Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Looking down ...aka la vida loco

I’ve been looking in all directions lately, and now my focus is downward,
at the ground, lookin’ for locoweed. How crazy is that?

Ever since I moved to the 7MSN, I’d been on the lookout for this plant – it can literally make a horse ... and his owner... go crazy.

Here is what the booklet “New Mexico Range Plants” has to say about it: Some locos are highly poisonous and small amounts will kill an animal in a short time. Others can be consumed in fairly large amounts over a long period before ill effects are noticeable. Most loco poisoning occurs in early spring as these plants become green before forage plants. Locos are generally not very palatable, but animals, especially horses, appear to develop a taste for them.”

Here are some symptoms of locoweed poisoning in horses: ...altered gaits, aimless wanderings, sometimes in circles, impaired vision (to the extent they bump into things or fall into arroyos or other depressions) and erratic behavioral changes. They may appear listless or complacent, then wildly overreact to some unexpected event. “Locoed” horses are unsafe to ride or be around, and there is no antidote for the toxin.

Though it’s a perennial, locoweed does not sprout every year; it’s appearance in spring usually follows a very wet fall/winter. Last April, I was out in the pasture and spotted something purple...how pretty! Then I recognized it was locoweed. I pulled it out, confined the horses to the corral, and ran inside to call the vet. He suggested I take a sample to a plant nursery to confirm my suspicions before I jumped to any conclusions. If my pretty purple plant proved to be locoweed, then I could panic. He also said there wasn’t any good data on how much or how little a horse would have to eat before becoming poisoned. His advice was to get rid of all of it if it proved to be locoweed.

Sure enough, my worst fear was confirmed at the nursery, and within a few days of finding the first specimen on my ranch, I heard two firsthand horror stories from people in the county who had to put their horses down - in one case, a rancher ended up losing his entire team of draft horses.

Over the next week, with the horses still confined to their corral, I set out to find the best way to eradicate locoweed from my ranch. And after hours of googling and talking to the county extension agent and researchers at the state university, my only option became painfully clear - I would have to pull it out by the roots, plant by stinkin’ plant, before the seed pods developed and would make the problem that much worse the next time it sprouted.

“Hello, boss? I won’t be at my desk for the next week or so...there are these weeds in my pasture that I have to pull before my horses eat them and die.” She had heard some outrageous excuses before, but this was a doozy.

But what choice did I have? Gamble that my horses wouldn’t eat it? I don’t think so.

So I started to comb the pasture...all 80 acres. I walked in three-foot swaths, looking left, looking right, so as not to miss one single deadly locoweed. Where there was one plant, there were many. I’d bend over, pull it out, toss it into a plastic grocery bag, and stay bent over until I was sure I pulled the whole patch. And then I’d walk on. Some areas of the ranch were locoweed-free; others were covered with it. Locoweed has a peculiar odor – at one point, I think the fumes got to me. I convinced myself I could sell everything I picked on ebay, become a millionaire, and hire somebody to pull the stuff next time it sprouted. Then I convinced myself I would probably end up in jail for selling hallucinogens.

Seven days and 50-some Walmart bags later, I had walked/bent/pulled/tossed/stood over the whole ranch. I was sunburned, windburned, and dehydrated, but by god, if my horses were going to die from locoweed poisoning it wasn’t because I didn’t give it my best shot.

And here we are, one year later. The fall and winter were bone-dry in comparison to the perfect-storm conditions that caused last spring’s locoweed. I’m hopeful that I won’t find a single poisonous purple plant in the pasture. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop looking down.

The things we won’t do for our horses...


  1. Oh my gosh - that's the kind of thing I would totally obsess over. What a chore that was - but hopefully now it's more a matter of monitoring versus pulling!

  2. I'd be right out there with you! What a nightmare- and I thought trying to find Lyme ticks on a horse was the worst - this definitely rivals it.

  3. I often wonder where the perfect place is to raise horses...safe from all natural disasters, harsh winters, wicked summers, year-round flies and mosquitoes, lyme ticks, locoweed. Oh-and land has to be affordable and farriers and vets plentiful. I'll keep wondering.