Spin to Win Rodeo - - Features - by Julie Mankin

Doug Parker’s great horse, John, mounted an as­ton­ish­ing come­back from bot­u­lism, an of­ten fa­tal di­ag­no­sis. The horse re­turned to com­pete at the 2017 World Se­ries of Team Rop­ing Fi­nale, thanks to the vets at UC Davis and a lot of luck.

One morn­ing a few weeks be­fore the 2016 World Se­ries of Team Rop­ing Fi­nale, where Doug Parker had qual­i­fied in five rop­ings, he no­ticed his good heel horse down in his pas­ture. Parker ranches north of Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia. He’d rid­den the horse to catch a few on the sled the night be­fore—noth­ing stren­u­ous. He went out and got him up.

“I fig­ured it might be colic or he was ty­ing up,” said Parker. “But then he went to eat­ing. I thought, ‘that’s strange.’ When he was ly­ing down again later, I knew some­thing was wrong. We’re just un­der two hours from UC Davis, so I loaded him up. I got about 20 miles and heard a thud. He’d gone down in the trailer.”

Staff did what they could but it was too late. They called Parker late that night to say they’d had to put the horse down.

Go­ing to UC Davis Ve­teri­nary Hospi­tal had been a good idea, since it’s one of the only clin­ics that makes an anti-toxin plasma to treat bot­u­lism, which had killed the horse.

The deadly toxin is found in spoiled feeds or con­tam­i­nated soil. The bac­te­ria is sim­i­lar to the one that causes tetanus, and both af­flic­tions at­tack the ner­vous sys­tem—but tetanus causes the an­i­mal to be rigid and bot­u­lism causes weak­ness. Early signs to watch for? A horse that has trou­ble mov­ing his tongue, hold­ing his head up, or mov­ing his tail. The ef­fects look a lot like a viral neu­ro­logic in­fec­tion.

Luck­ily, your horse is at greater dan­ger of be­ing hit by light­ning than dy­ing of bot­u­lism.

“They don’t see bot­u­lism much out here on the West Coast,” said Parker. “It’s more of an East­ern prob­lem. They told me to look for dead an­i­mals in his pas­ture. I didn’t know of any. We watched the other horses, and noth­ing else hap­pened for a while.”

It wasn’t un­til 12 days later that their young stal­lion showed the same signs. They im­me­di­ately took him to Davis, and in about four days, he was okay. But then, a day af­ter the stud colt had been lay­ing down, Parker’s best head horse, “John,” be­gan point­ing one foot and quiv­er­ing a bit.

“He gets sore on that foot some­times, and these were not the same signs as the other horses, so I didn’t put two and two to­gether,” Parker said.

But the next morn­ing, John was down. He also was rushed to UC Davis. When Parker left to go back home, his fa­vorite horse still couldn’t get up. He was fairly cer­tain that would be the last he’d ever see of him.


When Parker had been low­ered to a 5-Elite header a hand­ful of years ago, it meant he could rope with his son in the #13 hand­i­caps.

“Out here, the steers in the #13 run hard but are usu­ally fresh, so you need a horse that can fly but also shut the steers down and han­dle them,” he said. “I didn’t have any­thing that re­ally fit that bill.”

He’d flown to Ari­zona to try John English’s sor­rel horse. Then only 6, “John” had all the tools—was big and strong and could re­ally run.

“I did the deal like most low-num­bered guys who want a horse that can re­ally run,” said Parker. “But usu­ally when they have the run, they have the rest of the at­ti­tude that goes with it.”

Parker’s new young horse was high­strung and too strong for lo­cal jack­pot steers over short scores, so he spent two long years ranch­ing on noth­ing but John. It was fi­nally pay­ing off and the pair was win­ning big rop­ings worth a lot of money.

Un­til Novem­ber 2016, that is. With his high-pow­ered mount in crit­i­cal con­di­tion, Parker was still try­ing to dis­cern the cause. Bot­u­lism is not con­ta­gious—horses have to in­gest it on their own. Still, he warned friends from com­ing to prac­tice.

Des­per­ately look­ing for a fac­tor com­mon to all three horses, the Park­ers de­ter­mined the stud had never been in the pas­ture, and the wa­ter was the same well wa­ter they drank at the house. Of the cou­ple’s 25 or 30 horses, only those three they’d been rid­ing had got­ten it.

They’d searched their al­falfa bales for a dead rab­bit or snake baled up, but found noth­ing. They tend to buy bags of sweet feed with mo­lasses, which they dump into a gal­va­nized can with a lid in the tack room.

“We fig­ure we must have got­ten a bad bag, and it hit that first horse, then we dumped a new bag on top and it took us 12 days to get back through down to the bad grain,” Parker said. “My wife thought she re­mem­bered that one bag be­ing a lit­tle darker.”

The pair dumped all their re­main­ing hay and grain in a field (cows can’t get bot­u­lism) and bought feed from dif­fer­ent sources.


In the mean­time, John had made it through the night at UC Davis, sur­pris­ingly. He was hos­pi­tal­ized 26 days, dur­ing which time he was treated with the anti-toxin plasma, as well as IV flu­ids, anti-in­flam­ma­to­ries, and vi­ta­min E.

It took 22 days for him to stand unas­sisted. Staff used the clinic’s large-an­i­mal lift pul­ley daily to get the big 1,400-pound ath­lete up, at which point he was dis­con- nected so he could move about freely and lie down when he wanted. Af­ter 26 days, he could stand for a while on his own, but once he laid down, he was still neu­ro­log­i­cally im­paired.

“I told them if he had to stay any longer, they might own him,” said Parker. “I con­vinced them I could buy a hoist thing, and I’ve got a trac­tor.”

Once home, he penned John at the end of his arena, so he could get the trac­tor in there if nec­es­sary. Sure enough, that first morn­ing John could only get his front end up, and John lifted him with the trac­tor. On Day Two, when John heard the trac­tor com­ing, he made it all the way up for the first time.

Last Fe­bru­ary, four months af­ter the poi­son­ing, Parker took John to a jack­pot for the first time, de­spite the fact he hadn’t gained all his weight back. But he was stunned to dis­cover his blaz­ing horse had no speed in the #12.

“He couldn’t run,” he said. “He tried, but it was like he was drag­ging an an­chor or some­thing. I fig­ured if I spanked him I’d have un­done all the work it took me two years to do when he was hot. It took me three-quar­ters of the arena to catch up to any­thing, and we still won third in the rop­ing,” he added.

Parker took John home and pulled his shoes and turned him out for four more months.

“This was a dev­as­tat­ing deal,” Parker said. “The lucky thing is that it doesn’t hap­pen of­ten. But the trou­ble is, like with my first horse, the signs look like signs of colic or ty­ing up. Also, peo­ple might not hap­pen to be near a place like UC Davis, where they make the anti-plasma. If you go to a reg­u­lar lo­cal vet, by the time they fig­ure it out, the horse is gone.”

In­stead in July, af­ter eight months of re­cu­per­a­tion, Parker took John to the World Se­ries pot in Sali­nas with 150 teams—and won first and sec­ond for about a $10,000 haul. His horse was back.

“This was a dev­as­tat­ing deal. The lucky thing is that it doesn’t hap­pen of­ten. But the trou­ble is, like with my first horse, the signs look like signs of colic or ty­ing up.” —'oug Parker

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