#ThrowbackThursday: Through the Equine Looking Glass

**Originally published during my internship with the American Quarter Horse Journal in 2006.


Through the Equine Looking Glass

Corneal ulcers can do more damage than you think.

One fall morning, my American Quarter Horse mare, Skips Satin Lark (aka “Lark”), didn’t seem to have the same bright eyes that she normally had. I also noticed significant tearing from her left eye. Thinking she just had something in it, I flushed her eye with artificial tears and applied a warm compress. Later that day, it was still bothering her, so I took her to our veterinarian, who diagnosed her with a simple scratch in her eye and gave me some ointment to put in her eye three times a day.

A week later, her eye wasn’t healing, and it began to look cloudy, so once again I hauled her to the veterinarian.

The diagnosis was that she was suffering from a corneal ulcer and needed to be treated by a veterinary ophthalmologist right away. After a two-hour haul to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Veterinary Teaching Hospital, she underwent extensive examinations and stains. If we had waited until the next day, she might have lost her eye.

Before that night, I had never heard of a corneal ulcer, which is surprisingly common in horses.

What is a Corneal Ulcer?
Corneal ulcers stem from any trauma that occurs in the eye. In Lark’s case, a simple scratch became infected with a fungus. Trauma can be anything from scratches from hay or dust or running into a fence post. Other causes of corneal ulcers include parasites, viruses, eyelashes irritating the eye or lack of tear production.

The simplest signs of tearing, squinting and sensitivity to bright light are key to knowing something is wrong with your horse’s eye. When I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Erica Tolar was a second-year resident in ophthalmology there, and she saw many patients like Lark with eye problems, including corneal ulcers.

Dr. Tolar says a horse owner who sees any of those symptoms needs to contact his or her local veterinarian for a specific diagnosis immediately.

“Corneal ulcers can deteriorate quickly, even in a matter of hours,” Dr. Tolar said. “It is best not to delay or self-medicate.”

Key factors in diagnosing a corneal ulcer are time and the right medications. Steroids should never be used, because they prevent the body from mounting a good immune response and allow infectious organisms to multiply, which will hinder healing.

Dr. Tolar’s initial examination is a lengthy, meticulous procedure.

“The first step is to get a good history,” says Dr. Tolar, who used fourth-year veterinary students to assist with diagnosis and treatment. “We ask multiple questions to help walk us through what has happened and what the horse has been treated with. It is helpful for owners to bring all medications they use or a list of what they have done.”

To make the exam easier, Dr. Tolar injects a small amount of local anesthetic over a nerve that controls the function of the upper eyelid. Once that has taken effect, the entire eye is assessed with a diffuse light. If an ulcer is suspected, Dr. Tolar takes a culture to determine which bacteria or fungus might be causing the problem.

To get a better look at the ulcer, a fluorescein stain is applied, and a hand-held microscope is used to determine the depth of the ulcer.

“Determining if the horse has an ulcer is the easy part,” Dr. Tolar says. “The difficult part is determining the cause and the appropriate treatment. Depending on the depth, we may recommend medical therapy or surgical therapy.”

Dr. Tolar says that even if a horse is started on medical therapy, he might still need surgery, because the eye can still deteriorate while being treated.

Each treatment plan depends on the depth of the ulcer, amount of the cornea affected and how much the owner is able or willing to spend. On one extreme, the ulcer can be superficial and not complicated by any fungus or bacteria. This treatment plan can be just medical therapy and involve topical antibiotics three to four times daily.

The other extreme for medical therapy can involve hospitalization, a tube placed under the upper eyelid to facilitate frequent treatment (subpalpebral lavage tube), topical antibiotic therapy every one to two hours including one to two antibiotics, atropine, topical autogenous serum (which is made by drawing the patient’s blood and drawing off the serum that is used to coat the eye) and anti-fungal therapy.

“Even with doing everything possible and there being no limit on money supply, we may not be able to save the eye,” Dr. Tolar says. “Ulcers that are infected don’t go away on their own.”

With a quick diagnosis and intensive care, we were able to save Lark's eye, and her sight.

With a quick diagnosis and intensive care, we were able to save Lark’s eye, and her sight.

If the horse is being cared for at home, you can help make him comfortable by keeping him in a darkened stall and limiting exercise. Using a mask like a fly mask or one provided by your veterinarian should protect the eye. Also, it’s recommended that hay be fed from the ground to prevent further damage.

Full recovery may take weeks or months, depending on the severity of the ulcer. Owners will notice red blood vessels in the cornea surrounding a healing ulcer. This is a good sign that the cornea is starting to heal.

A big concern for all parties involved is how much vision is lost due to the ulcer.

“What is perfect eyesight in animals? Our patients can’t tell us how their vision is to start with,” Dr. Tolar says. “We have a difficult time determining if it is ‘perfect’ to begin with. If the cornea is affected by a large ulcer, or surgery is involved, we have to assume their vision is affected. Does that stop some horses from doing their job? No, not necessarily.”

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a guaranteed way to prevent corneal ulcers from occurring in your horse.

“It is hard to prevent ulcers, since they are usually secondary to trauma, whether that is a piece of straw, a nail in the stall or a whip lash,” Dr. Tolar says. “Some people feel that trimming the long hairs around the eyes predisposes them to ulcers, but that is hard to prove.”



Throwback Thursday: Kayce Amsden Finds Balance

For this #ThrowbackThursday post, I found an article published in the October 2012 issue of Western Shooting Horse Magazine where I spoke with one shooter who learned how to balance life as a mother, trainer, and shooter. Considering I’m going to have to learn that delicate balance of mother and professional, I thought this would be perfect to share:

Kayce Amsden Source

Kayce Amsden Source

Kayce Amsden: Finding the Balance

One look at Kayce Amsden’s daily schedule will exhaust you just by reading it: wake up and start working to wake up son Kaleb, fix breakfast and try to wake up Kaleb again, finally lure Kaleb out of bed and rush him to school before heading to work—and that’s just the morning. After work, it’s time to pick up Kaleb from school for wrestling practice, head home and work a couple head of horses, clean stalls, fix dinner, do a little schoolwork, and then head to bed before getting up and doing it all over again the next day.

Kayce is a mom, horse trainer, advisor, student, cheerleader, chauffer, groom, chef, and more. For some, it’d be way too much to even think about, but for Kayce, it’s all about finding that balance.

Life Before Mounted Shooting
Kayce grew up in a horse loving family—her parents actually met at a 4-H horse show. “The story is my mom asked my dad, ‘Here, little boy, will you hold my horse?’ and that’s how they met,” laughed Kayce. Thus started the Amsdens down the path of horse shows and trainers.

While growing up in North Dakota, her parents started training with Mac McEwen, who later quit. It was then that her parents started training out of their own 30-stall barn. Kayce started riding with her dad and showing on the Arabian circuit, finishing her first horse at the tender age of 12. A few years later she was eventually named a national champion in trail. She started giving lessons to help pull her weight around the farm.

Ten years ago, Kayce and her family moved back down to Missouri after her father’s retirement from the military. They “downsized” when they moved onto the Amsden family farm–a 700-acre ranch at the foothills of the Ozarks off a dead-end road. Surrounded by a creek, big bluffs, woods, and lots of open fields, it’s no surprise Kayce loves to trail ride on the property whenever she can, save for the few months of hunting season when the family takes over.

The ranch consists of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, Kayce’s parents, and of course Kayce and her 14-year-old son Kaleb. Everyone in the family rides horses, some of them more focused on showing Arabian horses–but all of them as horse crazy as Kayce.

An all-around rider, Kayce has shown in a plethora of events: trail, hunt seat equitation, Western pleasure, side saddle, hunt seat pleasure, over fences, reining, and working cow horse. It seemed like Kayce would be up for anything on horseback…that is, until she heard about cowboy mounted shooting.

Her grandmother’s former boyfriend, Danny Dees, introduced her grandmother to the sport. The idea of moving fast with guns blazing and making sharp turns surprised Kayce some—she was used to moving slower, being a little more prim and proper in the show ring. But one ride on Danny’s horse, Cheyenne, and she caught the shooting bug.

“My grandmother encouraged me to do (mounted shooting),” says Kayce. “I rode horses all my life and I could do that part, but I was a horrible shot to start with—I never hunted, nor never used a gun of any sort, besides a BB gun.

“Danny drove me around and got me started,” explains Kayce. “I had to beg, borrow, and steal horses, and I kind-of just made it work. I eventually got better and better horses.”

Now, eight years later, Kayce is hooked and competes as a Ladies Level 4. She’s won the East Coast Classic and Nationals, as well as a few Missouri state championships. Kaleb competed for a few years as a Wrangler, and her grandmother still competes as a Senior 1.

All in the Family
“I eventually had both sides of my family involved in horses and mounted shooting,” says Kayce. “We’ll go to a shoot, and if my grandmother is competing, there will be five generations there shooting. It’s a neat thing for us to do as a family.”

Horses are a huge part of the family. They work together on the ranch, with Kayce helping to start three-year-olds for her mom’s side of the family, as well as assisting at different shows. If Kayce’s aunt needs a junior rider at an Arabian show, Kaleb jumps into the saddle to help out.

“Kaleb tells everyone he was riding horses before he was born,” jokes Kayce. “I think he’s quite the horseman. He still rides quite a bit and every once in a while they’ll have a horse that someone wants him to show, so he’ll still show.”

Scaling Back
Now that Kaleb’s 14, life has gotten more hectic for Kayce, a single mom. She’s cut back on the amount of horses she’s training and the amount of shoots she goes to, but she’ll never totally stop riding or shooting. “Kaleb understands that I’m not sane unless I have my horse time,” says Kayce. “It’s a huge balancing act, but I only have a few more year left with him—I’m down to four years and then he graduates from high school—and I don’t want to miss anything.”

Kayce’s days are filled with working for the Farmington School District at-risk program for kids who don’t have enough credits to graduate. She keeps track of their work hours, helps them study for their GED, and helps with the recovery program in the high school. Meanwhile, she’s studying speech pathology through Lake Region State College in North Dakota. “There’s more job security with speech pathology—I can work with stroke victims, the elderly, and little kids—there are so many options,” she explains.

Kaleb’s extra-curricular activities also take precedence in Kayce’s life. He’s an emerging wrestling star and plays on his school’s football team. And Kayce wants to be there for every grapple and every tackle to cheer her son on. “I’m the ‘loud mom’ at the wrestling matches,” she laughs. “I don’t think anybody would say I relax during a wrestling match—I’m there for every match I root for everyone on the team.”

On the flip side, Kayce has her own cheerleader and supporter in her son. Even though Kaleb’s schedule doesn’t allow him to shoot much any more, he still likes to attend the local shoots with his mom and stand by the gate to cheer her on. “I have a great time,” says Kaleb.

Kaleb also helps out his mom at home, helping to clean stalls so she can ride when they get home from practice. “He’s a big help,” says Kayce. “I don’t think I could do it all without him. I’ll ride horses while he cleans stalls, or some times I’ll clean stalls so he can ride. It’s a balance, and a team thing.”

Making a Comeback
Kayce’s anticipating coming back to the shooting arena full-force in a couple of years. “I’m so excited (for Kaleb to get his driver’s license)—I’ve got a year and a half left. I’m counting down the days when I can go and ride and I don’t have to be waiting at practice to bring him home.”

Her new horse, Go Groovy Go (“Sam”), is ready to hit the road with Kayce. The 11-year-old, 16.3 hand Appendix Quarter Horse gelding started his shooting career in Kayce’s barn, but went through a few hands before returning home, when she could afford to buy him. “He’s huge and white and very forward and elevated in his movements,” she gushes. “You feel like a princess when you ride him. Absolutely nothing in the world affects you when you sit on Sam.”

Until that point comes, when Kaleb moves off to college (he’s hoping to get a wrestling scholarship to Penn State so he can also study in the equine program there), Kayce will have to continue to rely on that delicate balance, relying on the likes of Kaleb and Sam to reinstall her sanity when life gets a little overwhelming.

Arabians Gone Shooting
It’s rare to see a shooter astride something other than the stock horse breeds of Paint and Quarter Horses, but there are some Arabians, Half-Arabians, Tennessee Walking Horses, and more in the mix. While Kayce Amsden started mounted shooting on a Half-Arabian, she’s since completely switched over to competing on American Quarter Horses. “I love Arabs and I like to show them and still have some, … but they don’t have the quickness that a Quarter Horse does,” she explains. “They can’t compare (to Quarter Horses) since we’re not running a race—(shooting) is a sprinting thing, not a long distance event.”

While Kayce believes she could have put her first shooting horse (Half-Arabian) up against any horse of any breed, she feels there’s a place for Arabian horses to have their own class in mounted shooting for the people who are passionate about the breed. “We get to go to the Arabian National Championships and put on a demonstration, and they love us there.”

Throwback Thursday: Seasonal Tack Touch-Ups

Growing up with horses you think you know all there is to know about horse care. But spend a few years as the photo editor for a horse health publication and you get a quick check of reality that you have a lot more to learn. But it was a great education and I loved learning everything I could about horse health, equitarians, etc.

One of my first endeavors of writing for The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care was one that was up my alley because I’m obsessed with taking care of my tack.

This is the time of year where horse owners are chomping at the bit to get their saddles of storage and hop on their woolly beasts immediately. (I bet you didn’t know that saddles wear out more from neglect than use.) But there’s so much you need to do with that dormant tack before you can hit the trails, and that’s where this article comes in. There simple steps you can take to make sure your tack is ready for a full season:

Clean saddles not only look pretty, but they stay functional.

Clean saddles not only look pretty, but they stay functional. (Photo by Lori Schmidt)

Seasonal Tack Touch-Ups

The days will soon begin to get longer and the riding bug will start to bite–it’s almost time to dust off your saddle and deep clean your furry beast of a horse. But will your tack be ready to use after sitting in storage through the winter?

Whether you ride Western, hunt seat, saddle seat, or sidesaddle, simple acts such as checking potential stress points in the leather, the soundness of your saddle’s tree, and hinges of bits are often left out of the routine. It’s often assumed that just because your tack got you through your previous ride without any problems, then it’s in good shape for the next ride. That assumption can get you in trouble if your horse jumps to the side quickly or you must pull him up at the last minute; one small crack in the leather could turn into a big tear at the wrong moment, and it could leave you and your horse separated, and maybe injured.

Check, Check 1-2-3

Dennis Moreland of Weatherford, Texas, who’s been a tack maker for more than 30 years, says the one place most people tend to forget to look when checking Western saddles is the off-side of the girth. “They don’t see it every day,” says Moreland.

He advises riders to check the leather everywhere it folds, especially in the latigo, where the straight part might look and feel great, but where it folds around the cinch buckle it could be dry and cracking. Chicago screws in headstalls should be tightened and replaced where needed.

Western and English girths come in a variety of materials, including leather, neoprene, nylon, mohair or rope cords, and sheepskin. Moreland says, “The cinches made from 100% mohair tend to stretch, but the cord I use is mohair, wool, and Dacron mixed. It’s important to check your cords (to make sure) they have not stretched.”

If you choose to use nylon, sheepskin, or leather girths, it’s important to check for any cracks that could be uncomfortable to the horse and compromise the integrity of the girth. Also check all the buckles to make sure there isn’t any corrosion.

Buddy Baird with Stübben North America, an English saddle manufacturer, reiterates Moreland’s advice on checking saddles routinely. “The one thing we run into all the time is that people never look at their stuff,” he says. “They basically just assume that when they put it up it’s okay, and when they get it out it’s okay. Saddles don’t really wear out from use, but more from neglect.”

Two minutes is all it takes to give an overall tack check, says Baird, “Go up and down the reins to make sure everything is right and not stretched, go over the stud hooks to check if they are intact and not being pulled out, check for cracks, dry fissures, and dry rot.” If anything looks questionable, get it repaired.

Baird likens tack to a pair of leather shoes: “If you wear a pair of leather shoes in the rain and stick them in the closet for three months, or on your back porch, you will find those shoes to be very uncomfortable and very difficult to break back in. If you can keep leather soft, supple, and moist, that’s an ideal situation to go into the spring. You need to condition the leather to keep it from dry-rotting and getting hard and brittle because of the sweat.”

Saddle Trees

Saddle trees are the most forgotten part of saddle maintenance because they are hidden. Baird reminds owners to know what type of tree their English saddle has before they check it. Some saddles, like Stübbens, have flex trees. “In our saddles, the frame and tree are supposed to bend. If you can bend it, it is not a guarantee that the tree is broken,” says Baird. “However, the points of the tree are fixed points and should not be able to flex. (Other English saddle trees aren’t designed to flex like this.)

“It’s always good to check with the saddle manufacturer on how to check the saddle tree,” he adds. “Typically, there are different ways to check the different trees.”

While other aspects of your tack should be checked at least weekly, saddle trees can be checked yearly, unless you get into a wreck with your horse. In this case, Moreland offers general guidelines for checking Western saddle trees:

  1. Set the saddle on a saddle rack and stand directly behind it.
  2. Put the back of the saddle against your belt.
  3. Reach over and pull the horn toward you. (You’re holding the saddle between your hand and stomach.)
  4. Also, you can put the saddle on the ground and gently try to flex the tree. If the saddle wiggles or flexes, you’ve got a broken tree.


Bits also require a seasonal checkup because they are a direct communication line to your horse. “Bits will deteriorate faster not being used rather than being overused, because they tend to rust just hanging there,” says Moreland.

Check all swivel shanks to make sure the shank hasn’t rusted to the point that it’s frozen at the swivel. Some guides say to use a penetrating oil such as WD-40 or 3-IN-ONE Oil to help break any rust. However, Ed Boldt Jr., DVM, of Performance Horse Complementary Medicine Services in Fort Collins, Colo., offers other alternatives to using oil to clean the rust. He suggests using a steel wool pad with light soap and water. “You should watch how much oil you use on a bit because it could irritate the horse’s tongue or mouth,” warns Boldt. “I’d also recommend using a mineral oil instead.”

Always remember to disinfect bits if they’re shared by horses to prevent transmitting diseases. Filling a bucket with a solution of chlorhexidine (Nolvasan) will make disinfecting easier with just one dunk.

A Little Cleaning Goes a Long Way

There is such a thing as too much cleaning when it comes to your saddle and tack. Too much cleaning, especially with an aggressive-type of glycerin soap, can dry out the leather, eat away at the stitching, and it might cause mold.

“If you put your leather in a situation where it can grow mold, it will,” states Baird.

Moreland suggests using a gentle liquid saddle soap, such as Fiebing’s Liquid Glycerin Saddle Soap, with a dampened sponge or piece of sheepskin to clean the leather. If your saddle has a lot of dirt caked on, use a scrub brush like a nail brush or toothbrush. Green mold can be easily killed and wiped off using a concoction of one part Listerine and two parts water in a spray bottle.

Oiling your leather is not an everyday activity. Just as with cleaning, too much oil is not a good thing; it can make the leather spongy and break it down. In older tack stitched with flax thread, excessive oil can eat away at the stitching. (Tack makers use nylon thread now.) Use neatsfoot compound oil rather than pure oil because the pure oil can get rancid, and in the high humidity it will cause mold.

It’s best to check with your saddle’s manufacturer for what they recommend. Stübben representatives, for example, recommend their Hamanol conditioner, which is made in conjunction with the company that tans their leather.

Tack Storage

Baird suggests after every ride to take a damp cloth and wipe the underside of your saddle to remove the sweat and dirt, thus prolonging the life of your leather. “Wiping the saddle down will remove the oils and acid that come with the horse’s sweat,” he advises. “That can break down the leather.”

Storing your saddle in a dark, unheated tack room is detrimental to the leather. The absence of light or heat causes mold to grow on your leather and could freeze it. Over the course of the winter, or even during the summer, if you’re not going to ride in it, it’s in your tack’s best interest to be in a controlled environment and not subject to temperature and moisture fluctuations.

Take-Home Message

The state of your tack has an impact on your horse’s health and well-being, as well as your own safety. By just taking a few moments and applying a little TLC, you will apply the right preventive medicine that will keep you and your tack safe and healthy.

Next week I’ll share some advice I learned from a veterinarian about keeping your horse healthy when sharing tack.

You can read more by checking out TheHorse.com.

Throwback Thursday: When the World Came to Kentucky

Inspired by the Winter Olympics in Sochi, I decided to do a “Throwback Thursday” that involves the World Equestrian Games. I did a couple of special reports for the American Quarter Horse Journal’s online newsletter, America’s Horse Daily, on how Lexington was preparing for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Tom McCutcheon rode to the Individual Gold for the USA at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. (Photo by Megan Arszman)

Tom McCutcheon rode to the Individual Gold for the USA at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. (Photo by Megan Arszman)

For residents of Lexington, Kentucky, it’s been a long time coming. Drive around town, and you’ll see countdown clocks and billboards all touting that “The World is Coming!” Now it’s down to a matter of a little more than 400 days until the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games hit the Bluegrass State.

For months, entering the Kentucky Horse Park has been a matter of battling construction traffic, cones and hard hats. Mixed with sounds of horses nickering and spectators cheering are truck beeps, cement mixers and jackhammers. While that’s still the norm in some parts of the park, that has dulled a bit, and the roar of approving applause has opened the gem of the Bluegrass: the $45 million indoor facility, the complementary centerpiece to the park’s new outdoor stadium which opened this spring with the Rolex Three Day Event in April.

The building still has that “new arena smell” to it. There’s fresh green paint on the walls, barely trodden dirt and new plastic stadium seats waiting to host fans….

Read the rest on America’s Horse Daily.