imbalance during exercise but never made any changes to his exercise program or supplements as a result.

Then he began to show signs of prolonged neurological issues and he was diagnosed with Chronic Lyme disease and inflammatory issues associated with it. Suddenly our wellness and exercise game had to completely pivot.

Neurological Disorders in Horses

  • Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM)
  • Lyme disease
  • Wobbler Syndrome
Photo courtesy of © Jesse Conway Photography

1. EPM is a neurological disease created by ingesting opossum feces through food or more commonly, water. Water troughs that are not cleaned regularly or running brooks and creeks can carry the small parasite. It directly attacks the Central Nervous System and creates inflammation in the brain. The symptoms of EPM can look like many other neurological disorders so can be hard to diagnose outside of a spinal tap. Even a blood test isn’t 100% accurate.

Some symptoms of EPM include:

  • Trouble with coordination: stumbling, slipping, abnormal gait.
  • Stiffness
  • Muscle atrophy and weakness
  • Facial paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Head tilt

EPM can be treated with a course of antiprotozoal and sometimes additional antibiotic. Some horses are resistant and EPM can be deadly if left untreated.

2. Lyme Disease is a tick-borne illness that affects the Central Nervous System and joints of the horse. If you catch it early and treat it, your horse has a high rate of recovery. If left untreated or undiagnosed, it can lead to encapsulation of the joints and will live in your animal’s body forever causing potential flares when the immune system is weakened by the use of vaccines or dewormer. The latter is what we experienced with Ferrous. He lost a huge amount of muscle at the beginning of the pandemic and although he gained it back nicely, showed periodic bouts of stiffness that we attributed to his EPM, delaying his diagnosis.

An image of Ferrous after initial lockdown from the pandemic. He had lost and incredible amount of muscle and healthy fat also.

Some symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Intermittent lameness
  • Muscle tenderness
  • Swollen joints
  • Arthritis

As you can see many of the symptoms for Lyme disease are similar to those of EPM.

3. A horse referred to as a “Wobbler” has a damaged spinal cord and symptoms usually appear while the animal is young.

A “Wobbler” can fall and have difficulty getting up. Living outside in a paddock where they have ample room to move is ideal, rather than a stall where they can cast and have limited movement. Photo courtesy of © Jesse Conway Photography.

Symptoms of a Wobbler include:

  • Abnormal gait, where the horse looks sedated or “wobbly”
  • Walking slowly with head down
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stumbling
  • Difficulty getting up from a prone position

A Wobbler can be managed medically under veterinary care or with surgery but should not be ridden, as this can be incredibly dangerous for both horse and rider.

These are a few neurological disorders that I’m familiar with in my horse or client’s horses. Many people shy away from a horse with these issues, but it doesn’t have to mean the end. Many horses can live happy, healthy, and almost normal lives!

Management of Neurological Disorders in Horses

I have worked closely with both my general veterinarian and my holistic veterinarian to manage Ferrous and his neurological symptoms. While he does need more maintenance than most, he generally lives a healthy life and is still ridden. More, he greatly benefits from a regular exercise program to improve muscle tone and help his balance and general stiffness.

Acupuncture can be a wonderful way to improve communication throughout the Central Nervous System.
  • Supplements to boost immunity such as Vitamin E (neurological health), Vitamin D3 (to build the immune system), and a pre-and probiotic to improve immunity and gut health are all wonderful additions to the diet of a horse with any of the above issues.*
  • Anti-inflammatory supplements like Boswellia Serrata, Turmeric, and Japanese Knotweed to reduce systemic inflammation and protect the Central Nervous System.*
  • Monthly acupuncture by a medical professional.*
  • Lymphatic drainage therapy by an equine massage therapist. This therapy stimulates the endocrine system and removes inflammation from the body.
  • Reduce use of dewormer unless necessary, which can create inflammation that will worsen symptoms.
  • Reduce use of seasonal vaccinations that can create an inflammatory response.
  • Regular groundwork and hand work to build and maintain muscle tone.
  • If approved by your veterinarian, regular mounted exercise with a focus on self carriage, stretching, and softness.

* Always contact your veterinarian prior to adding a new supplement or therapy, or prior to riding, with a neurological horse.

It is so important to note that a neurological animal can live a long and healthy life with some maintenance. Ferrous loves being a paddock pet and would enjoy trail rides without any arena work. Unfortunately for him, he can be ridden safely and thrives in a regular exercise program. In some ways that makes us very lucky. He is high maintenance but he’s part of my family and I will give him everything he needs.

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