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Horse Health 1 – PSSM Early Symptoms, The Initial Stages and Struggling With Getting a PSSM Diagnosis

PSSM early symptoms and getting a PSSM Diagnosis

Originally posted 3/9/16 – updates and notations to help piece things together for readers, and show how these PSSM early symptoms progressed.

This post documents PSSM early symptoms in my horse Jax. I didn’t learn he was PSSM1 until September of 2016 – this series on “Horse Health” documents our struggle to finally get to a PSSM diagnosis.

PSSM Early Symptoms: When Things Go Wrong

When vet visits, chiropractors, and just plain guessing can’t make your horse better, what do you do?

PSSM early symptoms and getting a PSSM Diagnosis
Jax – n/P1, n/P2, n/Px – such a love! PSSM early symptoms and getting a PSSM Diagnosis

Jax, my heart horse, has not been right for a little over a year. Around the end of 2014/beginning of 2015, I took Jax for a trail ride to some trails we had never been on. It was his first long(ish) trailer ride, just a little over an hour, and he was a little shaky getting off the trailer. [PSSM Early Symptom – Shaky After Trailer Rides]. After a slight rest, we saddled up and began our ride. Jax always gets excited in new places, and I could tell he was anxious at the start, but he settled as we went down the trail.

After just a mile or so I noticed he seemed a bit shaky again. I figured he may just be nervous (he tends to shake if he’s scared – clue #1) and continued on. We came to a slippery spot which I didn’t see until we were right on it (it was on a slight downhill). I tried to pull him up out of it, but he slipped down into a rut and lost his footing. After some scrambling, he righted himself, but he seemed a little off afterwards. I decided to turn around and head back to the trailer.

On our way back, he had to step over a log, something he’s done many times before. But this time, he didn’t get his feet up and got caught up on the log. He fell forward onto the log, with all of his weight going forward onto his front legs which were laying down on the log (imagine the typical jumping stance with fronts legs bent and stretched forward, he was in that exact position, with the front of his cannon bones laying on the log and his full weight on top).

His back feet stayed planted, stretching his back legs considerably. He couldn’t pull himself back up, so I jumped off to get my weight off of him. He finally pulled himself up and I checked him for cuts, etc, and seeing nothing walked him a couple steps. Now he really seemed off. Nothing major, just no forward and not quite right. [PSSM Early Symptoms: NQR, Shifting Lameness].

I decided to walk him back to the trailer, he wasn’t limping, no major change in movement, just sluggish. On our way back, there was a long, steep downhill. He refused to walk down it. [PSSM Early Symptoms: Refusing To Move, Problems With Downhills]. After much coaxing and a lot of stopping to rest, he finally got down the slope and walked back the rest of the way without incident.  Uphills and flat didn’t seem to be an issue.

And thus the beginning of our problems. Right before this happened, he was put on sweet feed to keep weight on him (the barn’s feed – he gets really skinny in winter, and never really puts on much weight the rest of the year). [PSSM Early Symptoms: Trouble Holding Weight].

After we got back, I took him to the vet to check him out before riding again. He was flexion tested and given a full bill of health. After a couple more days I attempted a short trail ride. My horse is very forward, let me stress, VERY FORWARD. He has a big, fast walk, trot, and canter. He never creeps along. EVER. On this ride, he had no forward, and he couldn’t keep up with a horse that he usually left behind. I knew he was hurt, so we began about a 3 month hiatus from any work.

PSSM early symptoms and getting a PSSM Diagnosis
Weight loss and tight muscles – PSSM early symptoms and getting a PSSM Diagnosis

After three months, he looked and felt great. By April 2015 he was riding walk, trot, canter and was back up to riding 12 miles with no problems. He had developed a swelling over his SI ligament on his right side immediately after the initial injury, but by May 2015 that was gone.  [PSSM Early Symptoms: SI issues]. You may wonder why I would ride him if he had some swelling left. 

The answer is – Jax is a high energy horse.  If you don’t use his energy, he will… and it won’t be a “healthy” use of his energy. So, once he starts to act like he wants to move around and do things, we do it together in a (hopefully) controlled manner. Update 2021 – looking back this was the best thing I could have done – it was after laying him off work that problems really began!

PSSM Early Symptoms: Kidney Issues and Dark Streaks of Urine

As I started bringing him back into work, I noticed that his urine was discolored. [PSSM Early Symptoms: Dark Urine – Needs Vet Intervention If Urine Is Coffee Colored!]. It was fine until the very end when it would turn a reddish brown. I took him to the vet again, and the general consensus was that it was from the color of his supplements/grain. He still passed all flexion tests and neurological tests.  We continued work and even started some local schooling shows and light start on barrels at a trot.

PSSM Early Symptoms: Progression and Loss of Canter, Behavioral Changes

Around July/August 2015, Jax stopped cantering. [PSSM Early Symptoms: Loss Of Gaits]. He was starting to look like he was very stiff in his hindquarters after our rides. I decided to try some a horse aspirin supplement on the days he was stiff, and that seemed to help.

I was giving him more and more days off, I just couldn’t stand to ask him to work when he was obviously having problems. After on and off issues in his hindquarters, I thought we had finally turned the corner and he was getting better. In November of 2015, we went to the ACTHA Festival in Mora, MO. Three whole days of trails and obstacles! I got my Ghost treeless saddle demo in time for this event and we were ready.

After the first day I noticed Jax had dry spots under his saddle. On the second day I checked Jax’s back and he was sore. After cancelling our rides for the second day, I decided to try a different treeless on his back and maybe some treed saddles as well, since there were plenty of vendors at the Festival.

Jax tried to murder every person who touched his back. [PSSM Early Symptoms: Behavior Changes]. He wasn’t just uncomfortable, he was absolutely miserable. I took him to the chiropractor on site and she adjusted him as best she could, but he was not nice to her.

She said his right shoulder was atrophied (possibly due to saddle fit) and his right hind was twisting when he walked.  This horse has never had a mean bone in his body, he’s as sweet as they come. I decided to scrap the rest of the weekend and take him home.

Back to the vet, and then a body worker visit. The body worker noticed a slight deviation around his SI. She didn’t bend and twist him, she used some machines to vibrate and lightly pop him back into place, and found issues with his neck, withers, back, and SI. It seemed that something was off on his right side and was affecting his entire back and neck.  After her visit he was much better for a couple weeks, until farrier day, then he was immediately sore again. [PSSM Early Symptoms: Farrier Issues].

Back to the aspirin supplement. I got him okay for a couple days, then a little sore again on a January 9, 2016. I thought I should leave him without the aspirin for a while just in case his stomach was getting sensitive to it, but he was so stiff (almost looked like he was tying up  – HUGE clue #2) I decided one more dose wouldn’t hurt.

PSSM Early Symptoms: Colic and Gut Issues

Sunday, January 10, Jax colicked for the first time in his almost 9 years. He’s never had a sensitive stomach. The weird part of it was he looked like his back end was tying up, along with the obvious stomach distress. We got the vet out to put mineral oil in him, and he started eating and feeling better.

PSSM Early Symptoms: Stressy Gut. My sad looking horse, right after a mild colic episode in January 2016.  Notice how rigid his muscles are in his hindquarters.

The colic scared me. Really bad. I decided that the colic and the strange color to his urine was two reasons too many, and switched his feed.  Even if it was something as benign as food coloring, I wasn’t going to risk another colic episode. I started reading about Hindgut Acidosis being caused by grain fermenting in the hindgut instead of being digested in the stomach.

You can tell that is happening when they “discard” grain in their droppings. He had been doing that since being on sweet feed. So I switched him over slowly to Strategy Healthy Edge.  I also switched his supplements, making sure he got Vitamin E (which helps tying up) and joint supplements, along with a full spectrum of vitamins, amino acids, and probiotics (I selected every supplement to work with his new grain and his mostly grass hay diet, I didn’t just randomly select them). 

With supplements there’s a chance that your just paying for expensive horse pee, but if there was even a chance of it helping I wanted to try it.

Long story short, he has not colicked, nor has he been stiff in his hindend or looked to be tying up since switching his feed. After a couple weeks off we had a great 6 mile ride where he used his hindend and went comfortably down hills. Problems all solved, right?

PSSM Early Symptoms: The Roller Coaster That Is PSSM

A couple days later his back right leg started hitching more than usual. He’s always been prone to sticky stifles when he’s out of shape, and with all the other issues he definitely was. [PSSM Early Symptoms: Sticky Stifles]. He also had this hitching when I first brought him back after the initial SI injury.  So we started (again) working in hand to strengthen his back legs.

No back soreness, everything was going great and the sticky stifles were getting better. So we started ridden work. After some very short rides he started getting sore in his lumbar area.  Through all of this, Jax has stayed high energy and maintained a willingness to work.  Once again, if I give him time off when he’s this high energy, he will end up hurt some other way.  He was also getting regular body worker visits, about once a month.

So, back to the vet. After explaining everything, I showed him a small knot that I had just found that had formed over Jax’s right SI area. We’ve concluded now that the SI has been a factor through all of this, and the sticky stifles aren’t helping. He’s gotten over this issue once before, so it’s just a matter of building muscle without aggravating the injury.

PSSM Early Symptoms: Small Improvements, For Now

He’s now on a COX-2 inhibitor for inflammation and with the addition of liniment over the SI area, Jax’s sore back is a rare occasion, even with short periods of ridden work. The small knot has dissipated, he no longer stands sickle-hocked, and his back no longer has a roached appearance (this went away after the first chiropractor visit).  However, his stifles are still sticking, so the next step is farrier work with more of a mustang roll to help breakover, and another chiropractor visit. In my next Horse Health post, I’ll update on if the mustang roll helped, and exercises we’ve used to keep Jax strong while (hopefully) helping to heal this SI issue.

Horse Health pt. 2 – SI, Stifle, and Hoof Issues >>

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