The drama unfolded in September at Black Fence Farm boarding stables in Clovis when three horses collapsed and died.
“It’s horrifying, really disturbing,” said Katie Flanigan, who opened her horse training and riding lessons business seven years ago. “We were in panic. We had no idea what was happening.”
Before it was over, a total of 13 horses died outright or had to be put down, she said.
Meanwhile, the fate of another 36 horses at the ranch remains uncertain. All suffered permanent neurological damage, Flanigan said.
“They do not ever recover,” she said.
The culprit was contaminated feed, she said.
Monensin, a substance that is fed to cattle to increase digestion but is deadly for horses, was in the feed, she said.
A lab detected it in samples she had tested to verify her suspicions, she said.
The company that made the feed, Western Milling of Goshen, issued a voluntary recall on Sept. 25 for its Western Blend horse feed because it “may contain monensin.”
Calls to Western Milling were not returned.
We were in panic. We had no idea what was happening.
Katie Flanigan, horse stables owner
Flanigan’s lawyer, Andrew Yaffa of Miami, Fla., who has experience in monensin poisoning, said he expects to settle Flanigan’s claim against the feed company out of court and has not yet filed a lawsuit.
“I hope they step up and take full responsibility,” he said. Last week, Yaffa came to California to tour Black Fence Farms and meet with Western Milling representatives.
One of the horses that died was Flanigan’s, a Swedish Warmblood that was a rescue horse named Gucci. She died Oct. 6.
“Although she was a rescue, she was a bred horse. Those don’t come up too often like that,” she said. “She was a strong horse, very gentle and trainable.”
13Number of horses that died from contaminated feed
Flanigan’s business was upended by the crisis.
Her specialty is riding lessons for youngsters in English-style riding and horse jumping, but those students are now getting lessons elsewhere, and she is not taking any new horses, giving lessons or training horses.
She’s caring for the horses that survived.
“It’s similar to a hospice” because they are so ill, she said.
“They trip and fall a lot,” she said. “Some days they are in distress, and the next they’ll be OK.”
Swelling of the legs and face, weak muscles, poor coordination and poor balance are common. It’s unknown if they will die, she said.
The only horses at the ranch that didn’t suffer were two older horses that didn’t get the bad feed because they were on a special diet, she said.
Flanigan, who has a degree in equine management from the University of Findlay in Ohio and has been riding since age 4, immediately stopped using the feed when the first horse collapsed.
It didn’t take long to find the likely cause, she said.
Her father did some Internet research and found a horse ranch in Florida that reported similar symptoms of seizures that were traced to monensin contamination in the feed.
He called the ranch and learned enough for them to suspect monensin was to blame.
For now, she’s taking it a day at a time.
“You just don’t know how to feel sometimes,” she said. “It’s very sad.”