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  • Writer's picturepsbycarrie

Regrets, They Are The Hardest Lessons Learned

Looking back, I think we knew. We knew something was off when the glands in his neck sweated all winter. We knew something was off when the “bite” he received right before we bought him didn’t heal correctly. Or the bite he got from one of our geldings. We definitely knew something weird was going on when his skin became loose. And we knew we had known when one of those loose spots sloughed off.

Ten days ago, our 2-year-old gelding, Arrow, came in from the pasture with a hole on his rump. He’d had some “loose” skin there, but now the skin was gone, and we could see the muscle. Arrow is kinda a pest, so we thought his buddy, Carol, had gotten annoyed and been too aggressive with her “go away” nip. The weird part, though, was perfect circle shape of the wound. No jagged edges, no rip marks, just gone.

We doctored it the best way we knew how. I asked several of my smart friends if they’d ever seen anything like it. They all said no. We became more concerned when the wound didn’t start to heal. So we did what all responsible horse owners do after 10 days of DIY, we took him to the vet.

And ya know what? He hadn’t seen anything quite like it either. He and Bailey asked Dr. Google to see what they could find. And where did they end up? HERDA. For those who slept through genetics class or haven’t dived in to horse genetics, UC Davis defines hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia (HERDA) as an inherited skin condition primarily found in Quarter Horses that is characterized by hyperextensible skin, scarring, and severe lesions along the back of affected horses.

Bailey was texting me this while I’m on a conference call. I immediately text my genetic expert friend, Natalie. I say, “So… Tell me about HERDA. Is it a death sentence?” To which she responds with, “It depends if they are homo or hetero.” I respond that he’s already sloughing skin, so while we will get him tested, there’s a good chance he carries two copies of the gene. Her response? “Bummer. Yeah, not good.”

Yeah, not good is right. Most horses that are HERDA positive are born dead. Those that aren’t begin showing signs when they’re two years old and starting to be ridden. According to Wikipedia (which has never been wrong), the disease can be traced back to offspring of Poco Bueno, though AQHA will tell you “it can’t be narrowed down to just one horse”. It’s incredibly prevalent in the cutting horse industry, with superstars like High Brow Cat, Metallic Cat, Smart Little Lena, and Doc O’Lena all being carriers. Now, there is zero chance that a carrier of the gene will ever show symptoms, so, realistically, being a carrier is no big deal.

What is a big deal is when you breed a carrier to a carrier. If you think back to your high school biology class and Punnett squares, there is a 25% chance that baby will be double positive. Seems like a small risk, until it isn’t. Until you own a sweet, otherwise perfect two-year-old that looks like the kind. Until your vet, your friends, AQHA and the internet tell you there is nothing you can do. Then it’s a big deal.

This is where I pause… This is where I have to take a deep breath and remember that ranting through my keyboard could actually get me into more trouble than its worth (slander, ya know). So I’ll condense it down: It’s a VERY big deal to me that irresponsible decisions cost so much. It’s a VERY big deal that anyone thinks a 75% chance for a healthy baby is worth the risk, knowing full well there is a 25% chance that baby is HERDA positive.

Like ours. Our “Baby Arrow’s” future is gone. We will never get to see what kind of a winner he could have been. We will never get to mold his talent and help him become an asset to our barn or be a joy in someone else’s. Instead, we will walk him to the our pond and have to watch as our vet helps us put him to rest. We will walk back and see his empty run. We will have to hear his buddy Carol nicker for him, wondering where he is.

And the stealing of his future changes ours. We’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about the perils of genetics. We’ve been the victim of that “horse breeding” you hear horror stories about. We’re learning that AQHA could (and should) instate a rule that would prevent this from happening. (I’ll be submitting a rule change in the coming weeks, don’t you worry.)

We will be better because of this. We are testing both our mares so we can be confident when we breed them and sell their babies. We will be much more careful when we buy young horses. We will be educators about responsible breeding to those who will listen.

Sure, we have regrets. We should have done more research about those sires producing winners in the cutting horse industry. We should have noted the knot on his back and said, “No, thanks.” We should have taken him to the vet sooner. We should have done a lot of things. Those regrets are lessons learned. And we’ll think about these lessons, and Baby Arrow, for the rest of our lives. We’ll do better, be better, and teach others because of and for him.

But, right now, we are heartbroken. I’m not sure this sting will fade for a long, long time.

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