Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stringhalt And Dandelions

Vinny, my old retired gelding, has always had a bit of stringhalt. It's a neurologic condition that causes a horse to have an odd "goose step" in their hind limbs. They lift the hind legs abnormally high, particularly when backing or turning.

The cause is not really well understood. It's thought to be caused by some sort of damage to the nerves or spinal cord innervating the hind limbs. The damage could be from an injury, a tumor or a toxin. In Vinny's case, it's probably the result of an old injury. I would think if it were a tumor he would not have lived to the ripe old age of 24. He was seen by a vet for it many years ago and it's never really bothered him. It's really only noticeable if he's turning a tight circle or backing up and even then you really have to be looking for it. Mostly it just looks like he has a lot of action in his hocks.....fancy. Until Tuesday, that is.

On Tuesday he looked like he was auditioning for The Ministry of Silly Walks. He was lifting his hind legs so high that they were hitting his belly. Not good. He was eating fine, acting otherwise normal and not in any distress, he just looked ridiculous when he tried to walk. I had no idea what could cause such a dramatic increase in his stringhalt symptoms literally overnight. I thought maybe he just pulled something, so I gave him some bute. If he was still off in the morning, I would call the vet.

He was still off Wednesday morning. No improvement whatsoever. But he still didn't seem to be in any pain, or even upset by it. He was just taking it in stride. I called the vet and started to explain his symptoms. Her response was immediate: "Do you have dandelions in your pastures?"

I have tons of dandelions in my pastures, they seem to be epidemic this year. I never gave them any thought, other than as a pretty little flower. Turns out that these aren't ordinary dandelions. They are False Dandelion, also known as Flatweed or Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata). And these particular dandelions have been implicated in cases of stringhalt (called "Australian Stringhalt" to distinguish it from regular stringhalt). My vet had seen several cases of it in South Jersey over the years.

I thought I knew all the toxic plants inhabiting these parts, but this one slipped under my radar. My horses have been grazing on these pastures for over a year with no problems. Turns out, the weed thrives in dry weather and poor soils. It just so happens that South Jersey has sandy, rocky soil and is currently experiencing a drought. Conditions are pretty much perfect for a proliferation of this weed. And proliferate it has! My pastures are covered in it. It grows flat to the ground, so mowing doesn't get it, unfortunately. Mowing does get the flower heads, keeping it from spreading, but the plant is perennial so that won't get rid of it altogether. The only solution is to spray the pastures with herbicide.

So far Spider and Matilda are unaffected. The vet thinks that Vinny is more susceptible to the toxin because he already has stringhalt. Either that, or he's the only one eating the weed. He's kind of a pig, so that wouldn't surprise me.

There is no real treatment, other than removing the horses from the affected pasture. Symptoms should begin to subside within a month of him being removed from the weed, but it could take up to a year for him to be back to normal.

They are all in the dry lot now, which they hate. I have been unsuccessful in convincing them that it's for their own good. They'll have to stay there until all the weeds have died. Hopefully that won't take too long, or too many applications of herbicide. We're using 2,4-D broadleaf weed killer, which is registered as safe and unrestricted for horses.

I've also started everyone on a magnesium and vit B supplement. Magnesium and vit B are usually main components in the so-called "calming supplements". What they actually do is increase skeletal muscle function and neuronal transmission. In cases of injury or deficiency, they help restore normal function to the animal's nerves and muscles, which produces a calming effect if the animal was distressed by the condition. Hence the misnomer "calming supplements". I also have Vinny on Robaxin, a prescription drug commonly used as a muscle relaxer, that depresses the central nervous system. It will help with any muscle soreness he gets from his radically altered gait and should have a sedative effect on the spasms he is experiencing from the stringhalt.

Vinny, showing the characteristic exaggerated hind leg movement of stringhalt, while stealing Spider's hay. He's obviously very distressed by his condition. *snort*

As of July 2011,  Vinny has made a full recovery from his toxic stringhalt.  He received no treatment for his condition, other than the supplements and time.

More information on stringhalt:

Shivers, Stringhalt and Australian Stringhalt from Kentucky Equine Research

Australian Stringhalt In Horses from Equuisite

Identification of H. radicata from UC Davis


  1. Wow!! I have never heard of this either. I'll have to look to see if I have any of those darn things in my too weedy dry pasture. I NEVER would have thought to look for them. Thanks for the update.

    If I have some, I will need to get the herbicide as well, darn. Have to figure out how to get it on the field, if I do.

    Be backatcha with a report some time later.

  2. Very interesting. My old Joe does the "hitch" every once in a while.
    Good luck with the weeding, that's a big job.

  3. Being Australian, I've always thought that stringhalt was a weed related problem. Once you get him away from those weeds, it's going to take 12-18 months. Good luck. The supplements are a great idea too.

  4. I am sorry. I hope Vinny gets better soon. Thanks for the infos. I wonder if we have this false dandelion in Europe?

  5. Yep it is common here is Australia. Our horses normally only eat it in quantity if there is nothing else really for them to eat. They may chew the odd flower but generally if they eat a lot they get affected. Poor Vinny hope he feels better soon!

  6. This is my blog. I also have a horse with stringhalt


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