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EPM and Lyme in Horses

Both of these infections can have similar symptoms, but different causes and treatment. Spot the difference and know when it would be best to make the call and have your horse tested!

In my last blog post I wrote about different physical ailments that we as equestrians have to help our modern horses with. Some are contracted illnesses, others are due to wear and tear through improper progression in training and others are genetic. Not every single horse has all or none of these things, but as a trainer and professional it is safe to say that they are much more common than one would think.

So lets go through that list beginning with EPM and LYME’s disease. Lyme is a more known phenomena as it effects us humans as well. It is a tick borne neurological illness that effects motor function, proprioception and perception of the world around you and where you are in it. Depending on how soon it is diagnosed and treated, symptoms can range from mild to severe. What makes it tricky to diagnose is that in some cases, obvious symptoms may not present for a prolonged period of time. Symptoms include: weight loss, lethargic movement, intermittent lameness, muscle soreness, joint soreness, sporadic spooking, arthritis, and overall lacking in performance when moving freely and under saddle.

The sooner you can treat your horse the better. Again, depending on how quickly it is diagnosed and treated directly effects whether or not this disease will have long term effects on your horse. In some cases, when treated right away, symptoms will not return and you can begin rebuilding your horse. They often bounce back and are able to work and enjoy life without the strain of sore joints and muscles effecting them. In other cases, even after treatment, you may be looking at a long term maintenance program just to keep your horse comfortable and may have to treat them more than once over their lifetime. You know your horse best and if this is the case, it is up to you and your team, as well as your horse, to make decisions on what your horse is physically capable of handling.

EPM or Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (it’s a mouthful) is carried by other wildlife and contracted by being ingested by our horses through grazing. Like Lyme, it is also a neurological disease (parasite) that actually attacks the spinal chord, in turn directly effecting neurological function. And similarly to Lyme, the sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the less likely it is to effect your horse long term. EPM also effects horses differently, in some, symptoms can present quickly while in others it may take more time before symptoms become noticeable. These symptoms include: loss of muscle on the topline, loss of motor function and uncoordination of the limbs, intermittent lameness, facial muscle paralysis, loss of sensation, over sensitivity, difficulty swallowing and more severe symptoms such as seizures. If treated quickly, and the parasite is killed off, symptoms may be irradicated and with a rehab program, your horse can go back into work and feel like themselves again. If left untreated, these symptoms may continue to persist and your horse will need to stay on a maintenance program.

There are horses who, even with permanent symptoms from EPM, are still able to be ridden and worked with. They may need more help in their balance and coordination, but it is not an impossible feat. I cannot stress enough that the best judge in these situations when dealing with a horse who has Lyme or EPM, is the horse. They will tell you what they are or aren’t capable of and what they are willing to do post treatment. With bringing horses back physically after EPM or Lyme, the best thing we can do for them is help rebuild their strength methodically, work with their proprioception and do everything we can to help them become more balanced, regardless of them being ridden or not.

Having a great team of vets, body workers, hoof care professionals and trainers who understand the long term effects of these diseases is so important. We cannot expect our horses to just carry on as if all is well once treatment is terminated and they are cleared to begin work. They need all of the support they can get. It is up to us as owners, professionals and horse lovers to do what is best for our horses and to listen to what it is that they need. It may mean lowering expectations and being ok with what they can and cannot do. As always, your horse will thank you for your empathy and understanding!

To find out more about EPM and Lyme in horses, treatment and diagnosis I highly recommend reading the information provided on the links below.

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