Saving a Starving Horse: Part 2

Editor's Note: This is the second and final part in a series on saving Freeway, a horse that was rescued from starvation and neglect by passer-by Sue Thompson of Clayton, Calif., on Dec. 28, 2007. See also Part 1 of this story.

"That weekend a big storm hit the Bay Area," said Thompson, referring to the weekend after she brought Freeway home, Dec. 29-30, 2007. "We all kind of surmised that (had we not taken him in) Freeway would've gone down in that storm and not gotten up. He was really that close."

When veterinarian Renee Golenz, DVM, arrived that day (Dec. 29) and Thompson opened the door for her, she noted the veterinarian's facial expression of utter unbelief. " 'I told you it was a starving horse,' I said, before she went to get her camera."

Golenz offered her first impression: "I saw a very, very neglected horse. He was a rack of bones, with a body condition score of 1. He was coughing, had a snotty nose, respiratory problems, pneumonia, he was depressed, and it was obvious his immune system was weak."

On top of starvation's effects, Freeway had a number of other issues to be addressed. "When I was listening to his heart I saw something crawl across my stethoscope," Golenz noted. Then she saw something else move. "Turns out he had lice embedded in his long hair, and he stunk, kind of that rotten smell that you get when your body is being eaten by lice."

Performing blood work was top priority not only to investigate his respiratory issues, but because of the myriad reasons a horse might be walking around 400 pounds underweight. "It could be 'groceries,' could be chronic disease, or it could be he has some other problems with his organs," said Golenz. "I told Sue from the get-go we're going to have to put him on antibiotics, but we want to make sure he's going to be treatable and get over this."

Freeway's tests only showed low-grade anemia, which Golenz attributed to his lack of nutrition, chronic disease, and blood-sucking lice. She knew his biggest challenge by far was going to be his pneumonia. "It's not too difficult to treat the lice or put weight on a horse that's relatively healthy," she said. "But being that he was so depleted and behind the eight ball, that made me highly concerned because when you have a body condition score of 1 and pneumonia, you're not sure if he's going to make it."

Golenz prescribed antibiotics and took a look at Freeway's teeth--she aged him between 17 and 20--but she did not float his teeth at this time. "I wanted to see how he was going to handle nutrition in his life again--a dental procedure would’ve added more stress to an already weakened, immune-compromised individual," she explained, noting that she recommended Thompson get Freeway's teeth done after the horse had settled into his new diet and routine. "The same goes with deworming a horse after starvation and neglect; you should wait for the horse to adjust before bringing on dewormer. After one to two weeks without colicking, then it's safe to maybe consider a gentle, slow deworming program." Along with the former minor adjustments, the farrier, Joe Zimmerman, came on New Year's morning to trim Freeway's overgrown hooves enough that he could walk comfortably.

Freeway under saddle

While Freeway initially reacted with distrust and apprehension at the sight of a saddle, he accepted horse trainer Dave Wilson by his second visit, and he demonstrated that he was not only a smooth-gaited riding horse, but a well-educated one, as well.

"Initially, I gave (Sue) diet recommendations, said Golenz. "A lot of times when someone takes on a very emaciated horse, the first thing they want to do is feed it. They give it way too much food, way too high-quality nutrition, and those horses end up with really nasty colitis, diarrhea, colic, and then the horse is suffering more. It's like they're killing them with kindness. It's like taking a starved person and … feeding them a steak dinner--you can't do that."

In addition to following Golenz's advice, Thompson researched material on refeeding available from the University of California, Davis ( She also enlisted the help of a well-known equine nutritionist, Amy Gill, PhD, of Central Kentucky, in helping design a diet for Freeway's somewhat traumatized digestive tract.

At first Thompson fed Freeway tiny meals of hay four to five times a day, but once his teeth were deemed ready (Alan Blanke, DVM, floated Freeway's teeth), she began offering him free-choice hay. In addition to the small amounts of grain she eventually began offering, she added an omega supplement (polyunsaturated fats, needed for various metabolic processes) recommended by Gill. She attributes some of the improvement in Freeway's health to the Omega Balance product Gill recommended, noting that his "gooey eyes" resolved as soon as he went on the supplement, and when she tried going off of it at one point, the "goo" returned.

In the following weeks, Freeway began putting on weight, and with shampoos and treatments Thompson was able to rid the horse's skin of the irritating lice. Golenz described, "She was lightly feeding him, not too much too soon. From the very get-go we were kind of like, 'Day by day, Sue, if he's alive tomorrow, it will be great.' Then all of the sudden the days were getting better and I started thinking, 'Okay, this boy's going to make it.'

"He started to look brighter … and I thought if we can get some weight on this guy and get some nutrition into him, hopefully his pneumonia would respond. It didn't, so she took him to the referral hospital for a tracheal wash and radiographs."

The nasal discharge was flowing freely by mid-January and not responding to initial treatment, so Golenz referred Freeway to Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale. "He did his first major 'snot exorcist' routine when I took him up to Pioneer," Thompson said, describing the event where Freeway showered just about everyone in a 4-foot radius with sputum (expectorated matter from the air passages). When veterinarians cultured Freeway's tracheal wash sample, they found out he had Streptococcus zooepidimicus, a distant relative of Streptococcus equi, the bacterium responsible for strangles. Thankfully, S. zooepidemicus doesn't pose the same contagious threat that strangles does, and veterinarians simply rolled this diagnosis into the array of antibiotic treatment.

By the spring Freeway had become healthier and stronger. He grazed a pasture of his own, made friends with the Shires and Thoroughbred on the farm, and a distinct personality began to emerge from inside the former bag of bones. The first time Thompson put a blanket on Freeway he was unfazed—even pleased--and the first time she snapped a carrot, he swung his head around like it was the most fantastic and familiar sound he'd ever heard. "He didn't always live this life," she reflected. "At some point in the past he had a good home.

Radiograph of Freeway's lungs

Freeway's anaerobic pulmonary abscesses (circled) due to chronic pnemonia are evident on this radiograph taken at the University of California, Davis, in July 2008.

"He's told me a fair bit just from handling him," she continued. "I don't think he was ever abused or beaten. He's not head shy, but he's very reactive. He gets stuff quickly, a smart horse … I see him being a nice trail horse. He's not going to be for a beginner because if you cluck to him, you'd better mean it. If you put your leg on him he moves."

All along the way, Thompson had been reporting Freeway's progress in an online forum on Users of the boards following the horse's story sent notes of thanks and encouragement to the veterinarians treating Freeway, and some even sent anonymous gifts to help pay for extensive veterinary bills, even though Thompson never asked for help. "I'm so fortunate to have my own place and the room to do this, and the time to do this, but a lot of people can't do this and they want to feel like they're involved," she explained.

But despite his encouraging recovery and his blossoming personality around the barn, Freeway still hadn't kicked his cough. Enter veterinarians from the University of California, Davis.

The Nastiest Snot You Ever Saw

Gary Magdesian, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, assistant professor in medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Davis, veterinary school, took his first look at Freeway in July. "He was presented to us for chronic infection manifested as cough, exercise intolerance, and marked sputum," he said. "The special circumstance that stands out to me is the marked volume of sputum that Freeway had--he would cough out what looked like several hundred milliliters of sputum each time." (To give you an idea of the volume, a half pint is roughly 237mL.)

In addition to the unpleasant outward signs, radiographs of Freeway's lungs also told the story of why his clinical signs weren't abating. "We found marked consolidation of the lungs and abscesses on chest radiography (visible as spots on the X ray). We diagnosed chronic pneumonia with anaerobic pulmonary abscesses," explained Magdesian, who noted that this diagnosis is not uncommon in starvation and neglect cases, but it's certainly not seen in every--or even the majority of--cases. The pneumonia had become well-established and walled off inside these abscesses, making it very difficult to treat.

But despite the dismal state of his lungs, Freeway looked pretty healthy. He had a "remarkable outward appearance despite having had chronic pneumonia," Magdesian described. "He was in good body condition and had a nice hair coat, a testament to Sue's care and the horse's drive, I believe."

Magdesian started Freeway on a course of treatment consisting of long-term antimicrobials, bronchodilators, rest, air quality control, and nutritional support.

While at UC Davis, Freeway was not only an interesting pneumonia case, but he also became a star patient and teaching subject for the veterinary students. "He's okay with eight students being on him with stethoscopes at once. Everyone gets a really good listen to his lungs," Thompson said. An initial plan had been to ultrasound his heart to check for damage. But Freeway, with his calm demeanor and intriguing background--and no need for sedatives whatsoever--ended up having his heart, lungs, gut, liver, and kidneys examined on ultrasound as well.

Side view of Freeway after rehabilitation

Freeway takes in the sights in this photo op at a nearby country club in July 2008.

Aside from the lung abscesses, Thompson said all of Freeway's internal organs looked as they should, and all tests have indicated his liver and kidneys are functioning normally.

Looking Ahead

Since his summer visits to UC Davis, Freeway has settled into his schedule of receiving the antimicrobial metronidazole three times daily, and he doesn't seem to really mind it that much. He's an expert companion horse and sometimes accompanies other horses to their farrier and other appointments, just so they won't be sitting in the trailer alone. He gets a light ride every so often, and despite a big splint and a few bumps here and there, Freeway is as sound and smooth has his name might suggest. Thompson describes him as a bold, interested horse, always wanting to see what's around the corner. A family friend once said he'd have given his right arm to have owned Freeway as a 6-year-old.

One of the hurdles the bay gelding faces in his recovery is a compromised immune system from the long-term, well-established illness and previous starvation. Magdesian comments, "We are combating this by taking a broad approach to his treatment--antimicrobials based on culture and susceptibility testing, good nutritional support (vitamins, probiotics, flax, good-quality hay, and senior feed), and limited exercise with decrease in dust exposure. I should emphasize that because of his long duration of illness, Freeway will require long-term (several months) of treatment because the pneumonia is so well-established and walled off in abscesses."

All of this care translates to a lot of time and money. Does Thompson have any regrets about taking on the behemoth task of saving Freeway? Not for a second.

"It's been a really neat journey," she described. "Its' been a lot of work, it's been a lot of money, but it's definitely been worth it. Obviously the goal is for him to have a complete and total return to health, and we're almost there," she said. "The odds are good for that, and since at no point during this whole journey--and his occasional energetic antics--has he ever appeared to be winded, Dr. M. is optimistic that his long illness will not result in permanent damage. He won't be a horse with 'broken wind' as the old timers would say. He is already a wonderful companion for a fractious horse who needs to be quiet, so he can earn his keep that way … not that he owes me anything."

She wonders if Freeway's future career could lie in being an ambassador. "There are plenty of horses who go out in the public eye as breed ambassadors: Freeway could do it not for a breed, but for a cause. He is pleasant, attractive, and incredibly polite. People talk about finding diamonds in the rough; he was my diamond in the mud."

Golenz reflected on Freeway's progress: "This is what it's about. You take a horse, you try to help it, and you see it progress to health and happiness. I've been doing this (veterinary medicine) for almost 20 years and still to this day, when I see a situation like Freeway's, it brings so much joy to my heart and regenerates me and makes me enthusiastic about what I do as a veterinarian.

"Every time I go out to the ranch, he just is better and better and better, to the point he's going to be too healthy." She noted the last time she saw Freeway he had a BCS of 7. "I'm going to have to tell Sue to put him on a diet!"

Freeway recovered

Thompson took Freeway to a nearby country club for an “after” photo op following six months of rehabilitation and recovery. “There was a lot to look at when Freeway went to town for the Fourth of July,” said Thompson of Freeway’s expression in this photo. “From antique fire trucks to children on decorated bicycles, he took it all in stride.”

Waves of Good

As any success story would, Freeway's journey has inspired more than a few horse owners to open their barn doors to a horse in need. Thompson notes at least three people on the Ultimate Dressage board have adopted horses, generally after she has assured them that if she can take on a project like Freeway and they have time and inclination, they can do it, too. "I would've told you (my barn) was full back then," she said, "but in reality I had room for one more. I was lucky that I got a relatively functional, sound horse. I think a lot people have room for just one more.

"A lot of the horses that are out there for free are nice horses," she continued. "The message is every horse is one owner away from a situation like that. It takes just one change of ownership in the wrong direction and someone gets in financial trouble, maybe the horse gets sick, and bills don't get paid. I don't think any horse is really safe from that type of situation. I think they're all at risk."

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About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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