One type of foxtail in its live, green state

Most of us are familiar with the fact, that horses have a list a mile long of different kinds of weeds and junk that they are toxic to (walnuts, buttercups, nightshade, and the list goes on…). Most of the time, our 4-legged friends will simply avoid these items, as long as they’re out in the pasture with plenty of other good things to munch on.

So they’re typically, not a big worry on a day to day basis.  But every now and then, as with everything, there is an exception…and we’ll get to that, but first to give you some background…

I own a 10 year old QH/Paint mare who has her fair share of allergy issues – molasses, soy bean, alfalfa, yeah she’s allergic to all of those.  For that reason, she has to be on a special diet which basically consists of barley as a filler, and then her supplements (thank you SmartPak!).

Every now and then, a medical mystery will pop up with her – like the random hives she came down with this summer for no good reason. Finally the vet and I, deduced it was from a specific type of tiny biting fly that was out in full force this year for whatever reason, but not until poor little Sandie had consumed probably ten times her weight in prednisone and Azium, and was about to explode with all the crazy energy the drugs were giving her!  Anyway, I digress…

The initial ulcer that showed up on Sandie's lips

So it only surprised me SLIGHTLY, when I saw her standing in the cross ties one day with red-tinted drool coming out of her mouth.

Part of me thought “oh great, what NOW?!” while another part kicked into medical mode, and I started making a list of her symptoms and running through the possibilities!

I figured she’d cut herself, but upon closer examination of her lips, I noticed a big bleeding ulcer, where her top and bottom lip touch on the right side.  I had NEVER seen anything like it, and others at the barn mentioned that a simple cold sore was the likeliest suspect.

I wasn’t sure what it was, but of course, with a good mystery on my hands went home to research on the internet.  After scaring myself with all of the awful things it could be, (had that equine virus come over this far from Montana?!  I thought that had been controlled OH NO!!!) I decided to get the vet involved the next morning.

The vet and I discovered more sores upon further examination.

The vet came out, and we discovered more of these sores up under her front lip, and he concluded it was some sort of toxic plant exposure, probably from the pasture.

But something just didn’t add up…I had since found out that there was one other horse in the barn showing similar symptoms, but he had been kept inside, so not having been out in the pasture with Sandie, I couldn’t figure out what it could be.

That night, I went crazy on the computer posting on forums and googling images to find out what plant would have caused this, so I could MOW IT DOWN!

I couldn’t stand how painful and sore my poor pony’s mouth was, and I felt so badly that she’d felt the need to eat whatever it was.  After searching most of the evening, I came across something that fit *almost* all of the puzzle pieces.  Foxtail.

This nasty little weed causes just the ulcers that I was looking at, and it can grow in pastures.  Our pastures are very dry, but there’s always tons of hay thrown out for the horses, so I had no idea why my horse would be eating a toxic plant if she had perfectly good hay to eat, and the other horse hadn’t even been OUT in the pasture at all, so how did HE get them?  Then it dawned on me, and literally made me feel sick…it was in the HAY!

I dug through her hay and found it everywhere...

When I went to the barn, sure enough it was EVERYWHERE in the hay. Soon after I spread the word, the barn manager asked the hay supplier to take it back and replace it, we started looking at the other horses and we realized that many had the same ulcers as well.  So far, a total of 6 horses in the barn have been identified as showing the symptoms. At least now, we know the cause and the hay has since been replaced!

Apparently, I found that animals such as cows can tolerate foxtail in the hay, but not horses, they are very sensitive to it.  And in addition to the mouth ulcers, it can cause ulcers in the GI tract as well, so it can turn into something very dangerous if not taken care of.

I wanted to put this out there for everyone, complete with photos so that we can all do a better job of identifying the hay that’s being fed to our beloved friends.  I am certain the barn manager at our barn, didn’t know what foxtail looks like or he’d never have accepted it from the hay supplier.  And I’m very glad the supplier did the right thing, and came out to replace the whole shipment for us.

A look at yellow foxtail, the most common form that grows in my area (northeastern Ohio)

But you can be SURE that going forward, I’ll always be checking Sandie’s hay for any sign of these little buggers!  They’re pretty easily mistaken for the other “normal pieces and parts” that come in hay that are harmless so they’re sometimes easy to sneak by.

Hay buyer beware, they’re out there everywhere, and you won’t like it if they show up!

It’s been almost a week now, and Sandie still has the sores in her mouth, despite the twice daily rinses with diluted Listerine and the antibiotics the vet prescribed.  They’re getting better, but very slowly.

I haven’t really been able to ride her because of them, since her mouth is just too sore so it’s been a lot of lunging in a halter for us!  But I’m just glad I know now and can hopefully prevent this in the future (and help others to do the same!)

Mystery solved.

Stefanie