CASE STUDY: KEEPING A STAR FOXHUNTER BUSY
Emma James bought Maggie Mae as a 4-yearold in 2006 specifically for foxhunting. The Paint with Quarter Horse racing bloodlines proved to be a star in the hunt field—brave and forward, but well-mannered.
“She was great and easy to manage in the field,” says James. “I had hunted her for three seasons when the horse I was using for three-day eventing passed away.”
Thinking the mare would excel at a new sport, James started preparing Maggie for training-level events. “She was super fit already and only got fitter,” says James. “I had to feed her more and more to keep weight on her. And that’s when she started to have funky episodes.”
These “funky episodes” occurred only during training sessions. “She’d get tight in her back while being ridden and not want to go forward,” says James. “She’d be cantering and then just slow to a walk. I’d put my leg on but she’d just stop. For a while, I thought she was being resistant. It happened most often when we were doing arena work, so I thought maybe she was being barn sour. It was also the first year I’d asked her to do dressage work, so I thought maybe she really didn’t like it. Why would she suddenly develop an attitude after being so great for years? It didn’t make sense.”
When the episodes increased from once every few weeks to two or three times a week, James started looking for a physical cause. “We did lameness exams, checking her feet and back,” she says. “We did find she was sore in her back, but that could have been from the episodes she was having. She was getting massages and adjustments. I was stretching her legs out before I tacked her up. Just when we’d think we had it figured out, she’d have another episode.”
The timing of one of these episodes, however, turned out to be lucky. “We were foxhunting,” says James. “We’d just pulled up at a check and Maggie started to feel tense and tight. She was taking small steps. It wasn’t the same as what I’d felt in the arena. It was worse.” As fate would have it, Stephanie Valberg, DVM, PhD, one of the world’s leading authorities on equine muscle disorders, was nearby, mounted on her own horse.
“[Valberg] immediately said it looked like Maggie was tying up,” says James. “We took Maggie home and called Stephanie the next day, and that’s when things started to come together.”
Maggie was trailered to the University of Minnesota
for a full diagnostic workup, including a muscle biopsy. The results arrived a few days later, showing the mare had PSSM type 1. “Stephanie sent us the results, along with a bunch of information about the condition so we could read up on it.”
Under Valberg’s guidance, James took Maggie off concentrated feed, giving the mare only a mineral balancer
pellet. She also put her on a dry lot, with no access to pasture. “We were going into fall at that point and the grass was very rich,” she says. “In the summer, the horses spend half the day on dry lot and half on pasture so they don’t overgraze the fields, but that fall the pasture was really thick and the horses hadn’t eaten it down, so they were turned out more. I hadn’t realized that in the fall the grass was still so full of sugar.”
The second part of Maggie’s new regimen was regular exercise. “We had bloodwork done that indicated a high level of muscle damage. We knew Maggie needed exercise, but we proceeded carefully because she was still recovering from the damage she had sustained. We started out hand-walking just three minutes a day. It wasn’t much but it was enough to burn off the excess glycogen.”
The hand-walking routine continued through Christmas and then Maggie was started under saddle. That spring, however, Maggie had a setback.“I was walking her with the hounds, just to get her fit,” says James, “when a few hounds broke off to chase a deer. I took off after them without thinking. She had only been doing walk and trot work until that point, and that one little sprint set her off. She was stiff the next day and didn’t want to go forward, and I knew enough by then to understand what had happened. I lost most of that hunt season because I was so nervous about it happening again.”
James kept Maggie in regular, light work throughout the remainder of the year and gave foxhunting another try the following summer. “It took a while to figure out how to keep weight on her. We ended up putting her on a 25 percent rice bran meal and even then it was a struggle. We couldn’t put her on pasture, or give her beet pulp or sweet feed, but she had to work all the time to keep the glycogen from building up. Hunting was a good balance; she worked hard a few days a week, then the rest of the week she walked with the hounds. That wasn’t making her drop a bunch of weight, but it let her burn off the glycogen.”
The dietary changes combined with regular, moderate exercise seemed to be working. “I hunted her the whole season in the field without a single episode. I think we hit the right balance of diet and exercise.”
Maggie, James learned, needed at least 15 minutes of hand-walking or a short trotting hack every single day, even if she spent time turned out. Once James started college, however, she couldn’t maintain that schedule. “After my sophomore year, we gave Maggie to a friend in Aiken, South Carolina,” she says. “That friend whipped in for Aiken hounds and two other private hunts in the area with Maggie.”
The change of location made a world of difference to the mare. “As soon as she went to Aiken, she stopped having episodes,” says James. “The soil there is very sandy and the grass and hay are a lot less rich. Diet is a huge part of managing her and the forages in South Carolina are just naturally better for her.” Maggie’s talent didn’t go unnoticed in her new home, and she has since been passed on to another avid foxhunter who enjoys her athleticism and sensibility in the field.
James says that dealing with PSSM can be stressful but she wouldn’t consider the condition a deal breaker when evaluating a new horse. “I wouldn’t shy away from buying a great horse just because he had [PSSM],” she says. “It does take a bit of work to manage, but for the right horse, it’s worth it.”
RELOCATION: Maggie’s muscle problems dissipated when she was moved to South Carolina, where grasses and hay are less rich than in the North.