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Case Study - Grass Sickness

Ulla Balletta and William

Ulla Balletta and WilliamUlla Balletta’s horse William (pictured right in happier times) was hit by grass sickness in April 2011. He had been healthy and happy, but in the space of just 24 hours Ulla lost her best friend. Here, Ulla describes the 17-year-old Irish Draught x gelding’s sudden deterioration, and how some strange symptoms that she thought were colic turned out to be the devastating disease. 

"I’d ridden William on the Thursday and he was fine, but when I went out to his field on the Friday he was acting strangely. He didn’t come over to me, which was unusual, and when I brought him in he didn’t try and dive to eat any of the grass like he normally did.

"I tied him up outside his stable and he tried to pass droppings, but they were just mucus-covered pellets. He wasn’t eating or drinking and he didn’t touch his hay – and then he started showing signs of what I thought was colic. He was looking at his flanks and scraping the floor, so I called the vet out straight away."

When the vet arrived, he too initially diagnosed mild colic – but after a full examination 12 litres of green reflux was drained from William’s stomach and his heart rate found to be dangerously high. Fearing life-threatening colic, William was rushed to hospital immediately. Devastatingly for Ulla, the hospital examination revealed something much more sinister – the vets suspected grass sickness. William was now gravely ill and needed to be operated on the next morning. 

"That night, I went home and researched the condition. Nothing I read was positive. When the vets operated in the morning, they confirmed our fears – it was acute grass sickness, and nothing could be done for William. That was it. He was gone within 24 hours. 

"I’d never heard of grass sickness until it happened to William. The sheer shock is what is so scary about it because before you know it, your horse is gone. If you don’t know what grass sickness is, you think you’re dealing with colic because the symptoms are so similar. That’s why it’s so important to research grass sickness and know how to minimise the risks. You don’t have the time to do it after it strikes."

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