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.
BACK AT THE RANCH
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