Sometimes you never know what's going to set a horse off. In a physical ailment sort of way, I mean.

We work with sensitive creatures--intricately built individuals who each handle management techniques and practices very differently. For example, my mom encountered a scenario with her Belgian/Quarter Horse mare (a horse that she adopted from a PMU farm as a filly) a few weeks ago. My family lives in Central Virginia, where they are having The Mother of All Tick Seasons. We've always had ticks on our hillside. I remember mom finding a tick crawling on me in church one Sunday and she held it, pinched, between her index finger and thumb until the service was over. (Ah, the hazards of rural life. I'm lucky to have a mom who isn't fearful of arthropods.)

Mom watches the health status of each of her horses very closely and it's a good thing: one particular day in early April, she noticed dozens of ticks on Honey, and the mare was covered in welts. The poor mare--she must have wallowed in a tick colony! Mom removed every tick she could find, the welts disappeared, and a few days later she applied a tick treatment, with no resulting skin drama. A few weeks later, the veterinarian gave spring vaccinations, with exception of one vaccine Mom had ordered and was going to give later. Again, no problems.

But when Mom gave the mare her final spring vaccine, Honey stopped sweating. Just like that. Done. And it wasn't exactly cool and breezy that particular week. Her skin again erupted into hives, and her knees were swollen this time around. After a week at our veterinarian's farm, a round of antihistamines, steroids, and several other approaches, Honey's hives improved, and she began sweating again, but everyone was pretty puzzled. Our vet had taken a skin biopsy and sent it off for analysis; from what I understand, it was inconclusive.

Our tendency is to launch into a "whodunit" when our horses aren't feeling well. We love them fiercely and their well-being is a top priority, so we'll point at one thing we think was the trigger for a health event (I'm remembering the time I applied Skin-So-Soft to the midline of my gelding's belly near his sheath because he was being eaten up by gnats and he was sensitive to most fly sprays; he swelled up like a balloon! Poor kid. He recovered fine after a visit from the veterinarian, but I felt horrible about the decision!). But in this case, as with many horse health care scenarios, there are many contributing factors (the ticks, possible environmental allergy triggers, the mare's physiologic response to the tick treatment, her immune status after vaccines, the adjuvants in the vaccines, and myriad other variables), and our vet and my mom aren't really sure what happened. It's frustrating and disheartening at the same time, I think.

Honey's back home and doing well, for the most part, but as mom puts it, "One tick bite now starts a whole fresh episode of hives." She's been keeping Honey in the barn, so she's less likely to encounter ticks on the perimeter of the pastures. Three times a day she goes over Honey's entire body, checking for ticks. She's kind of in a wait-and-see pattern, hoping to find a smooth, shiny caramel-colored coat each time she heads to the barn to see her mare.

Another Health Question with a Happy Ending

A mare that my family used to own developed a nasty colic and colitis last week. The mare's current owner kept me apprised last year when the mare had a surgical colic, followed by a remarkable recovery. Last week she was about to send the mare out on a free lease, when signs of colic arose again. The owner was concerned about the mare's ability to withstand another surgery, and she was worried also about shouldering postoperative care again, both time-wise and financially.

Nobody knows what caused this mare's twist, or what precipitated last year's colic. Yet another health enigma. (Sometimes I say horses were designed by a committee.) From what I understand, the surgeons deemed she could be cut again, and in the meantime the resilient mare caught the eye of a treating veterinarian at the surgical facility. After a successful procedure Tuesday, the mare has a new home with the veterinarian, and the promise of a future filled with TLC.

What kind of health enigmas have you encountered over the years with your horses? How did you work with your veterinarian to try to get to the bottom of them?