‘She’s so special,’ horse owner asks for help after two horses die from botulism

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MASCOT, Tenn. (WATE) — A horse owner is asking the community for help after two of her horses died and one is still recovering from botulism.

Horses have always been a huge part of Kathleen Taylor’s life.

“I’ve owned horses probably about 40 years now,” Taylor said. Before moving to East Tennessee, Taylor raced horses in New Jersey.

When she retired, got married and moved to Mascot with her husband, she knew she wanted to own horses. So, she brought a few down that she already had, and decided to breed a couple for her and her husband to ride for leisure.

As of 2021, she owned four horses.

“All these horses in Tennessee are grandma, ma and children,” Taylor said.

Orthie, the grandmother, lived separately from the others.

Orthie (full name is Orthie’s Dream) grazing on Kathleen Taylor’s property. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Taylor

Tenny, Orthie’s daughter, and her two children Dreamer and Ellie, lived on a different farm with other horses.

Photo of 25-year-old Tenny. Courtesy of Kathleen Taylor

Out of the blue, Taylor said she got a call from the horseman at her horse’s farm.

“One day I got a phone call that they found Dreamer down in the field and he had passed away, and we just had no idea why,” Taylor said.

A photo of Dreamer. Courtesy of Kathleen Taylor.

That wasn’t the only death she’d have to endure.

“Eight or nine days later, I get another phone call that Tenny was down, that was the 25-year-old, the mother of Dreamer,” Taylor said.

The situation for Tenny was different, Taylor said.

She was still alive, so a veterinarian could see what was going on.

“They surmised it had all the tell-tale signs of botulism, which was rare and unheard of and certainly a problem never on the farm,” Taylor said.

Tenny was far along in her distress at that point, so the Taylors made the decision to euthanize her.

Ellie was the only survivor of the Taylors’ horses.

Taylor said they moved Ellie and the other horses on the property (who had different owners) to a different field.

She visited Ellie the day after they moved her, and she seemed to be doing fine.

Ellie (left) at the new field with a new buddy. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Taylor.

However, they got a call the next day saying Ellie was now down.

“Our hearts just sank,” Taylor said.

It took about seven people, a tractor, ratchet straps, a large piece of cardboard and a trailer later, Ellie was on her way to the UT Veterinary Medical Center.

Taylor said botulism had gotten into Ellie’s as well.

“There’s no other horses affected by this at the farm. It was my three, and that just proves to me how they were probably eating or grazing or foraging from the same area and more than likely that might be what happened,” Taylor said.

Dr. Karen McCormick, a clinical associate professor of equine at UT, said Taylor could be right about the source.

McCormick said botulism is caused by the the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.

“It grows in the absence of oxygen,” McCormick said.

She said horses can get botulism by eating spoiled hay.

“The most common would probably be from spoiled feed. So from most likely a round bale, because they’re the most likely the type of feed to get spoiled, because it’s a big bale that can cause fermentation on the inside,” McCormick said.

She said horses can get botulism from another type of hay:

“It can also be from carcasses that are baled within that bale. So when they bale the hay in the field, if wild animals — like mice or rats — happen to be incorporated into that bale and rot in that bale, that can also be another source of the bacteria,” McCormick said.

McCormick said there are two main signs of botulism in horses: the inability to eat and muscle weakness.

“They try to eat, they want to eat, but they can’t get the food in and they can’t get the food down. Other things is just weakness. Muscular weakness,” McCormick said.

McCormick said horses don’t do well when they can’t stand. They are meant to be on their hooves.

McCormick said the good new for Ellie is that she can eat and drink. However, she’s not able to get up.

“Her size makes it that that is not something that you can deal with without some impressive equipment. So we have a sling, she is in a sling now and we can use that to lift her up off the ground as needed,” McCormick said.

McCormick said that once Ellie is up, she has no problem moving around. However, it’s unclear when Ellie will be well enough to go home. As of Tuesday, Ellie had been at UT for nine days.

McCormick said recovery is just a waiting game. They can’t do anything to help Ellie improve, except support her standing and eating.

“Once that toxin has bound the neuromuscular junction, it does not come unbound. So they actually have to make new neuromuscular junctions in order to recover from this disease,” McCormick said.

She said horses, like humans, can die from botulism.

If not caught early enough, eventually the respiratory muscles could stop working completely, making the horses unable to breathe.

McCormick said botulism in horses isn’t very common in East Tennessee. However, horses are more susceptible to botulism compared to other animals.

“It actually takes more toxin to kill a mouse than it does a horse. So, that’s pretty impressive when you think about the size difference between a mouse and a horse,” McCormick said.

Also similar to humans, fouls are much more susceptible to botulism if they are exposed to it, because they don’t have the bacteria in their GI tract to fight against it, according to McCormick.

McCormick said botulism can be prevented.

“You can’t completely avoid the bacteria. It is everywhere in our environment, but round bales are more implicated in the disease. So, if we can avoid round bales, grea; if not, definitely vaccinate them,” McCormick said.

McCormick said a three-dose vaccine is also available to prevent botulism, but since botulism is a little more rare in East Tennessee, she doesn’t often administer them.

She said if there are other horses near a horse that had botulism, she would recommend those horses to get vaccinated.

Since Ellie is still at UT, and Taylor had to bury Dreamer and Tenny, things aren’t easy emotionally or financially.

Taylor doesn’t have any kids of her own.

Her horses are her children.

That’s why she wants Ellie to continue to recover at UT, despite the cost.

“It’s been a very humbling experience for me. I started the GoFundMe page because this is bigger than anything I’ve come across. You know, when you have animals, you’re going to have vet bills. We’re well equipped for the normal things, but this is a little out of the ordinary,” Taylor said.

Taylor set a $25k goal for the fundraiser, however she has no idea if that’s more or less than what she’ll need after Ellie fully recovers.

She is hoping anyone in the community can help her out, and if she raised more than what she needs, she will donate the rest to the UT Veterinary Medical Center.

Taylor said the staff has taken great care of Ellie and they deserve the extra appreciation.

You can find the Taylor’s and Ellie’s fundraiser by clicking this link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-me-save-my-horse-prayers-for-ellie

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