This spring I began teaching intermediate-level lessons to a rider who pilots an enormous dark bay draft horse. When I met this gelding, his rider told me he had a barn-wide reputation for being clumsy. For example, they said, “When you are leading him to the paddock, if he turns his head, his entire body swings and follows.”

Here's the draft gelding this spring, before his EPM diagnosis. His weight was fine, but to me he just didn't look right. Photo: Courtesy Brian King/TheHorse.com

Equal parts long, lanky, and imposing, what this gelding seemed to lack in self-awareness—I tried to feed him a peppermint from my palm and my entire arm disappeared in his cavernous mouth—he made up for in his charming personality and willingness to try.

In a particular lesson a couple of months ago, we were trotting over ground poles, and the horse stumbled through them. I kept checking and rechecking that I had the distance between the poles correct and, believing we were dealing with a lack of impulsion from behind and a wee bit of laziness (the latter might have been partly true), I asked the rider to use more leg.

I had intended to bring my riding clothes on my next visit so I could ride the gelding and see if I was missing something—I just wasn’t getting anywhere when instructing this rider and his horse.

This gelding's silly personality was evident even when he was battling EPM (here he's on the left, antagonizing one of his pasture buddies). Photo: Courtesy Brian King/TheHorse.com

But, instead, on my next visit I learned that he had started treatment for equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), a relatively common cause of neurologic illness in this part of the country. I felt terrible. Why didn’t I think of this? One of the top (if not the top) EPM clinicians in the world, with whom I’d had dinner recently, commonly refers to his neurologic cases as “clumsy horses,” and this horse was exactly that … clumsy. Why didn’t I think there might be something physiologically wrong, especially when daily I am immersed in enough veterinary information to turn someone into a hypochondriac on behalf of a horse? It turns out the rider felt the same way. Another rider in the barn admitted, “We feel horrible—we were basically making fun of the sick kid.”

At the end of the day, the reality is our horses can’t simply speak up and say things like, ‘Hey, so … I haven’t a clue what I’m doing with my hind feet.’

The horse was treated for EPM for several months, underwent some dietary changes, and has begun work again.

I went out recently, and the big gelding looks like a completely different horse. His steps look intentional. He has impulsion from behind. He looks less like an awkward, gangly teenager and more like a purposeful, grown-up horse.

The gelding after EPM treatment. Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

So, what did this teach me?

Well, it drives home that knowing what’s normal for your healthy horse is extremely important. We include this point in our editorial messages all the time. Know your horse in health so that when something goes wrong with his health, you can recognize it. Funny thing here, though, is that nobody had ever seen this gelding without EPM. That made it especially tricky.

More "After" Shots

Photos: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Also, I’m reminded that you can beat yourself up all day about what you wish you’d seen coming. I had to set aside the guilt and just accept, “Que sera, sera.” And at the end of the day, the reality is our horses can’t simply speak up and say things like, “Hey, so … I haven’t a clue what I’m doing with my hind feet.”

I’m thankful the rider and the other folks at the barn thought to mention this gelding’s clinical signs to the veterinarian so that she was able to work him up for EPM and then get him on the treatement he needed.

The gelding used to pee from inside his sheath, making a mess of his belly and everything else within splashing distance. Now he drops to pee like a healthy horse. He used to look what I would call slightly “aimless” with his hind end when he worked. A few days ago he looked weak, but much more “normal” with his movement. And, I’m not sure the horse even considers those things the best news. His rider says those peppermint-seeking lips are now like pliers that able to maneuver the smallest treat.

Have you ever pushed a horse to work when you didn’t realize he was experiencing a physical limitation or illness? How did it turn out?