In many ways, Cyprus is an ideal location for horse lovers thanks to a climate that allows for all-year-round outdoor riding (bar the occasional freaky wet period). However, there is also a downside to island life in as much as we don’t have the same access to specialist equine vets, equipment and treatments that much of the rest of Europe can count on in an emergency – and this was never more apparent to us than when one of our prized ponies developed ‘summer sores’.
We first noticed something wrong with our handsome Rocket Robin shortly after last year’s Easter Pony Camp. There was a tiny wound at the side of his mouth where the bit sits. Initially we assumed that one of the inexperienced youngsters might have been overly strong with him as the wound looked like a small graze. But we hadn’t seen anything untoward at the time and when we took a closer look it was clear that the wound was actually quite deep and, in fact, nothing like a graze.
Naturally, we cleaned the wound – although there was no sign of infection or pain – and dabbed on the usual ointments we would use to cover any small wound. Of course, given the wound was in the crease of Robin’s mouth, ointments were practically useless as he simply licked them off, but we didn’t mind so much because there appeared to be no cause for concern. But then the wound slowly grew bigger. Below are two photos taken from the internet that show the size of the wound we were originally dealing with. We took no photos of Robin at this stage because we genuinely thought there was no cause for concern.
As the wound grew to the size of a coin we were a little perplexed as there was still no sign of any infection, or pain or even bleeding – it was simply growing. By now, Robin could no longer tolerate a bit in his mouth and so we took him out of work and called in a vet – the first of three that we consulted on the island during the course of this saga. The diagnosis he gave was nothing we hadn’t already considered and the treatment was nothing we hadn’t already tried – it was a wound, it would heal. But then the wound started to turn nasty.
As the wound grew bigger we could see something was actually eating the tissue of Robin’s face. We were advised to try other creams, which we did, but nothing worked. In the opinion of the experts, the problem lay in the fact that Robin was licking his creams away and the flies – which are a nightmare anyway in the summer – were not allowing the wound to heal. We asked for other suggestions – any suggestions – but there were none. Meanwhile, the wound grew bigger and bigger and poor Robin really began to suffer. It was clear we had to do something.
With no other avenues open to us, I began scouring the internet for information and, after talking to Karen who had spent many years working in Saudi Arabia where horses suffer from a lot of skin complaints, we came to the conclusion that Habronemiasis was most likely to blame.
The equine stomach worm is Habronema muscae. Through the help of stable flies, their larvae are deposited onto wounds and mucocutaneous junctions including the sheath, eyes and corners of the mouth. This causes a massive inflammatory reaction which then forms granulomas. Even a wormed horse is not immune because the larvae that cause the reaction are already dead. It is the body’s immune response to the dead larvae that causes the intense itchiness and summer sore formation. Resolution of these wounds is very intensive. Some horses need surgical intervention to remove all of the granulomatous reaction and dead larvae within the summer sore.
Having decided it was Habronemiasis, I found a useful site about ‘summer sores’, the more common name of this affliction. The photos mirrored Robin’s condition with some even showing sores in the same place. I again spoke to one of the vets here, but he was none the wiser, and therefore no great help. However, the summer sores site had suggested a treatment and I ordered it. I then turned to my vet in France and sent him some photos of Robin. He recognised the problem immediately and to my immense relief he advised the course of medicine I had already ordered and that had just arrived, meaning we could get to work immediately.
Unfortunately, by now it was the height of summer and almost impossible to stop the flies interfering with the treatment. We succeeded in stopping the growth of this flesh-eating parasite, but there was no chance for the wound to heal because we couldn’t physically wrap Robin’s mouth up. Exacerbating the problem, was the fact that this particular parasite releases a saliva which makes the wound very itchy, meaning a horse will do whatever he can to rub it, which of course breaks any scab formation. Again, there was no way to stop this and we didn’t want to put Robin in a place where he couldn’t itch at all because it would have been like torture for the horse, but we had to limit the damage somehow so we tried to lessen the itching by scraping the wound clean each day. All we could do was manage the situation as best we could. One of our riders, Leah, who loves Robin very much, was a great help to me and Michelle during this period, which coincided with the school holidays, and we all worked hard to keep the area clean. Many of our clients also gave their old t-shirts which we fashioned into fairly effective fly masks each day because the standard masks simply weren’t up to the job given the location of the wound. Other than that, all we could do was wait for the flies to go and hope we’d done enough to help the boy. Thankfully, we had.
Much to our delight, Robin has almost fully healed now, and all of us are amazed at just how well he has recovered, with no major disfigurement to his handsome face. Throughout his ordeal, this pony was an impeccably behaved patient and proved to be the star he always was and is. He is so well-mannered with a very sweet nature. He never puts a foot wrong and he is an old hand at the federation shows, excelling in everything from show jumping to dressage to cross country. Robin is a real favourite at the yard, a beautiful boy with a big heart and I’m delighted to say that not only did he come back into work over the Christmas period, but that he was out on loan by the New Year and is now forming a lovely partnership with one of new riders Ioanna
Needless to say, I’m incredibly sad that Robin had to go through the ordeal he did. We tried our hardest to help him, we contacted the best vets we knew, but in the end it took patience and detective work to come up with the correct diagnosis and a solution. And lucky we did because we had another case towards the end of the summer. This time, we recognised the signs immediately and the tiny wound at the mouth never got bigger and within a couple of months it had healed completely. What a shame though that no one on the island appeared to have the knowledge to help Robin when he also had a tiny wound. If they had, it might have saved this boy from a very tough summer.