Amateur Hour

My Ugly Darling

Photo courtesy of the author.

“I got a horse you need to try out,” dad said, for seemingly the hundredth time.

My go-to response kicked in. “I already have a horse and I don’t need another.”

“Just take a look,” he replied.

We walked out to the paddock. Upon first glance, the horse in front of me was decidedly unimpressive. He had a hay belly, yet seemed gaunt. The shape of his neck indicated more giraffe lineage than Thoroughbred. His coat was dull in the late afternoon sun.

But then he moved.

I’ve always been a dreamer, but there was something more to him than initially met the eye.

“Well, I’ll work with him a little and see what I think,” I said cautiously. After riding a rather fractious OTTB years before, I was wary of accepting a project that might be beyond my capabilities.

So our time together began.

Within a week it became clear that “Red” and I were a good match. And that he was here to say. Unbeknownst to me, his previous owner had given him to my father. After an extremely poor racing career, they simply didn’t want him any longer. I owned him and he owned me.

As we got to know each other better, it became obvious that Red’s muscle health was poor. He was lethargic and not gaining condition as quickly as expected. His topline wasn’t improving, even on a high quality hay mix and fortified grain. We started going out on the trails but his hind end was so weak that even short, sloping hills were a struggle. Undaunted, he contentedly trekked the wooded areas by our barn.

Concerned about his progress, I had Red checked by several veterinarians. Blood tests indicated exposure to EPM. But, by blood work alone, it was impossible to determine if EPM was causing his current issues or if he had just been exposed in the past.

I considered testing his spinal fluid for active EPM parasites, but after weighing the cost and risk of this procedure, decided against it. We followed the recommended course of treatment, but there was little improvement.

Around that same time, another of our horses become seriously ill. Like Red, his symptoms included hind end weakness and lethargy, but with the addition of ataxia (incoordination). After months of inquiry, the diagnosis was the degenerative condition Equine Neuroaxonal Dystrophy caused by vitamin E deficiency. (Read The Deadly Deficiency).

I had Red’s blood levels checked, too, and discovered his vitamin E was also critically low.

According to a recent article from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, horses without access to green pasture can become deficient in vitamin E, a crucial nutrient for healthy muscles and nerves. Symptoms of deficiency may include muscle weakness, weight loss, as well as coordination and performance issues. Some veterinarians recommend additional vitamin E for horses battling a variety of conditions, including EPM. I began supplementing Red immediately.

Two years have passed since this unwanted horse came into my life and Red is better than ever. His weight and muscle strength have improved dramatically. My once homely Thoroughbred is now able to scale long, steep trails flawlessly. Subsequent blood analysis verifies that supplementation has returned his vitamin E status to within normal range.

During a recent chiropractic adjustment, my vet and I spoke about the progress Red has made. She looked back in her notes and smiled, “You know what I wrote down two years ago? Poor Condition.” As she spoke, Red rounded his muscular neck and looked at us intently. 

We lost one horse due to the advanced degenerative condition caused by his deficiency, but Red found us at just the right moment. Every time he effortlessly steps over a log or eagerly climbs a hill, I think not only of the horse that died, but of the countless others, including Red, that can be saved from this preventable deficiency. 


Throughout her childhood on the family horse farm, Heather Malcolm found her passion for equine nutrition, behavior, and wellness. After graduating with a degree in Animal Science, she took a job in the companion animal industry. When she’s not riding her horse, she enjoys reading the latest equine research and cuddling up for a nap with her favorite dog.