December 2015 - The Gallop: 14 Horse Deaths So Far

Contaminated feed nightmare continues at Clovis training barn.

by Kim F. Miller

The equine death toll is up to 14 horses at Black Fence Farm in Clovis, where the nightmare caused by contaminated feed began with five deaths in mid-September.

Hunter/jumper trainer Katie Flanigan was called to the barn early one Saturday morning about a horse that was having trouble walking and stayed down. Students arriving that morning came to Katie will similar descriptions about more horses. “It started to snowball really quickly,” Katie told the Clovis Independent newspaper in a recent article. “It was kind of chaotic at first.”

Katie studied equine science at The Ohio State University and has a degree in equine business management from University of Findlay, along with 20-plus years working with horses. She suspected pretty quickly the problem was in the feed, initially hoping it was a more common case of food poisoning from which the horses would likely recover. The trainer dispersed everyone on hand to remove all remaining food from the 49 horses in her program.

Heartbreakingly, it was too late for many.

A vet was called in right away and the feed was sent to a lab for testing, which identified monensin in the feed from Western Milling. Monensin is part of the “ionophore” family of medications used in cattle feed to promote growth and increase feed efficiency. It also helps prevent or treat coccidiosis, an intestinal parasite disease in cows.

It’s toxic to horses.

The Food and Drug Administration has procedural mandates for feed manufacturing plants to prevent contamination. This is usually a dedicated production line for unmedicated feed or thorough cleaning of equipment between processing feeds with and without the medicated additives.

Located in Central California’s Goshen, Western Milling issued a voluntary recall on Sept. 25, for 50-pound bags of its Western Blend horse feed, Lot 5251. The feed was manufactured and distributed in September and as of the recall notice, Western Milling said all but 67 of 1,100 bags had been reclaimed. Western Milling did not return requests to comment on this story.

At Black Fence Farm, Katie turned to a lawyer, Florida-based product liability specialist Andrew Yaffa, to represent her and the farm’s interests. Andrew says a lawsuit against Western Milling has not been initiated. “We have been speaking frequently (with Western Milling) and, despite the magnitude of the damages that exist, it’s my hope that they will do what is right and be true to their word.”

Those damages are hard to fathom.

“She’s gone from a thriving, growing facility where she was training students, giving lessons day in and day out and engaging in competitions, to being totally shut down,” the lawyer states. “She’s gone from running a growing business to running a hospice facility for horses that are slowly dying. Every horse that ingested the contaminated feed was fed a death sentence.” He expects that all of the horses involved will eventually succumb.

Some of the horses involved were among those Katie and her students had rescued and rehabbed into healthy, happy second lives.

As to what would be fair restitution, Andrew said that “goes beyond the value of the horses. For those that have been put down, there are the associated costs. And the other horses are now valueless. They can’t be ridden. But the families have an emotional tie to these horses and want them cared for in an appropriate setting. There is loss of life, reputation, business, etc.”

Closure is not on the near horizon. In its recall notice, Western Milling included the Food and Drug Administration’s description of symptoms of ionophere poisoning in horses, which vary pending the dosage ingested.

“Poor appetite and feed refusal of the grain product, diarrhea, weakness, rapid heart rate, labored breathing, decreased exercise tolerance, depression, wobbly gait, colic, sweating, recumbency and sudden death.”

Clinical signs are often first noted within 12 to 72 hours after ingesting the tainted feed, the release continued, but “may linger up to about eight days.” Additionally, “permanent cardiac damage can result in horses which showed adverse effects, but then recovered.”

“They’re all at risk of sudden death,” says Andrew. “You can’t let a child or anybody ride them. Some have exhibited neurological symptoms, are very aggressive or can’t tolerate being touched.”

The California Food and Drug Administration’s Kent Fowler, chief of the Animal Health Branch, believes it’s unlikely all the horses at the Clovis stable will die. “Fortunately, it sounds like several of the horses refused the feed when it was first given to them – presumably because of the smell -- and that probably saved their lives.” For the surviving horses that did consume it, the unknowable factor of how much they ingested will likely dictate their fate.

“Something I’d Like To Change”

However this resolves, Katie says she hopes some good can come in the form of educating others about feed contamination. Her immediate recourse was finding a new feed provider. Research led her to Associated Feed & Supply in Turlock, which has a separate processing facility for feed that is free of antibiotics and animal proteins.

“I’d like to consider myself a pretty educated horse trainer,” she told the Clovis Independent. “I’ve dedicated my life to horses and their care.  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.”

Andrew describes animal feed contamination as an “epidemic.” Similar contamination cases, involving other manufacturers, were reported in South Carolina and Georgia earlier this year, and in Florida last fall.

California Department of Food and Agriculture ‘s Mike Davidson acknowledges the tragedy of the Clovis case and others, but says “epidemic” is an exaggeration. An investigator with the CDFA’s Feed, Fertilizer and Livestock Drug Inspection Program, Mike says the last monensin incident the department investigated was in 2011. That is significant because California is the biggest dairy producer in the U.S., with a corresponding number of cattle feed manufacturers. Most of the larger feed manufacturers make feed for cattle, medicated and unmedicated, and for horses, he notes.

He reports a trend toward manufacturers having separate facilities and equipment for processing cattle and horse feed. “There is nothing illegal about having feed with monensin produced at the same facility, but most of the big firms have chosen not to do that because of the risk.”

As far as preventative measures, the first step is researching a feed supplier’s production methods. The FDA requires a license for manufacturers to include certain drugs classified has having a toxic effect even in their residual form. Monensin is not one of those drugs. (Category 2, Type A). Making feed with monensin in it does require licensing from the CDFA, which involves an annual inspection that checks for the same “Good Management Practices” set forth by the FDA.

There is detailed information about the manufacturing requirements and the inspection processes on the FDA and CDFA websites. Feed suppliers should be able to answer questions about how their products are produced. “The absolute safest thing is not to have the drug even on site, so there is no common equipment,” Mike states. “The minimum would be that the equipment is cleaned between making medicated and non-medicated feed. Some companies do ‘sequencing,’ which means they produce X-amount of tons of non-medicated cattle feed before they produce horse feed on the same equipment.

“Call the manufacturer and find one whose processes you are comfortable with,” he recommends.

Monensin, Mike notes, shows up in many forms of cattle feed, including molasses-based feeds and mineral blocks. It’s something to be aware of for those with horses that might have access, normally or by accident, to places where cattle consume food in various forms.

Making note of the lot numbers on bags of manufactured feed and monitoring the Food & Drug Administration’s recall notices is another good precaution. These are found under the “Animal & Veterinary” page of www.fda.gov.

A horse that refuses to eat manufactured feed from a new lot or source can be a red flag for contamination.

Katie reports that fellow trainers have stepped up to offer empathy, support and, in some cases, horses to ride and compete on. Katie told the Clovis newspaper she was very proud of how her students and families are coping with this ongoing tragedy.    


The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.