Refuge Farms home of "Horses Helping..."

Hoofprints by Susan Amundson, The County Journal. [September 29, 2005]

An insight to PSSM (polysaccharide storage myopathy)

   Last weekend, I attended the 4th Annual Open Barn at Refuge Farms. Refuge Farms is a horse rescue facility in Spring Valley. Each year, the open barn highlights a special horse in their presentation. This year, the highlighted horse was Jerry.
   Jerry, a full-sized Belgian gelding, is now 22 years old. He came to Refuge Farms in 1995 with his teammate, Ruby. Jerry and Ruby were popular competitors on the horse-pulling circuit. They set a state record for pulling 12.5 tons 27.5 feet.
   Jerry's story parallels that of many competitive athletes these days. At 18 hands tall, he weighed in at 2,640 pounds. His owner maintained his weight and muscle by the use of steroids. In order to keep his energy up, while being overweight, he was fed high-sugar content feed.
   When Sandy Gilbert, owner of Refuge Farms, bought Jerry, his owner gave her the recipe for his "recommended" feed. That recipe contained rolled oats, molasses, selenium, salt and bran. Jerry was to be fed five pounds of feed three times per day, and injected with steroids once a week.
   The effects of this regimen were that his skin was tight, he was sweating and agitated. One look at Jerry, and Sandy knew he wanted out of that life. Once at Refuge Farms, Sandy discontinued his steroid regimen and cut down on his sweet feed.
   One year ago, Sandy found Jerry standing in his pasture, his muscles twitching, his hind end swaying, trying to balance himself. She took him to the University of Minnesota for evaluation.
   Jerry couldn't feel his hind legs. He walked like he hurt everywhere. He was tested for West Nile and EPM, both tests coming back negative. A muscle biopsy was done and the diagnosis was confirmed. Jerry had PSSM.
   Anna Firschman, the veterinarian familiar with Jerry's experience, sent me the following information about the disease.
   PSSM, polysaccharide storage myopathy, is a muscle disease that results in excessive accumulation of abnormal sugar in skeletal muscle. Clinical signs include muscle stiffness, pain, shifting lameness, camped-out stance, and colic-like signs of pain. A suspicion of PSSM can be based on clinical signs of "tying-up" along with increased muscle enzymes in your horse's blood after exercise that can be measured by your veterinarian. To make a definitive diagnosis of PSSM, a skeletal muscle biopsy must be examined by a veterinary pathologist familiar with equine muscle disease.
   Although PSSM in quarter horses is known to be hereditary, the metabolic defect causing PSSM is unknown.
   There is no cure for PSSM. Recommendations for the control of PSSM include feeding a low-starch fat-supplemented diet that stabilizes blood glucose and insulin and providing a regular exercise regimen that enhances sugar metabolism.
   Anna Firshman, BVSc, PhD,is the Assistant Professor of Large Animal Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.
   After years of a high carbohydrate, high sugar diet, Jerry's muscles have been damaged. He is now on a low starch, pelleted feed with high fat content and grass hay. His weight is down to 1,800 pounds. He has good days and bad days, and sudden weather changes also affect him.
   While at the open barn, I went out to the pasture to do an Equine Touch session on Jerry. This was a challenge. At 18 hands, it was all I could do to be able to reach his back from the ground. But I could tell Jerry appreciated the touches. He quit eating, and stood very still for me, occasionally turning to give me a warm look of thanks. I knew that Equine Touch was not going to cure Jerry's PSSM, but I also knew it would make him feel better for a little while. Sometimes that is all we can do for these gentle giants.
   Jerry has a good home now at Refuge Farms. When a horse arrives at Refuge Farms, they are promised three things:
There will be no more beatings, electricity, use of performance enhancing drugs, hollering, or any other type of inhumane treatment. There will be plenty of respect.
There will be no more hunger. There will always be food and water available.
There will be no more moving to another farm, fighting for a place in a new herd, or getting used to another routine or the taste of other water. This is home. Forever. Even in death you will not have to leave the farm.
   Refuge Farms is a non-profit organization run by Sandy and her dedicated team of volunteers. A program called "Horses Helping" opens the farm to people who benefit from spending time with the horses. In this way, the healing horses help humans heal as well.
   If you would like more information about Refuge Farms, or would like to help support the farm, you may visit their website at
   If you would like more information about PSSM, the Neuromuscular Diagnostic Lab at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to the diagnosis and advancement of our understanding of muscle disorders in large animals. For information and details on how to submit a muscle biopsy, visit their website at

by Susan Amundson, The County Journal. (373-0645)

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