Imagine this: You stop eating. You get stomach pains. You’re losing weight – fast. You have no energy. The sun hurts your skin. You lose co-ordination. You’re struggling to breathe. Now you’re going blind. Worst of all, you can’t tell anyone how bad you feel – and even if you could, it’s too late for them to help you.
This is what you would experience if you were a horse suffering from liver failure as a result of ragwort poisoning.
Ragwort is poisonous to horses, damaging the liver when eaten. The toxic effect builds up over time, causing irreparable damage. This means that your horse will get just as ill from eating small amounts of ragwort over a long period of time as it would do from eating a large quantity in one go.
Can you be certain that your horse hasn’t eaten ragwort before you took over its care? An apparently healthy horse could already have serious liver damage from ragwort poisoning and may only need to eat a small amount more to trigger horrific symptoms.
One of the key things to remember is that there is often no sign of any problem until the condition has progressed so far that nothing can be done to treat it. In most cases the only reasonable course of action once the signs are visible is to have the horse put to sleep.
Liver failure is a horrible way for a horse to die. First they may become lethargic or behave abnormally. They can develop photosensitisation, where areas of pink skin become inflamed and painful when exposed to sunlight, like serious sunburn. They can also lose significant amounts of weight, even though they may be eating well.
Eventually they may go blind, have to fight for breath, start to wander or stagger or stand pushing their head against the wall. The symptoms and subsequent death can come about so quickly that owners have sometimes found their horse dead without warning.
Know your enemy: you must be able to recognise the plant so that you are able to remove it effectively.
It is vital that you ensure your horse doesn’t eat ragwort, and you can’t assume that they will choose not to eat it. Younger plants can taste less bitter than mature ones so it is possible that horses may consume ragwort without realising it.
It is widely accepted that the plant loses its unpleasant taste when it dies but it is still just as dangerous. This means that ragwort found in hay or haylage, or leaves that have fallen off a plant in the field and died, can very easily be eaten unknowingly and will be just as harmful as a living plant.
After flowering, most of the plants die and the seeds germinate in the area where the mature plant had been.
One plant can produce many thousands of seeds which are covered with a downy substance so they can be easily dispersed by the prevailing wind. They can also be spread by water or by you and your animals.
Article replicated with kind permission from the World Horse Welfare website.