By Eleanor Blazer

          Warning: may aid in the fall of an empire, Bubonic Plague, bewitching and abortion in mares.

          Ergot is a fungus found on some types of grasses – primarily rye grain (not ryegrass).  It has been a health problem for humans and animals for thousands of years.

          The infecting spore starts on the flower of the grass plant and remains to infect the mature seed grain.  The toxin (if consumed) can cause behavioral changes, restricted blood flow often resulting in gangrene, convulsions, contractions of the uterus and death.

          Ergot poisoning may have played a small part in some of history’s famous periods.

          In the late 800’s A.D. part of the Holy Roman Empire, which later became France, had reoccurring bouts of ergot poisoning due to the consumption of contaminated bread.  At that time the source of the sickness was unknown. 

          Enter the invading Norseman (Vikings) who were healthy, well trained and did not eat rye.  The ergot weakened locals didn’t stand a chance. 

          Ergotism may have also played a part in the Bubonic Plague of Europe in the late 1300’s. Bubonic Plague is caused by the bite of an infected flea.  Rats that were eating ergot infected rye were dying – causing fleas to loose their primary hosts, so the fleas moved to humans.  Humans (in addition to rats) were also sick and weak because of the ergot infected rye grain. It was not a very good time to live in Europe.

          Moving forward in time and across the ocean to the United States…

          Symptoms of ergot poisoning can be writhing, muscle spasms, twitching, strange behavior and visions.  Someone witnessing a person with these symptoms might think the sufferer was possessed, which may have happened in Salem, Massachusetts during the late 1600’s.

          In Poisons of the Past (1989, Yale University Press, London), written by Mary Kilbourne Matossian, the theory is presented that ergot poisoning may have been the cause for increasing numbers of children and women behaving abnormally, thus called “witches.”

          It is thought during the time prior to the Salem witch trials the weather was conducive to fungus growth on the rye grain – wet, damp and warm.     Bread made from the harvested infected grain was contaminated with the toxin.  Rye bread was a staple in the diet of early Americans.  Eating the infected bread would have caused the “witch- like” behavior.

          Granted, this theory has some “holes” in it, but it makes interesting reading.

          What is not a theory is the danger ergotism presents to pregnant mares.  One of the symptoms caused by the toxin is uterine contractions - resulting in the loss of the unborn foal.

          Under no circumstances should the gestating broodmare be bedded on rye straw.  If she eats the straw and some of the ergot infected grain is still attached she could abort the foal.

          If any horse eats ergot infected grain severe sickness or death will be the result.  With other grain and bedding options ergot poisoning in horses should remain a part of history.

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