Tennessee Horse Deaths Puzzle Authorities

Tennessee law enforcement authorities are hoping to solve the mystery surrounding the sudden deaths of seven horses in Maury County earlier this month.

Det. Terry Chandler said the Maury County Sheriff's Department was alerted to the deaths on Feb. 1 after the horses' owner discovered the six mares and one stallion dead in their pasture. Three other horses residing on the property were unharmed, Chandler said.

Chandler said there was no indication that the horses struggled or attempted to flee an assailant before death. No wounds or other injuries were found on the animals' carcasses.

"It's as though they just suddenly fell over dead," Chandler said. "One of the horses still had hay in its mouth."

Initially authorities suspected someone had poisoned the horses or that the animals had ingested a poisonous substance prior to their deaths. However, necropsies performed in the field and at the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville did not substantiate that theory, Chandler said.

"All the toxicology reports came back negative," Chandler said. "The necropsy report from the Ellington Agricultural Center said the cause of death is not apparent."

Necropsies did reveal the presence of bot fly larvae in the horses' stomachs, indicating the animals had not received deforming medications for years. Meanwhile, tests on hay samples drawn from the animal's food supply are under way.

"Could (lack of deforming) have been a factor, or could there have been mold or some poisonous plant material in the horses' hay?" Chandler asked.

Carey A. Williams, PhD, associate extension specialist and associate professor at Rutgers University's Department of Animal Sciences, said the presence of bots in the horses' stomachs could harm the horses, but physiological damage caused by the parasites would have been apparent in necropsy.

"At the necropsy they would have seen ulceration and bruising in the horses' stomachs," Carey said.

Williams speculates that it is more likely that the animals ingested some sort of toxic plant or other material in the pasture or in their hay and grain supplies.

"For example, Johnsongrass hay is toxic to horses because it contains cyanide," she said. "Also, there could have been other weeds in the horses' hay or in their pastures or in grain that has not been mixed properly that even in small amounts could be toxic over time."

Evidence of those toxins might not have been easily detected during necropsy if the amount of the material present at the time of the procedure was very small, or if the material had moved completely out of the animals' digestive systems prior to the postmortem procedure, she said.

While the investigation into the Maury County horse deaths continues, Chandler has learned that other similar deaths are under investigation in Dixon County, Tenn. He hopes the combined investigations will generate more leads that might reveal the causes of the puzzling deaths.

"We just don't know what would cause horses to die suddenly like this," Chandler said. "I'll take help from anybody who can help us solve this."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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