Susan Fyfe holds up a vial containing three fat linguine strands.
It’s not actually pasta, but a tangle of intestinal worms taken from a one-year-old mare named Sugar. When Fyfe took in 14 other horses from an Onoway farm last March, parasites had created so much pressure on Sugar’s spine, the horse couldn’t move its back legs.
“We wormed her for five days,” said Fyfe. “Once we got her up, she could operate her front legs but couldn’t operate her back legs. So we would hold her once we stood her up and balance her between us.”
Extricating strongid worms — or worming, as it’s known to horse enthusiasts — involves a steady dose of medication, strong enough to kill, gentle enough to do so gradually. Exterminate the parasites all at once and you risk internal bleeding to the host and a slow, silent death.
Ticks, fleas, and ghastly infections are quotidian realities for Fyfe. Over the past two years, she’s taken in 198 horses while heading the Rescue 100 Horses Foundation. The Sherwood Park-based charity had its genesis in February 2008, when 27 horses were found dead at a Vegreville area ranch and 100 more were brought to Fyfe’s farm. One horse died, but volunteers helped Fyfe care for the remaining horses and four foals until they could find new homes. Donations poured in, enough that the group decided to keep going.
Sick and starving horses from four herds have come through this busy 170-acre plot just east of the city, also home to Fyfe’s business, Keno Hills Stables and Tack Shop. A 1,500-square-metre indoor facility includes stables, an arena for lessons, and training facilities. Fyfe also lives here and keeps 100 horses of her own, mostly Arabians.
Worms aside, March was a rough month for Sugar. The mare was initially too weak to lift her head and had to be fed and watered by hand. Getting the horse up on her feet took a dozen volunteers. Fyfe and fellow volunteers spent days with the horse, equipped with an IV drip. Recovery prospects were so dismal after the first week, the veterinarian said she didn’t think Sugar wasn’t doing well enough to keep going.
“On the ninth day, the vet said: ‘I think we need to put her down,’” Fyfe says. “I said, ‘I can’t put her down. She still has good energy in her eyes, she’s still really wanting to live.’ ”
The vet was scheduled to return to euthanize the horse the next day. After spending so many days and nights in Sugar’s pen, an exhausted Fyfe collapsed in her bed.
When she awoke the next morning, she hurried down to the barn where a couple of volunteers had kept watch. To everyone’s astonishment, Sugar had stood up on her own at 3 a.m., using the wall to steady her weak rear legs. “I came down and walked in there and the horse is standing up with her bum against the wall,” says Fyfe. “Everybody is just bawling.”
A few doors over, the vet had begun readying for the injection. Fyfe told the vet to come take a look. And when the vet saw Sugar standing, the water works began again.
The past couple of years have taught Fyfe when to expect troubled herds to arrive. SPCA intervention doesn’t typically happen until February or March, not long after fat storage is used up. Fyfe hasn’t yet taken in any horses this year, but SPCA officers have told her that they’ll be watching a few small herds over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, a dozen of last year’s rescue horses await good stables, barns and pastures of their own. Finding new homes is a multistage process. The first step is a placement form on the organization’s website. A committee then reviews the application, checks references, visits the applicant’s property. The prospective owner needs a good vet and a farrier in charge of caring for the horse’s hoofs. There are no fees associated with the placement, but the organization accepts donations to help make up for the approximate $1,300 it takes to care for each horse.
Fyfe hopes the remaining horses will be placed when the next troubled horses arrive. That’ll simplify the first step: a quarantine of up to six weeks on the edge of her property, separated from the herd by a beaver pond. It’s where last year’s rescue horses are happily cavorting. They’re still good horses, Fyfe says, noting how rescue horses have gone on to competitive jumping or use on mountain trails.
All incoming horses at Keno Hills are quarantined in a series of pens. New horses mean new worms, or even worse, the possibility of a highly contagious upper respiratory infection known as “strangles.” That condition — marked by fever, loss of appetite and bursting abscesses — is particularly dangerous for all horses. If left unchecked, the infection can metamorphose into “bastard strangles,” causing lymph glands to break inside a stomach or intestine, causing internal bleeding. As a precaution, all visitors from other farms must change boots, clothes, or use a foot bath before stepping onto her property.
A strong stomach is a prerequisite for saving horses. Knowing the gruesome details of horse care, Fyfe isn’t squeamish as she holds up a jar of worms against her face. These aren’t even the biggest of the batch, she notes. Seven of their wriggly cousins — at 25 centimetres, the largest seen in these parts — were donated for posterity to the University of Alberta veterinary school.
Fyfe marvels at the transformation of Sugar. The mare that could barely stand less than a year ago is now living with another rescued horse at a nearby thoroughbred farm.
“You should see them now,” smiles Fyfe. “You call them and they gallop to you.”