Wednesday, June 27, 2007

History Mystery: Laminitis at the Battle of Little Big Horn?

Is there any one among us who does not know the meaning of the three simple words, "Little Big Horn"? Today is the anniversary of the day after the massacre known generally as "Custer's Last Stand". The battle was June 25, and the history books tell us that it was today, June 26, when the annihilated troops of the US 7th Cavalry were found.

Comanche, the lone survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn, with the German immigrant farrier Gustave Korn, who saved his life and helped the horse recover from seven wounds suffered in the battle. Photo courtesy of and the Library of Congress, available from the Denver Public Library's Western Image Collection. Note the swallowtail saddle cloth, now in vogue with dressage riders.

Volumes have been written about the horses that carried the Custer troop but recently an interesting footnote has been unearthed in the book Laminitis and Founder: Prevention and Treatment by Drs Butler and Gravlee. I was very surprised when Custer's name popped up in that book.

The authors put forth an interesting footnote from agricultural (not military) history that has not been widely published before. They quote a report published in the journal Agricultural History in 1944, which states that Custer's horses had been wintered in fields known for heavy growth of highly selenium-rich plants and soil.

In 2000, Cornell equine nutritionist Harold Hintz mentioned the lameness problems of Custer's late-arriving pack train horses; he brought equine selenium toxicity back into the Custer conversation.

Sitting Bull took care to not winter his horses in those types of fields.

But it wasn't until the 1930s--more than 50 years after the massacre--that it was scientifically proven that selenium is toxic to horses in large doses, and that it causes a form of laminitis-like changes of such severity that horses' feet will actually start to slough. In Custer's day, it was known as "alkali disease", and the US Army had kept records of horses sloughing their hooves when grazing in the upper plains states as far back as 1860. (USDA, 1991 report on selenium toxicity)

(To learn more about selenium toxicity, scroll down and read our post from June 11, 2007; horses are still suffering from selenium-based laminitis today, as the University of Missouri vet school shares.)

By the way, the Native American name for the Little Bighorn is "The Greasy Grass" River.

Most peoplewill confidently tell you that no one on the US Cavalry side survived the battle, but that is not so. But only one horse, named Comanche, was found alive on the battlefield. He alone was standing, if barely, out of 225 horses that marched into the valley. 

Comanche was a wild horse from Texas who was rounded up and sold to the US Government. He was ridden by a horse-loving Irish immigrant, Captain Myles Keogh. Writer Deanne Stillman has been hard at work on the definitive biography of Comanche as the icon of the American wild horse. Her new booHorse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in spring 2008.

But in recognition of today's anniversary, a couple of chapters were sneak-previewed on the web today, and you can have a good read, thanks to  (Make sure you read both chapters, and make it all the way to the battle.)

Another interesting book is Custer's Horses by Gary Paul Johnston.

And what became of Gustave Korn, the German farrier who was Comanche's personal groom? Korn cared for Comanche at Fort Riley in Kansas, among other locations. The horse was revered by the US Army.

However, in 1890, Korn was assigned to field duty and was killed at Wounded Knee. According to records, Comanche became depressed without Korn by his side, although another farrier, Samuel Winchester, was assigned to be his personal servant.

On November 7, 1891, Comanche died of colic in Winchester's arms. The horse was 29 years old.

As an interesting aside: Comanche's hide was stuffed and he has been living at the University of Kansas at Lawrence for over 100 years, unless he has been moved recently. It's very interesting to read that his hide was excessively long-haired, even though winter had not begun.

Comanche was never ridden after Little Big Horn, and spent his days roaming freely about the fort, where he bullied people for food and ate out of the trash. He also developed a liking for beer and was known to be intoxicated more than once.

To learn more:
Colorado State University hoof tissue test for selenium toxicity

Hintz HF, Thompson LJ. Custer, selenium and swainsonine. Vet Hum Toxicol. 2000 Aug;42(4):242-3.

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