Bawana Jake: Hope Springs Eternal

When Jake came to the MMSC in February, I wasn’t sure if we could find him a person and a new home, but I hoped against hope that we could!

I had had other horses with EPM during my six year tenure at the MMSC, so I wasn’t flummoxed with Jake’s diagnosis. I first battled this degenerative nerve disease in the early 90s with one of my own horses. I treated it as my vet recommended with the anti-protozoan drug Marquis and stopped working my horse for a while. He recovered and went on to a successful competitive career.

I had had about six horses with EPM at the MMSC prior to Jake. The first one, a lovely gray gelding, came down with it about six months after he was adopted. The distressed mother of the young girl who adopted him called me and gave me the diagnosis. I tried to reassure her by saying that my own horse had had it and  had recuperated.  

“Give him the drug Marquis and then give him rest for a while,” I told her. 

“That’s what my vet says to do. But it’s expensive,” she replied.

“How ‘bout if I call the person who donated the horse to the Center and  see if she will cover that cost for you? She’s a super responsible person who cares deeply about her horses.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful! He is the apple of my daughter’s eye! And he is really not doing well! He can’t back up and he wobbles.” 

“Ooo, that doesn’t sound good. I’ll get right on it!”

I called the former owner, a very avid Thoroughbred breeder and an extremely knowledgable horsewoman.

“I’d be happy to pay for it,” she replied after I explained the situation, “but it would be better to treat the horse with herbs and acupuncture.”

“Acupuncture? Herbs? Really?”

“I know this absolutely brilliant man, Dr. Marvin Cain. He started the International Veterinarian Acupuncture Society, studied acupuncture with Chinese masters and was the first person to chart out meridians and acupuncture points in horses. He treats EPM successfully using the horse’s own blood serum injected into certain key acupuncture points and then follows it up with herbs. I don’t know if there is anyone in the adopter’s area that knows how to do that, but I think it works a lot better than Marquis. And I would pay for it.”

I promptly relayed to the mother what I had learned.

“Which treatment would you prefer?”

“I’ll talk to my vet and get back to you,” she replied.

The vet had never heard of the procedure. The adopters decided to use Marquis. The original owner payed for it. In three months the horse was dead.

It was almost two years later before I had another horse at the MMSC diagnosed with EPM. The little mare had been with me for almost six months, and uncharacteristically she kept getting worse in her training rather than better. At first the signs were subtle: lethargy, grouchiness, sensitivity. I had her examined, flexed and  x-rayed. We injected joints. I asked several vets about whether she could have EPM but was told that she would need a spinal tap which was difficult and costly to do and not even conclusive. To try to strengthen her back end, therefore, I put the mare on hill work and trotting ground poles.  Still, she got clumsier, her transitions sloppier; unable to maintain the canter or cross cantering; pulling rails behind when jumping, or just refusing to jump at all.

I remembered the lovely gray gelding and called the acupuncturist. Sure enough, the mare had EPM. She had suffered a fair amount of damage to the central nervous system. It wasn’t clear how much she would recover, or, for that matter, if she would recover at all. I started the acupuncture and herbs treatment. I also called the person who donated her to the Center. She reclaimed the mare and continued the treatments diligently. Today the mare is alive and a happy pasture pal.

From that point on, whenever the acupuncturist picked up EPM, I started treatment.  Every horse that has had it since, has not only recovered, but thrived. I expected Jake to do similarly.

The day he was diagnosed with EPM was the first day we had ridden him. After his three year hiatus on the farm, Jake started his training reactive, distractible, and very out of shape. So we had decided to go slow: lots of natural horsemanship, bomb proofing, long lining and groundwork. I was keen to have a solid partnership built on the ground before trying to move on and up-in the saddle. Given that we had only ridden him once, a week off work was not going to set him back much if at all.

Work under saddle started up on April 9. Improvements in attitude, coat, flexibility and balance was noticeable almost on a daily basis. By April 24, the week of Rolex, the huge international event that draws competitors and crowds from around the world, Jake was so much better that we felt we could show him to any interested adopters. He got a lot of attention. He had, after all, the best hind end on the premises, four and two legged creatures included. And as he gotten stronger in training and with treatment, he had begun to show off how well he could use it, both in the arena and in the field. It was plain to all who saw him: Jake was extremely athletic.

Everyone was told about Jake’s issues:  a bum knee, bowed tendons, and EPM. I knew that most would be scared by that laundry list but I hoped against hope, that maybe someone would see what I saw in this special horse. A few people did ride him and commented on how lovely he was, but left it at that. One person, however, liked him so much she wanted to come back and try him again.

I had watched this person ride Jake and was struck by how accommodating he was to her, and how hard she worked to communicate with him. Those were the seeds of a very fruitful relationship. But Jake came with baggage and I was determined to find out if this person both understood and accepted that. I asked her if we could meet before she tried him again.

She came to the MMSC booth the next morning and we walked all round the vendor fair together for almost an hour. I found out a lot about her:  She was hard working, conscientious, compassionate. She also had “rescuer” syndrome. By that I mean she had a compunction to take care of anybody and anything putting her own needs last. I asked her if she had that tendency, and she confessed that I was right.

“Do you do that because they need it? Or because you need to be needed?” I asked.

She looked at me, startled, eyes wide and stammered, “Errrr…both, I guess.”

“Rescuing animals or people is a noble thing,” I continued. “I admire you for all that you tell me you have done. But sometimes our motivation for doing so  is a result of our innermost self telling us we don’t deserve anything better than something broken. If that is why you want Jake, I can’t let you have him.”

She stopped walking and looked down at her dusty boots.

I continued. “I am here to tell you that Jake is an amazing horse, truly athletic, truly magnanimous. Yes, he does have issues, but he is incredibly special and he deserves to be adopted and appreciated not for his liabilities but for his assets, which are rare in a horse. I am also here to tell you, that you are an intelligent, capable woman who does lots of good work in many ways and that you deserve a good horse.”

She left me at the booth. I didn’t know if I would hear from her again. But, about a week or ten days later, she and said that she had thought a lot about what I had said, and that she wanted to adopt Jake.

“Because you deserve a really nice horse, right?  Not because he has issues.”

“Right. Because I deserve him. I can come pick him up next week.”

I was elated!

Jake had progressed so in his health and training in a mere six weeks that we felt he was ready to go to a small show in  May.  We were so proud of him! He got ribbons in every class! Even in the beginner cross rail class!

The next day as I watched Carolyn ride Jake he seemed tense and back sore. “He is not himself today and he’s not breathing right,” she said. I couldn’t hear much from the ground, so I got up on him myself.  Yes, he was back sore and tense, stiffer to the right than to the left, but stiffness can happen at any time, especially to seasoned racehorses. But what was disturbing was the raspy rattle when he breathed. 

I popped off. I checked his nostrils. No mucous. His respiratory rate immediately went down. 

“Let him cool out, and then take his temperature,” I told Carolyn.

When I heard later that it was normal, that he was cleaning up his feed, and that he showed no signs of being sick, I said, “Call Dr. True and tell him to bring a scope. I want to know what’s going on with the larynx.”

When Dr. True scoped him he found a flipping palette and a languid left arytenoid which was slow in retracting over the wind pipe, hence the rattling noise when Jake moved.

“Will he need surgery?”

“If it gets worse.”

For once I was utterly discouraged by my decision to take this horse on.

“With fitness it may improve, though,” he said, trying to pick my spirits up. “So keep working him.”

I did. I also kept him on the herbs. And I called the prospective adopter and told her why Jake’s departure had to be postponed. 

“Will he get better?”

“I hope so. Our acupuncturist told me that a partially paralyzed larynx was very typical with EPM. I want him to finish this third bottle of herbs first. I want to see if we can improve his breathing with increased exercise. I want him to have a left lead canter departure that’s better balanced and less explosive so that you will be safer. And, if and when he is better, I want you to come back and try him again to make sure you still want him.”

Finally,  in mid June, he was ready. His canter was balanced. His immune system was strong enough for the long trailer ride as well as for him to adjust to a new home. His breathing was greatly improved. We rarely heard the rattle.  Now we just had to see if  his person still wanted him.

Jake and his new person Susan.
The adopter made the 9 hour trip down to the MMSC and rode him again. Jake was relaxed and balanced, stretchy and slow, a perfect joy to watch and to ride. His breathing was quiet and normal. I, on the other hand, was holding my breath.

“Do you still want him?” I asked, when she quit riding.

“Oh yes! I want him!”


“Because hes a wonderful horse!


“And I deserve a horse like this!!!”

“Those were the very words I hoped you would say!” I replied, smiling.  “He’s yours!”

She squealed with delight.

Ah me! Just when I thought all hope had been lost, it springs eternal. AMEN!

Cheery bye,