Black Fence Farm owner Katie Flanigan didn’t realize her business was going to crumble within hours when she received a call one Saturday morning in mid-September about a sick horse on her facility.
“I got called out of my house first thing in the morning, probably 7:30, by the woman who feeds the horses,” said Flanigan, who specializes in training children how to ride and show horses.
One of the facility’s horses was having trouble walking and couldn’t get up, Flanigan was told. At the time, Black Fence Farm housed 49 horses, 21 of which belonged to Flanigan and the rest were boarded at the farm on behalf of clients.
Flanigan went out to see the sick horse and immediately called a veterinarian.
“At that point, we thought just one horse was sick,” Flanigan said.
Several children at the farm that Saturday morning soon ran to Flanigan and informed her that other horses were sick and having similar problems.
“It started to snowball really quickly,” Flanigan said. “It was kind of chaotic at first.”
After roughly 20 minutes of thinking about the issue, Flanigan suspected the feed was responsible.
“So, I sent them back out to take the feed away from the horses to prevent them from eating anymore, in case that’s what it was,” she said. “Within about two hours of thinking about it and seeing the horses, I knew in my heart that’s exactly what it was.”
Lab results have since confirmed her suspicion, Flanigan said. The feed, which came from Goshen, California-based Western Milling, was tainted with monensin — a common additive in cattle feed that is highly toxic to horses.
“We found it in the autopsy of the horses and in feed batches through multiple labs that have tested it,” she said.
On Sept. 25, Western Milling voluntarily recalled 1,100 bags of feed. Western Milling declined to comment for this story.
“This is a lady who had a thriving business, who had the horses and the children’s best interest at heart,” said Andrew Yaffa, an attorney representing Black Fence Farm. “She researched and found the best and safest feed she could find, and lo and behold, she finds this feed is loaded with this poison. And through no fault of her own, she’s dealing with this nightmare and she’s trying to help these children deal with their nightmares as they’re watching their horses die right before their eyes.”
Yaffa hopes that the company will accept responsibility for what their feed has done to his client.
“They appear to acknowledge their mistake and (are) wanting to do right by these folks,” he said. “But time will tell how sincere these gestures are.”
In regard to how Western Milling may compensate the individual horse owners in any possible settlement, Yaffa said, “it depends on a case-by-case basis.”
Once a horse has ingested monensin, symptoms can include wobbly gait, rapid heart rate and sudden death, which can occur weeks or months after the toxin was ingested.
There is no known antidote to monensin poisoning in horses. The other horses at the facility have consumed the same feed and their monensin intoxication means they can no longer be used as riding animals, Flanigan said.
“That’s been the hardest part for me,” she said. “These horses are not recovering, they’re only going to get worse.”
In the midst of difficult circumstances, Flanigan appreciates the support she’s received from many other horse trainers.
“The majority of trainers that are, technically, competitors in the industry have outreached with sympathy and support,” Flanigan said. “(They have) offered to loan our kids horses to borrow so they can continue riding. They’ve offered to transport our horses if we need it.”
Flanigan is incredibly proud of how her students have coped.
One of Flanigan’s clients, an 11-year-old girl named Sydney Loucks, who was riding a pony that has since passed away, was loaned a horse to ride for a Santa Cruz horse competition.
“She’s competing against kids of all different ages and riding levels,” Flanigan said. “She borrowed a horse, went out of town with her parents, met the trainer that she’s never worked with before, rode a horse she’s never seen before, represented us in the middle of chaos with her two ponies dying, and was the reserve overall Medal Champion.”
The farm’s clients have tried to process the loss of their animals.
“She was my friend, she was an important part of my family,” said Rachel Winch of her horse Gucci, who had been boarded at Black Fence Farm and died of monensin poisoning on Oct. 6. Winch has been a client of Flanigan’s for nearly seven years.
Gucci and two other horses — Prada and Armani — were rescued by Flanigan after becoming emaciated from neglect by their previous owners.
“We worked so hard — Katie [Flanigan] and I have — to train her, get her healthy and rehabilitated,” Winch said. “To have this happen, it’s been very difficult to deal with,”
After the farm’s first horse became ill, the farm provided supportive treatment to the horse.
“Since we didn’t know exactly what was wrong with it, we were hoping, like a regular food poisoning, that it could potentially recover,” Flanigan said. “So we did not euthanize the horse.”
Eventually, the horse died on its own around 20 hours later.
“Prior to that horse dying, at 6 o’clock in the evening, another horse that had looked perfectly fine went down from looking perfectly fine within 20 minutes.”
A third horse that had become ill on Sept. 19 was euthanized on Sept. 20. The next day, more horses became ill.
Since mid-September, 12 horses have died or required euthanization due to their condition.
Prior to September, another of the facility’s horses died under strange circumstances, Flanigan said.
“A really healthy, nice show horse — the child jumped and had a great riding lesson,” Flanigan said. “We gave the horse a bath and five minutes later, the horse was dying.”
The farm found previous bags of feed used in July and August to have tested.
“Those also came up positive for monensin,” Flanigan said.
Flanigan hopes that if her case does anything, it will educate other horse owners about monensin poisoning. She found out that many horse owners she’s spoken with have never heard of it.
“I’d like to consider myself a pretty educated horse trainer — I’ve dedicated my life to horses and their care,” Flanigan said. “And I had never heard of it before, until this happened.
“Here it is, it’s wiped out our entire farm — and people have never even heard about it. That’s something I’d like to change.”