Ataxia in a Young Horse: A Matter of Time and Luck

When we got a call from our boarding stable on the day of my 6-month-old Trakehner colt's first vaccinations, one word we weren't expecting to hear was "ataxia."

As a freelance news writer for The Horse, I'm subject to the same kind of "overdiagnosis syndrome" as anyone in the health industry--your horse coughs and you fear herpesvirus; he shivers and you think tetanus. Even so, I've always tried to hold true to that wise mantra taught in veterinary school: "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses--not zebras." In other words, don't turn common clinical signs into far-fetched conclusions.

But having recently written an article on hay-induced neurologic toxicity, I didn't handle the news well. Dragging of the hind feet and an inability to coordinate proper steps is not likely to be a situation that induces optimism, despite all our best hopes and ambitions for this weanling colt. Only a month before, German dressage judges had given him high scores in all three gaits. His new score? Grade 3 out of 5 "wobbler syndrome."

Singer was the first foal born to our champion mare and was himself a champion, already appraised at a high value. With his excellent pedigree and strong potential, the only choice left before us at the time of his weaning was whether to sell now or present him for stallion approval at age two.

Or so we thought.

"He will never heal," the veterinarian who examined him at the barn said. "You need to decide if you want to have him euthanized or keep him as a pet, but he can never be ridden, and he might get worse and never walk again."

The shock was unbelievable. This couldn't be my foal she was talking about. I had been with him the night before, watching him walk, trot, and gallop next to his mother in the longe ring, and he had been perfectly sound. There had been no signs of any kind of accident.

We immediately sought a second opinion and were able to get an appointment with veterinarians at Centre d'Imagerie et de Recherche sur les Affections Locomotrices Equines (CIRALE) in Dozulé (Normandy), France, within 10 days. The important thing, we were told, was to rule out cervical compression of the spinal cord, which is the most common cause of ataxia in Europe, according to Virginie Coudry, DVM, DESV. Other possibilities included spinal cord injury, hip displacement, and toxicity.

On clinical exam, Coudry confirmed Singer's Grade 3 ataxia and performed a series of cervical radiographs. None of them showed anything of particular significance, she said, although there were two slight "concerns" that could be the cause--a minor malformation of a cervical disk (at C7-- horses have seven neck vertebrae, which are designated by the letter "C" and numbered) and a slight narrowing--also called stenosis--of the spinal cord canal at the base of the neck (C6-T1, "T" representing the thoracic vertebrae). These findings were very inconclusive, however.

"Usually when we have colts come in here with this kind of ataxia, or even a lower grade ataxia, the results are much more obvious," she said. "You get a definite narrowing at some point or a major malformation in 95% of the cases. But in Singer's case, it's just not obvious where his problem is located."

Ataxia is a lack of coordination in gaits, but not necessarily movement in general, and it is usually accompanied by other neurologic signs affecting muscular strength and skin sensation, according to Jean-Marie Denoix, DVM, PhD, director of CIRALE. Horses can have a long step followed by a short step, for example, and they list to one side or another as well because of a lack of mobility. Ataxia is best seen at the walk, which requires less automation of movement, according to Denoix.

"Specifically in cervical compressive myelopathy, or 'wobbler syndrome,' the spinal cord fibers in the neck are pinched, and this usually causes a horse to show either muscular weakness or spasticity due to hypercontractions of the muscles within his first two years," he said. "But some horses won't show signs of the condition until they're 8 or 10, sometimes 15 years old, even though they were born with the problem. And others might never show symptoms their entire lives.


CIRALE diagnostics
Ataxic colt radiographs

Top: Singer is positioned for cervical radiographs. Bottom: Dr. Coudry evaluates the images.

"We know that some horses manage to find a way to adapt to their ataxia," Denoix added. "That means some horses hide it for a long time. But on the upside, some of them with clinical signs early on learn to adapt and sort of 'fix' their problems so that they can be not only ridden, but even become successful sport horses in any kind of discipline."

It all comes down to a question of time--and luck, according to Denoix. A colt like Singer, who at 6 months old has no clearly unfavorable X ray findings, just needs time to be given a chance to show what he might be able to do.

"Prognosis is really dependent first on the X ray," he said. "Anti-inflammatories can be infiltrated next to a well-localized lesion such as an overdeveloped vertebral process, and this has a non-negligible success rate of about 30%. But those with no obvious lesions (like Singer) need to get the opportunity to possibly adapt."

Denoix said that he keeps some ataxic horses at the research center to study their progress, and he has given some up to two years to recover. "Most of the time it's pretty clear within six months whether the outcome is going to be positive or negative," he said. "And unfortunately, it's usually negative, but we do have some who manage not to heal, but to adapt satisfactorily. Above all, it's critical to make sure that an ataxic horse is safe around humans, because a horse that is likely to fall is one that is likely to cause injuries."

For Singer, and for us, what this means is patience. Singer was moved immediately to a new boarding facility, Haras du Feuillard in Lower Normandy, where he spends his days in a small, grassy paddock and his nights in a straw-bedded stall. He has a good companion--a 2-year-old ataxic colt that had to be picked up to stand with a crane every morning for eight months, but is now able to rise on his own.

Optimism seems to be playing an important role, at least in enduring the recovery time. "I've got a lot of hope for him," said Benoit Burban, owner of Singer's new stable, and 30-year veteran breeder of Warmbloods. "He's full of energy and has excellent muscle tone. I believe if we give him enough time, he can pull out of this."

Two months later, Singer is still ataxic, but there is progress. He still shows significant strength in all legs and good skin sensation. His ataxia seems to be more unilateral now (affecting one side), with overlifting of his right hind leg in a movement similar to stringhalt. He remains a bit clumsy and incoordinated at times in all three gaits.

While we're waiting, we cling to Burban's comforting words: "All colts get a bit lost in their gaits at this age." For the next four months, hope, patience, and good equine care will be our strongest allies.

Keep an eye on for updates to this story.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More