The Road Less Travelled

tevoThe idea has been in the back of Valerie Ashker’s mind for years. As a girl when riding in a car she would imagine guiding her horse over the same terrain that she saw outside her window. This spring, that dream became a reality as Valerie started a cross country horseback ride to bring awareness to a type of horse that has a special place in her heart –  Off  Track Thoroughbreds (OTTB).  Ashker’s passion for giving back to the breed that has done so much for her and her family is the true reason for her journey. She wants to share her message that no matter what discipline you’re looking at, there may be an OTTB that will work for you. And the right horse may be closer than you think.

“People should know that they don’t have to go far to find a good horse – we have so many great prospects here in our own backyard.”

She started her trek in California and ended it 3,300 miles later in Middleberg, VA. What did she take on her journey? Her partner, Peter, who rode with her through the whole journey. Her OTTB horses, Tevo and Solar, who traveled every step. And of course, she took Nutrena feed.

“Nutrena gave me the results I needed to finish” says Ashker. “In fact, one of the remarkable things about this trip is that my horses looked better at the end than they did at the beginning. They were more svelte and their body condition was fantastic.” Ashker fed Nutrena to both of her horses the entire trip.

Tevo was Valerie’s mount. This seven-year-old small & “quirky” horse was bought for $350 dollars and Ashker worked to build his confidence over time. He really showed throughout the ride that he loves trail riding. Tevo is an easy keeper and did not need a lot of extra calories but still needed enough “fuel in the tank” for each day’s travel (average 28 miles/day), so he was fed SafeChoice Perform with a bit of Empower Boost.

Solar was Peter’s mount. On the trip he ate 15 – 18 lbs/day of ProForce Fuel and Empower Boost. Solar is PSSM and it was key to be able to manage this on the trail.

Ashker noted that they were lucky to find good forage in the areas that they traveled through and that made a difference in helping to keep the horses happy and eating.

Following her epic ride, Valerie plans to continue to raise awareness and educate others about owning OTTBs. Her advice for someone just getting started is to have someone familiar with Thoroughbreds and the racetrack with you when you go horse shopping. She warns that there will be work involved: “These horses learned failure at the track. We have to take them and show them that they can be shining super stars in their second career.” But as demonstrated from her ride, that can be done. Both of the horses that Ashker took on her cross country ride are now on their third career; they came off the track to be Valerie’s event competitors before heading out on the trail. Solar served 12 years after the track even after sustaining a fractured right front leg which terminated his racing career as a four-year-old. Tevo competed three seasons through training after his brief racing career.

When it boils down to what made Ashker succeed in her 3,300 mile journey that spanned six months and 10 days she cites first and foremost her awesome OTTB horses and all the people she met along the way that shared her journey. “I just love it – and I don’t give up.”

To learn more about Valerie Ashker and what she’s doing to help support giving second chances to Off Track Thoroughbreds, visit her website at CrowsEarFarm.net and like her on facebook at 2nd Makes thru Starting Gates.

Feeding “George”: A Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) Horse

Previously, I introduced you to George, my ‘Heinz-57’ PSSM positive horse.  Though his test results came back positive for Type 1 PSSM, his diagnosis does not mean his athletic career is over. With some diligence and routine, George is able to lead a normal life as a successful working partner.

One key to managing his condition is maintaining consistency in his diet and routine. Remember, he would get sore every time the hay changed, particularly if it had alfalfa in it.  First I work to ensure that George’s total diet is properly balanced which starts with controlling the starch and sugar energy sources in his hay and grain ration.  I buy larger quantities of grass hay (no alfalfa) that will last awhile, a full year if possible. I also have my hay tested before buying it to make sure it isn’t too high in non-structural carbohydrates (12% NSC or less), and that the rest of the nutrients are within an acceptable range for good quality hay, as this is the bulk of his diet. The lower the NSC in the hay, the more room there is in the diet to add calories from fat. More on that below.

To balance his hay, he gets a controlled starch feed concentrate that is fortified with essential amino acids, complexed trace minerals, pre- and probiotics.  If I need to add calories to his diet to support higher levels of exertion during training and show season, I add a balanced fat supplement to the concentrate component of his diet.  To meet the total caloric requirement it is recommended that PSSM positive horses receive no more than 10% of the digestible energy from non-structural carbohydrates (starch and sugar), and 15-20% of the digestible energy should be supplied by fat.  Remember, this applies to the total diet, contributions from grain plus forage.  Working with a qualified equine nutritionist is a great way to figure all of this out.  In a nutshell, I control the sugars and starches in his total diet (low NSC grass hay and low calorie, controlled NSC grain) and add a nutritionally balanced fat source when extra calories are needed. The only supplement he gets is vitamin E, which helps boost his antioxidant status (helps fight oxidative stress), and supports muscle recovery after exercise.  Because his total diet is balanced for selenium, I don’t supplement this mineral to avoid potential toxicity.

Estimating his weight and doing a regular body condition score help me adjust his diet and exercise routine accordingly, so he maintains good muscle mass and avoids excess fat deposits.  In addition, I make sure to minimize stress as much as possible by keeping his routine consistent.  His daily ration is divided up into 3 meals to avoid one large grain meal and he has access to hay for most of the day.  He gets a minimum turnout of 8 hours every day with a buddy and limited access to fresh forage.  I also exercise him at least 6 days a week.  With this management routine, regular veterinary and farrier care, he has never “tied-up” on me, and continues to excel in dressage with the occasional hunter pace thrown into the mix. Providing good quality of life is a top priority, especially when it comes to managing even the most challenging horses, and I think George would agree, he is doing great!

Meet “George”: A Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) Horse

I’m proud to introduce you to George, a “Heinz-57” draft cross, and my current equine partner.  He is the result of a ½ Thoroughbred, ½ Percheron (dam) x ½ Hanoverian, ½ Paint horse (sire). I’ve had the privilege of knowing George since he was a weanling, and bought him as a yearling.  It wasn’t until I started him under-saddle as a three and a half year old that I started noticing behavioral changes (crankiness – not like George), non-specific muscle soreness, and a transient, almost undetectable gait abnormality, all of which happened to be associated with new hay delivery.  I won’t mention how much I’ve spent having him worked-up, imaged, adjusted, fitted and many more things to get to the bottom of what his body was trying to tell me.  We were coming up empty handed and frustrated.

It wasn’t until after I returned from an equine nutrition symposia that it occurred to me to have him tested for polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). PSSM causes the horse’s muscle cells to store energy (glycogen) in excess, which can result in a variety of symptoms, the most severe of which is tying up after aerobic exercise.  Nearly all of the classic signs were there, short of a bad tying up episode.  Wouldn’t you know it, he came back positive for Type-1 PSSM a.k.a. EPSM, tying- up syndrome/exertional rhabdomyolysis/Monday morning disease, set fast or azoturia.  There is more than one version of PSSM (Type-1 is most common) and the diagnostic tests for each are unique.

Recent advances in equine genetics have made testing a blood, muscle, or hair follicle sample possible.  As it turns out, three of the four breeds that George represents have been identified as prone to carrying the genetic mutation responsible for PSSM.  Unlike some other recessive genetic diseases, PSSM is inherited as a dominant gene; in other words having just one copy of the mutated gene means the horse has the disease.  Horses lucky enough to inherit 2 copies of the gene can be more severely affected.   The good news is, with a little diligence, these horses can be managed and go on to have a good quality of life and successful athletic careers; both of which I want for George. 

Diagnostic information can be found at the University of Minnesota Neuromuscular Diagnostic lab website: http://www.cvm.umn.edu/umec/lab/home.html