Why ticks are good…

Horse herd on green grassy hill

Ask and it shall be given

It often happens in my life. A question is asked, by me or to me, and things start to unfold. Like a carpet unrolling before me, leading my mind. The path does not always lead to the answer. In fact it tends to lead to more questions. But the act of questioning always brings more clarity.

Why do ticks exist?

Anyway, the other day, as we did our daily tick check of the horses, Prasado said a bit grumpily, “Why do ticks exist anyway? Is there any point to them?”

Clunk clink and my cogs start turning. As we live in an interconnected and harmonious universe, then everything (yes, even ticks!) must be beneficial. Everything has a role to play and if I don’t see what that is, I should look more closely.

Ticks are yucky

Ticks are the bane of our life here in the Alentejo. As soon as the heat of summer subsides and the grass starts to grow, out they come. They invade the horses’ manes leaving sticky yellow goo, and sometimes suppurating wounds. We must always be watchful for the diseases they carry. And squashing blood filled ticks is just yucky! Every day we do a thorough check and remove any ticks we find on the animals.

Re-viewing the tick

That morning, as I searched through Doodle’s mane, doing the job of an egret, my neurons started firing. Out of random dots a picture emerged:

Ticks are blood suckers
Blood letting is a cure for excess iron (read more about this in one of my favourite books, Survival of the Sickest)
Horses do not excrete iron
One of the major problems for domesticated horses (in Northern Europe at least) is the so-called Metabolic syndrome
One of the precursors to the development of this syndrome is iron overload
Worms also cause bleeding
Is it possible blood letting is important to horse health? That over-control of parasites is causing illness?

And what about worms?

As is the way of things, a separate chain of events revealed another angle of the puzzle.

As a lifelong horse guardian I was deeply indoctrinated with the idea that worms are evil and must be killed. Regular worming has been a standard part of horse management for generations. As a child I remember the vet coming to tube worm the horses in the autumn, not so pleasant. As a teenager I remember the excitement of ivermectin paste, so handy, so efficient. Now you could control worms without the vet.

A couple of decades later and worms are resistant to ivermectin. So vets recommend fecal egg counts and worming only if necessary. It is no longer thought necessary to wipe out every last worm. The theory is that a healthy horse can tolerate a certain level of worm infestation (hear the language). This is a step forward, but still rooted in the adversarial system of healthcare we have been raised upon.

Personally, I now see worms as an important part of the horse’s system, and an overload of worms as a symptom of lowered immunity. So I mostly leave my horses to balance their own wormload. They have enough anthelmintic herbs to eat if they feel they need help. I keep their stresses low and their immune system optimised. I also do regular fecal egg counts, to check for worm burden, just so I know what’s going on.

The worm/ tick axis

“But what have worms got to do with ticks?” you ask. This. Recently we worm checked. The results were interesting. So interesting I thought maybe they were a mistake and got a second opinion.

The horse I considered most likely to have a high worm burden had an egg count of zero. She is also the only horse who had body ticks, tiny little blood suckers all over her body. She is the horse who reacts badly to insects and gets itchy just looking at a fly.

And then there is the horse I NEVER worry about. The three year old filly, with the perfect weight and shining vitality. The one who hardly ever had a tick on her and zero reactivity. She had a fecal egg count of 4,700. Four thousand seven hundred!!! I’ve never had a count that high. New lab, maybe it was a mistake? Called the vet, who said don’t worry, young horses often have high counts, just worm her.

What does this all mean?

Do we need worms?

Of course I should have rushed out and bought the chemicals. But I didn’t. I held my natural horse carer ground. She’s young, she needs to build immunity and maybe nature knows more than I do? Maybe she needs those worms? If I wipe them all out now, how will that affect her immunity building? Maybe we’re back to iron levels now, and how they help protect against infectious disease?

In the other side of my brain, all the vets, trainers and other expert voices from my past life are screaming, “Worm her, worm her, worm her!” So I compromised. I added diatamaceous earth and neem powder to her food. After a month I retested with my trusted friend Pauhla Whitaker, worm enthusiast extraodinaire. FEC down to 945.

The Chemical Challenge

Why, at this stage, did I decide to do the chemical thing? I’m not quite sure looking back. Maybe because she’s not mine? Maybe because those knowledgeable voices wore me down? Maybe I thought the risk of not worming her greater than any potential challenge to the body of a healthy young horse? Maybe because I needed the next piece in the puzzle? Whatever. I wormed her with moxidectrin.

2 days later she has a tick bite that swells up like a plum. Then another. Luckily that phase only lasted a couple of days, thanks to intervention with essential oils. But since then she has more ticks on a regular basis.

In every other way she looks as healthy as ever. When I offer her herbs she takes a little of this or that, but her eating is not urgent, as it is when a horse really needs the herb offered. So she feels fine. Is her new sensitivity a coincidence? I think not. Somehow, having her worms wiped out made her more attractive to ticks.

Ticks win

So this is where I am at with the original question. Ticks and worms are part of the equine eco-system. They may help horses control iron by blood letting. High iron leads to increased risk of infectious disease, poor mineral uptake, and metabolic distress. So ticks help horses.

But what about the disease they carry? Piroplasmosis usually attacks stressed horses, weakening an animal who is already challenged, hastening its death. This is also beneficial to a wild horse. No long, drawn out suffering. So a good thing.

In addition, there may be some sort of balance between worm load and resistance to insects (and skin sensitivity). It is possible that human’s over aggressive control of parasites contributes to some common health problems.

Too much of a good thing?

I’m not saying you should start letting ticks take over your horses, or that wormers will become obsolete. As long as your horses are confined (no matter how large the area) you are responsible for making sure they get what they need.

In the wild, horses would balance their worm load by seeking out and eating anthelmintic plants, clay or charcoal. They protect themselves from insect infestation by rolling in dirt, or aromatic plants, or submerging themselves in water. Birds would also help keep them free of insects by picking them off their backs.

In a domestic environment, horses are usually deprived of any chance for self-medication, itself a stress. But you can provide your horses the herbs they crave, by putting some herbs in bowls and letting your horse choose which ones he would like to eat. For worm control I offer, wormwood, neem leaf powder, milk thistle seed, and green clay.

I protect my horses (and dogs) from ticks using a blend of diatamaceous earth, clay and neem leaf powder, imitating a good roll in the dirt by rubbing it through their mane and coat. And I play the role of a bird by manually removing the bugs.

The more you can mimic nature and provide a horse’s natural needs, the less need you will have -if any- for chemicals.  Anything toxic enough to kill ticks for 30 days, challenges a horse’s bio-system rather than supporting it, reducing their natural bug resistance in the long run. Plus the ‘total destruction’ approach damages the balance of nature in other ways we have not yet discovered.

Well, that’s my opinion anyway! What do you think?