June 2019 - The Gallop
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Tuesday, 28 May 2019 22:17
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Moving Forward After the Unthinkable: IEA Nationals success reflects resiliency of the Black Fence Farm family.

by Kim F. Miller

There is no “getting over” the death of 20-plus horses, but there is “looking for positive things to keep going” for Black Fence Farm’s Katie Flanigan.

One September morning in 2015, Katie arrived at her Clovis training barn to several horses showing clear signs of distress. Along with those who have already died from feed containing an ingredient toxic to horses, another 10 owned by Katie are in “hospice care” with her. They are comfortable and appear healthy, but cannot be ridden because sudden collapse is a possibility after poisoning by monensin, an ingredient intended for cattle feed.

 

‘These horses have been thru everything with me,‘ says Katie. ‘In this image it’s as if he (Armani) is emerging with strength leading his herd on.‘

A second trip to the Interscholastic Equestrian Association National Finals was one of many positive things that have helped Katie and her hunter/jumper students keep going. At the late- April Finals in Harrisburg, PA, four BFF Equestrian Team members earned a top 10 ribbon and the Middle School team was fifth in the overall standings.

IEA participation does not require horse ownership. Riders can practice on their team’s lesson horses and, at shows, horses are provided by the host school. That factor was compelling for Black Fence Farm after the 2015 tragedy. “We had no horses, so we started with a few horses that people donated,” Katie explains. With four or five mounts, the BFF team began to compete on the Zone 10 circuit. “IEA provided a way to go out and compete even for those who didn’t have their own horses.”

Student-owned horses were among those who died since the poisoning or are still living but unable to be ridden. A few of those students’ families were able to buy new horses and continue in the sport. Others did not, for financial and/or emotional reasons.

Celebrating Maddie Morgan’s victory at this year’s IEA Nationals. Photo: Ron Schwane Photography

Even apart from BFF’s unique circumstances, Katie supports the IEA concept. “It’s really cool because a lot of times the sport is perceived as a privileged sport that’s all about having more money to buy the nicer horse,” she says. “With IEA, you draw your horse and compete on an even playing field. It allows some of the kids that don’t have money to be competitive, to earn scholarships and to make friends.” The latter aspect is an especially strong draw. “My kids have been doing their Instagram outreach, chatting with kids from across the country, who they then met and became friends with at Nationals.”

BFF’s IEA team is about where Katie wants it size-wise, at 16. Their first year in the league, 2016-2017, BFF had a small team; the next, it exploded to about 30 riders; and this year’s number may be the sweet spot. “The problem with having a huge team is that you don’t want your students pitted against each other.” IEA’s rapid participation growth in Zone 10, and especially Central California, has outstripped the number of shows needed to spread out team riders into classes filled primarily by contenders from other squads.

Katie isn’t complaining. She’s thrilled with IEA’s growth and attributes these challenges to growing pains.

BFF’s IEA involvement co-exists with Katie and her students’ ascent on the open show circuit. Last year they were stars on the Sacramento Area Hunter Jumper Association’s circuit and this year, they’ve moved onto the NorCal rated show scene. Closer to home, they are regulars at the Central Valley Hunter Jumper Miniseries shows at the Fresno County Horse Park.

The training program is now located at a public boarding facility, La Dolce Vita Equestrian Center in Clovis. Katie recently purchased property where she lives and eventually hopes to build her own barns, but that’s a long way off. Bought out of foreclosure and previously inhabited by hoarders, her seven-acre home property just saw a 24th dumpster of trash hauled away at press-time and there was more to go.


BFF At IEA Individually, Maddie Morgan was champion of the USHJA Future Beginner on the Flat; her sister McKenzie Morgan was second in the Middle School Written Horsemanship test; Madison Bigham was fifth in the Future Novice on the Flat; and Ryley Ferguson was eighth in the Varsity Open Championship. Shay Simons also represented BFF Middle School team at Nationals, and Kyra Grimm and Claire Bogdanovich helped it qualify through Zone 10 competition all season.

All are impressive accomplishments. The National Finals draw a huge field of top contenders, dominated by seasoned East Coast IEA teams and riders. And, the Western region, Zone 10, is rapidly growing in participation and quality of competition, making it harder to qualify for those nationals.


Lasting Effects

New horses, new accomplishments and new home digs are among the “exciting new things” that keep Katie going. Like the horses that haven’t yet succumbed to monensin poisoning, however, the tragedy lives on. “You find yourselves in certain situations that bring it all back as if it was yesterday,” Katie shares.

One occurred during a medal final in the Sacramento area two years ago, with a $1,200 pony and a student who’d “worked her butt off” to qualify. “She needed one more point, thought she had earned it, but then learned she hadn’t because one of the classes lacked enough participants to get a full qualifying point. An office secretary reprimanded me, telling me the student should have started qualifying earlier in the year.”

Katie and student Sydney Loucks after an emotional win in the fall of 2015.

The secretary was “completely unaware of where we came from, what we’d been through,” Katie acknowledges, but her comments struck deep. “Me and the kids are dealing with a lot of emotions. We take things a bit more personally.”

A more recent incident occurred when a trainer noticed the words embroidered on Katie’s jacket, as Katie sent a rider into the show ring at the IEA Nationals: “Always with us. Forever in our hearts.  Never forget the horses of BFF 2015.”

The poorly timed conversation that ensued is typical of many instances when a new acquaintance connects Katie or a BFF student to the toxic feed story that drew national attention well beyond the equestrian world. Katie understands that people want to hear the whole story, but “It always hits you unexpected and takes you right back.”

The Black Fence Farm IEA team at Zone 10 Regional Finals.

Ten affected horses continue as everyday reminders. “I love them all dearly and they are also a burden every day of my life,” Katie acknowledges of the financial and emotional aftermath. Uncertainty and tough decisions dominate daily care.

“More often than you might think, you wonder is that horse having a bad day or is it his day to die.” Recently, Katie thought the latter of one horse, but with an infusion of IV fluids, the horse seemed to be doing well. The general approach for all is to administer pain medications as appropriate, but not provide life-prolonging surgical measures.

Settlement But No Closure

The last-minute settlement of a lawsuit against Western Milling did not bring emotional closure or financial restitution, Katie relays. Made in December of 2018, the nearly $2.4 million settlement occurred right before the case was set to go to trial.

Divided between 50 plaintiffs, the money was reduced by approximately 40 percent in lawyers’ fees, then by what Katie ballparks at $500,000 in related expenses. What’s left for each plaintiff is then subject to income taxes, Katie notes.

Her business took a big hit, too. As the lawsuit made its way through the legal system, Katie spent extensive time away from her BFF training program. She and her students stopped their 2018 show season in August, as Katie devoted many hours to the case’s final phases. “My own deposition took three full days and I sat in with a lot of the kids on their dispositions.” She also attended the defense’s depositions.

The money she wound up with in no way covers the cost of maintaining the surviving horses, Katie continues. Financially and emotionally, Katie hit “rock bottom” after the settlement and took a few months off from everything, checking in on her students periodically and entrusting another trainer to help them in the interim.

That phase resulted in the loss of half her clientele, Katie says. It followed an initial hit directly after the poisoning when about 20 percent of her students did not return. The reasons varied. For some it was the emotional toll of losing their own horse or seeing beloved lessons horses decline and die. That was compounded for some by the inability to afford a new horse when still caring for an affected one.

Katie & Music Row. Photo: Grand Pix

Neither Katie nor her students had loss-of-use insurance on their horses, so that potential financial help was not an option. Those who did have mortality insurance on lost horses now must use settlement money to repay what they received from their insurance companies, Katie explains. Emotional aspects aside, insurance and financial issues were one of many complicated issues stemming from the tainted feed.

Like Family

The clients who’ve been with Katie through the ordeal are “like family,” she says. Those who joined after that have become family, too, because caring for and about the surviving horses is part of the BFF reality.

Being “super proud of all my girls,” may be the strongest bright spot pulling Katie forward. An inkling of hope arrived a few months after the tainted feed when student Sydney Loucks won a year-end championship flat class in the fall of 2015. “Her show pony had just died and she did it on a previously neglected trail horse we had just purchased two months before,” Katie explains. “We both knew where were going to get through this difficult time we were in.”

“She’s been with us through every step of the way,” says Ryley Ferguson, who started with Katie at 6 and was Zone 10’s top-finishing IEA Varsity star at the IEA Nationals. As a coach, Katie is “super great to be around and is really positive when we are riding.” Now 15 and a freshman in high school, Ryley says, “It was really rough. I was a bit young to really understand what was going on at first. It’s still really sad to think about what we lost.”

She’s excited about a bright future with her horse, Calvin, a relatively green 7-year-old. Ryley set her goals on the Maclay Medal Finals a few years ago and describes the level of competition and electric atmosphere of the IEA Finals as a good stepping stone. “It really opened my eyes to the skill level out there. I know I need to keep working really hard to get where I want to go.”

Ryley Ferguson at the IEA National Finals.

The Marlowe family knew nothing about the feed poisoning when they brought their then 12-year-old daughter MJ to Katie’s program three years ago. MJ’s father is a 22-year Navy serviceman and they had just relocated from Missouri. Black Fence Farm seemed a good fit because it had so many students MJ’s age and it has been that indeed, says mom Stephanie. Along with solid progress as a rider – MJ represented BFF in IEA Regional and Zone championships – MJ has learned valuable life lessons.

An affected pony fell ill and passed away on one of the mornings that MJ regularly helped with feedings. “Katie texted us that morning to let us know what was happening and MJ went out with Katie to just love on that pony,” Stephanie explains. “There was nothing that could be done.

“I think the girls have learned that bad things happen, but there is still good that can come out of it,” she continues. “We still take care of the horses that are sick and can never be ridden again. We give them carrots and love, and I think the girls learn something good from that.”

“She is a strong individual with a great heart,” Stephanie says of Katie. “She tries hard to uplift all of her riders and she pushes them to become better.” She’s grateful to Katie’s efforts to make riding relatively affordable for a family of normal means. MJ leases Katie’s 22-year-old Joe, with whom she has advanced steadily in her riding and developed a deep bond.

The family is retiring from military life and preparing for a move East. Missing Joe, Katie and the whole BFF team is going to be tough, Stephanie says. The life experiences gained, however, can be drawn on through MJ’s future.

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 .


Monensin: Toxic to Horses

Monensin was identified in the Western Milling feed given to BFF’s horses in September of 2015. 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. Katie says that all 51 horses on her property at the time consumed the feed. “How much and to what extent, we will never know.” Along with the 10 she is still caring for, at least 21 have died and the rest of the affected horses live with others.

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, 2015, for 50-pound bags of its Western Blend horse feed, Lot 5251. The feed was manufactured and distributed that September and at the time of the recall notice, Western Milling said all but 67 of 1,100 bags had been reclaimed.

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.”

Katie quickly suspected food poisoning when the first horses displayed symptoms that morning in 2015 and removing all remaining feed was her first response. The survivors “look good and they have a good quality of life, but due the internal damage monensin causes, unless you cut them open you don’t know if there’s anything wrong.” One Welsh pony died, at 11, three years of seaming good health after the poisoning.

In May of 2017, Western Milling paid a fine of over $500,000 in connection with the manufacture of monensin-contaminated feed. In an agreement with the California Department of Feed and Agriculture and the Livestock Drugs Inspection Program, the company agreed to spend another $200,000 to install equipment assuring feed safety over and above industry standards.

For more details, find the California Riding Magazine December, 2015 article online at www.ridingmagazine.com.