IMG_0327    Winter 2017 Newsletter

The Horse Sanctuary at Stonegate Farm

Horses Need Your Help!

Our mandate is to provide therapeutic riding and other horse experiences for children and adults with special needs, and to rescue, rehabilitate, and re-home horses at risk of neglect, abuse or slaughter. People Helping Horses Helping People.

The Horse Sanctuary is 100% volunteer-run. all money raised goes directly to helping our horses and our special-needs clients

This winter, The Horse Sanctuary is home to 12 rescued horses. Two are ready to be re-homed, but the other ten will be with us for the rest of their lives, too old or infirm to find adoptive homes. Some work in our therapeutic riding program, helping children and adults with disabilities like Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Alzheimers, Spinal cord injury and more.

No Government Funding

Horse rescues receive no government funding. As a registered charity, The Horse Sanctuary is able to provide tax receipts for donations, but we are entirely self-financed. The fees charged for therapeutic riding help off-set our costs, but represent less than 40% of our annual operating budget. Those who cannot afford to pay, are not charged for our services. And while the therapeutic programs run for seven months of the year, the school horses and rescues must be fed and cared for year-round.

Rising Costs

When we opened our doors in 2007, a bale of hay cost $2.50. Since then, costs have skyrocketed as high as $7 a bale in drought years, and $4.50 is the standard selling price. Round bales have gone from $30 to $60 or more. Prices for grain and supplements, vet and farrier care and hydro have all increased as well.

Why Horses Need Us

Most people assume that all horses are owned by rich people and that an animal as magnificent and beloved as the horse would never be neglected or abused. So it comes as a shock to learn that tens of thousands are slaughtered for meat exports every year and countless tens of thousands more are left to suffer lives of hidden neglect.

Our rescue horses have many stories to “tell:”

An Old Horse Story

It’s disturbing that some horse owners are prepared to “dump” a horse once it reaches a certain age. Once he can’t compete at the highest levels or put in the trail miles demanded of him, the older horse is discarded. This might mean being warehoused in a bad pasture or low-quality “boarding” facility without adequate food, veterinary or farrier care. It might mean “re-homing” through auction or a “horse free to good home” ad that most often leads to a kill buyer’s trailer and the slaughter house. Delusions of “retirement” homes where the old horse can serve as a cherished companion to younger horses are just that. Delusions. Very few such homes exist, and most discarded senior horses meet with a bad end.

Melvin Portrait

Some end up at sanctuaries like ours. Each of the school horses in our therapeutic riding program is a senior, but still with much to give. For our program, advanced age can be a bonus – a horse with much experience and wisdom may make the perfect partner for a vulnerable rider with disabilities.


Injuries and Illness

Some horses have the bad luck to suffer career-ending injuries or chronic illnesses that make them unsuitable for work. Often, these horses require expensive maintenance to keep them comfortable. Many end in the same downward spiral of neglect or slaughter as the old ones.

The Horse Sanctuary is currently home to three such horses:

Havana, a retired polo pony who was a star of our therapeutic riding program was recently diagnosed with Wobbler’s. This neurological disorder (in Havana’s case likely linked to arthritis) causes a loss of coordination, making the horse unsafe to ride. Havana is enjoying retired life.

Taffy came to us with debilitating founder – a painful condition of the foot which may cripple a horse or force humane euthanasia. We are fortunate that our highly skilled farriers – T & T Farrier Services – have offered to provide Taffy with the corrective shoeing she will require for the rest of her life to make her pain-free.

New tricks for an older lady

Sophie is a sweet pony in her twenties, blind in one eye from uveitis. Her lack of sight has made Sophie nervous of new situations and unsafe under saddle. But she LOVES to be groomed and fussed over.

Overbreeding, Bad Training, Ignorance and more

Every year, more horses are bred than can possibly find good homes. Many are low quality horses produced to satisfy a human’s ego, with no thought to producing a quality riding partner or improving a breed. Some unscrupulous breeders admit to breeding more horses than they can sell, hoping to produce a “star.” They are willing to ship the “extras” directly to the slaughter house.

Horses branded as dangerous, un-rideable or “crazy” have been ruined by bad trainers or poor riders. Sadly, it’s the horse that pays the price for human ignorance. Once labelled “bad,” a horse has little hope of finding a decent home.

Some horses land in terrible situations through sheer human ignorance.  A filly ended up in our care – at death’s door at the age of 7 months – starved and sick with little will to live.  Never receiving proper nutrition or health care, she nearly lost her life. These horses and many more like them need our help, and we need yours.

How you can donate:

Use PayPal on our website:


Mail: The Horse Sanctuary, 1090 Warminster Side Road RR3 Coldwater ON L0K 1E0


Youth Haven at The Horse Sanctuary

Being a teenager can be tough. Remember high school?

But if you grew up with horses, or have a teenaged child who rides, you KNOW that a horse can make the process easier.

Horses don’t judge you, and they never, ever lie.

They’ll give you their all, and ask very little in return.

They’re patient listeners who will never share your secrets with anybody else.

Their strong shoulders absorb buckets of tears.

Their soft breath in your hair and velvet noses on your cheek make the rest of the world melt away.

They can turn a horrible-awful day into moments of pure joy.

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I have many friends whose horses got them through some very tough times. Some will tell you their horses saved their lives.

For these reasons and many more, we feel privileged here at The Horse Sanctuary to share our horses with the young clients from Simcoe County’s only homeless youth shelter, Youth Haven.

Consider that 80% of youth who are classified as homeless have ended up on the street because they’re running away from an unbearable situation at home: domestic violence, neglect, physical or sexual abuse. If they’ve ended up at Youth Haven, it’s because they have absolutely nowhere else to go. This amazing organization helps hundreds of kids between 16 and 21 years of age every year, and we are honoured by their trust.

Since last fall, Youth Haven has brought groups of young men and women to our barn once a week to tap into that “horse magic” we like to spread around. They learn to groom, tack up, lead and ride the horses. They support and encourage each other, helping “newbies” get over their fears. When they graduate to riding off-lead for the first time, or learn to trot, it’s an accomplishment that lights up their faces.

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Youth Haven’s counselors tell us they notice a difference in the kids. They’re genuinely happier in the days after riding. They look forward to coming back, and encourage other youth to try it because of the experience they’ve had. Riding has “opened up positive interactions between at risk youth,” Youth Haven’s Gord Bones explains, “encouraging one another to try it because of the fun they’ve had. The program has given the youth the opportunity to grow and teach them responsibility which are life skills that will help them in their futures.”


When people have so little to smile about, we consider every smile a gift. Thanks, Youth Haven, for bringing us these most precious gifts.



“How I Feel About Memphis” – guest blog

by Jared


I like to ride Memphis because I know that I am helping him and he is helping me.  He helps me with my balance and me siting straight while I am riding him.  Then in return I help him by reintroducing him to people.  Also, I probably wouldn’t feel as comfortable riding another horse as I would with Memphis because he is so gentle and seems to know that I am not like other riders.  I think I have a special bond with Memphis because he responds to me when I am riding him.  Most of all, I feel most happy when I am around him and riding him

Jared, age 11


Paula and Tia – One Year Later

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Tia one year after rescue from near starvation


There are many ways in which I’m NOT like a 4-year-old Thoroughbred: I don’t like to roll in mud, I don’t pin my ears at everyone but my best friend, and I’m not genetically designed for speed. Here’s another way: if you serve me breakfast in bed on a Sunday morning and let me sleep in until 10, I will thank you, roll over, and go back sleep, NOT pace or paw the ground or yell my head off about being trapped indoors.

But that’s because I’m NOT a 4 year-old Thoroughbred. Tia and Paula are. And when I left them inside this morning to digest their breakfast before a training session, they disapproved. The girls are used to training in the evening. Period. Being the only two left in the barn after everyone else went out this morning did not meet with their approval.

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Tia posing for the camera

But that’s ok. Accepting a change in routine is something a good riding horse must learn to do, and horses that are a pleasure to own and ride are what we aim to produce here at Horseplay Sanctuary.

So the girls had to wait, then go to work. They spent half an hour on the lunge line, wearing a bridle and surcingle, learning voice commands and getting used to the bit. Both went nicely after some initial arguments, and we finished on a good note. They even posed for the pictures on this page.

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Paula one year after rescue from near starvation


But they were happiest when I put them outside with their friends, galloping off to join the herd. Like the 4-year-olds they are.

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Thoroughbreds Starved, Abandoned, Shipped to Auction

The news hit our Facebook news feed early on a Saturday morning. The Hooman Akbary Thoroughbreds were about to go through Carson’s auction. It was April 5th and we, along with several other rescues, had been trying to get the herd of 40 starving Thoroughbreds into safekeeping for weeks with no luck. Now they were at the auction, with kill buyers ready to buy them “by the pound.”

Murphy’s Law dictated that this would be the ONE Saturday of the year I had to work (the College where I teach was having an Open House. No way out of that). So that left Robert on his own, with only a two-horse trailer and whatever money he could scrape together on short notice. We hit the highway at the same time – me with a short drive to work, Robert with a couple of hours’ driving ahead of him, trying desperately to get to the auction before the horses were snatched up by the kill buyers.

For 11 of the 34 that were shipped to the auction (6 were held back through a side-deal), that was exactly what happened. They were bought by kill buyer Jonathan Lalonde, and would be headed to a Quebec abattoir in short order, despite having no EIDs (the “passport” required by the government to “guarantee” a horse has been drug-free for 6 months). Of course, lack of legitimate EIDs has rarely slowed the slaughter pipeline down. The documents are regularly forged, as The Toronto Star’s Mary Ormsby has documented in print.

But these 11 were lucky – a deal was struck and the horses were bought out of the kill pens by a rescue organization.

Robert was able to buy 9 horses from the auction, ranging in age from 2 to 18 years. These should have been sleek, fiery race horses or plump and happy brood mares. Instead, they were starved to the point where one of them was unable to stand on her own after lying down to rest. She had metabolized her muscles in an effort to stay alive and lacked the strength to get to her feet without assistance.

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Little Kate – propped up by hay bales as she gathers the strength to get to her feet.

The eighteen-year-old had a body condition score of 1, her hip bones threatening to poke through skin left hairless by lice and rain rot

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Eighteen-year-old Naomi (Bold Mist) – hipbones protruding, all fat and muscle gone, hair loss due to lice and rain rot.

All were weak, sick and starving, but worst of all was the little colt we nicknamed “Little Man.” He’d gone down at the auction and thrashed in his pen. Instead of pulling him from the sale as the rules dictate, the supervising vet simply gave him a shot of Banamine, watched as auction staff lifted the colt to his feet, and allowed him to be prodded through the auction ring to be sold “as is” for $25. (We were relieved to discover a few weeks later that this particular veterinarian is no longer practicing).

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Little Man the day he arrived, the auction tag still on his hip.

Little Man made the long trip to our farm on Saturday, and although weak, seemed to be holding his own. But by Sunday morning he was failing and in obvious distress. We called our vet, but knew the verdict before he delivered it. The umbilical hernia on the colt’s belly was bulging with intestines that had slipped through the opening in his abdominal wall months ago and been left untreated. Adhesions had formed. The little colt’s digestive tract was choked off. The colt was suffering badly.

There was a slim possibility surgery could save Little Man, but he was starved and sick and too weak for another long trip. The kindest thing would be to have him euthanized.

Yet even in his deplorable state, Little Man had followed us around in the morning sunshine as we waited for the vet to arrive, grateful for a little gentle grooming of his matted winter coat and the kind words that were all we had to give him. The vet administered the drugs, and as the colt lay dying in the snow, sadness competed with anger and a feeling of helplessness.

We were unable to save Little Man, but I like to think we made his final hours a little less horrible.

Of the other eight rescues, seven are still with us, now fat and healthy and in various stages of training for their new careers (details in my next post). One found a home with breeders shortly after we brought her home.

Of Hooman Akbary, the “trainer” who’d once owned the horses and the farm, there has been no word. Rumour is he left the country after abandoning the horses, much as he’d fled England a few years earlier after a similar fiasco.

Many people pulled together on that Saturday a year ago, putting up money to buy a horse, offering a trailer-ride or a few weeks’ free board while we made room at home for our new herd of rescues.

To those kind souls, a heart-felt “thank you.”

To those who caused or condoned the suffering of these beautiful creatures, shame on you. I hope the memory of what you’ve done haunts you for the rest of your days.

No More Excuses

There’s an image that’s stuck in my head.

It’s a snippet from a new video the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition is producing that we had a chance to preview on Sunday.


The video makes a powerful case for ending horse slaughter in Canada. It doesn’t use PETA-style shock tactics. It doesn’t have to. The statistics are bad enough. Coupled with simple images of horses who are doomed to die – whether they’re standing in an Alberta feedlot, crowded into a shipping container on their way to Japan, or herded onto a kill buyer’s truck at the Ontario Livestock Exchange (OLEX). One with braids in its mane, evidently put there by a hopeful owner thinking it might help the horse to find a loving home at the auction.

And there are a few scenes from the kill floor of a slaughter house. Horses in the kill box. We never see the kill. The failed attempts at stunning the horse with a captive bolt, or killing it with a 22. You can read about this from eyewitnesses, or watch a CBC documentary that examined horse skulls showing just how many shots the killers took that obviously didn’t do their job.

We don’t see the horses struggle and go down. Throw their heads up out of reach of the gun in a kill box that’s designed for cattle. We don’t hear them screaming.

But we do see a horse standing in that kill box trembling like a leaf. His entire body’s shaking in terror.

That’s the image I’m stuck with.

It sneaks up on me at unexpected times.

It makes me physically ill.

That horse knows exactly what’s coming. He’s beside himself with fear. He’s trapped. Helpless. Knowing he’s about to die.

No one has the right to do that to a horse. I don’t care about the excuses. I don’t care about the rationalizations. It’s sickening. Cruel. Inhumane. It has to stop.

Please help CHDC if you can. They’re the only meaningful voice these horse have.

It’s too late for that terrified creature in the kill box. He’s gone. But his image will stay with me for a very long time. And that’s only fair. Remembering him is the very least that I can do to honour his life. His death.

Horseplay “University” Session 1: Equine Massage and Hoof Health

What an information-packed day we all enjoyed here at Horseplay Sanctuary last Sunday.

In the morning, Equine Therapist Lorna Bell instructed clinic attendees on the theoretical aspects of a range of therapies including massage, acupuncture, cold laser therapy and more. We discussed anatomy, the structure of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, the effect of exercise and injury, and how to mitigate the ill effects to keep horses limber and happy in their work.

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Lorna briefs the group, with Memphis modelling.

Then it was time to catch some horses and head up to the arena to practice what we’d learned (massage only!!!). As Lorna explained, with massage, the worst you can do is “nothing.” We humans are simply not strong enough to cause damage to a horse with massage (after all, we SIT on these lovely creatures). Not so with the other forms of therapy, of course, which should be left to the pros.

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Carmen and Carolyn practice on Sunny.

We tried out several massage techniques, working two to a horse in five-minute intervals until we’d massaged our volunteer equines from ears to tail. I worked with Sue on our Tennessee Walker Memphis. He’s a hard-working school horse in our therapeutic riding program and, as expected, we found a couple of ouchy spots, but were able to work them out easily.

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Henk loving his back massage!

Although he was apprehensive at first, within a few minutes Memphis had his head down low, eyes half closed, tongue flicking as he gently chewed, and finally rewarded us with a series of huge yawns. “The best compliment a horse can give you,” Lorna told us. When I looked around the arena, most of the other horses seemed to be loving their massages just as much.

This being spring, of course we ended up covered in horse hair, and the arena had six little hair islands where each of the horses had been standing as his or her students worked away.

Then it was back into the house for lunch and a comprehensive presentation on hoof health by Rodd Turnbull and Carmen Theobald of T&T Farrier Services. With illustrations, PowerPoint slides, a skeletal foreleg and rear leg anatomical cut-away, they covered everything from basic hoof structure and skeletal alignment to thrush, laminitis / founder, navicular, and the pros and cons of shoeing.

One of the most important take-aways for me was the importance of nutrition to a horse’s hoof health – both in terms of horses carrying too much weight, making them prone to laminitis, as well as lack of essential nutrients leading to weak feet. With rescue horses, of course, we see the effects of poor nutrition all the time, and know how long it takes to re-build a horse from the inside-out. Carmen and Rodd’s presentation provided useful tips on helping horses gain and maintain optimal hoof health.

We all know the proverb “No hoof, no horse!” Everyone who attended the clinic is now much better equipped to make sure our horses have strong, healthy feet.

Thanks to everyone who attended the clinic, and thank you most especially to our three expert clinicians who shared their time and wisdom with us so generously, with all proceeds from the clinic donated to support Horseplay Sanctuary’s horse rescue.

Up next – First Aid with Dr. Catherine Hunnisett (Part 1 April 26th, Part 2 May 17th). Email to reserve your spot.

In Praise of Older Horses: Part 3 – Melvin

Back in the Limelight

Guest blog by Anya Urszulan, Volunteer

With an average life expectancy of 25-30 years, horses, if lucky, live a very good, full life.

Melvin, a Thoroughbred, has retired twice over: first from racing, and secondly from a Hunter/Jumper career. He’s one of the lucky ones. In his second career he, no doubt, had his share of fanfare moments, competing at the Royal Winter Fair and other high-end shows.

In the fall of 2013 Melvin found himself embarking on a well deserved semi-retirement, this time to the therapeutic riding program at Horseplay Sanctuary. He has been busy since coming here. Melvin is one of the cornerstone horses used in the program, not only carrying fragile riders for therapy, but also evolving into a teacher of another kind. He teaches Vet. Tech students, becoming a bridge between theory and practice and now, most recently, in another teaching capacity, as the happy subject of a College level Photography student.

I am a  regular volunteer at Horseplay Sanctuary, and to my great privilege have learned the personalities of each resident horse. So when my neighbour, dear friend and Photography student asked if she could capture me grooming a horse for a project, there was only one choice in my mind. Melvin. I knew there would be a camera set atop a tripod, and a bright light on a stand. Such equipment, flashing and beeping, can be a potential spook to a horse. How many would have experienced such a set up in their lifetime? Melvin.

Melvin StudioDespite his competitive career being a distant memory, I thought surely he would have been exposed to such hustle and bustle at the height of his illustrious career. I also thought it would be fun to give him a small re-creation of the bravado he once experienced in the show ring.

I plucked Melvin out of the herd and, at his pace, we dawdled up to the barn. I placed him in a stall to observe our tiny studio set-up, in the hope it would be less surprising than walking him straight into the shoot. Melvin did what Melvin does, munched on hay with the occasional crib on the water bucket, completely unconcerned with the fuss taking place outside his stall door.

Then moment arrived, the humans were ready for their subject. I led Melvin out, cross tied him and set to work grooming and cuddling all while the camera bulb flashed away.

Any rider, volunteer or visitor who has had the pleasure of meeting Melvin knows quite well his curious, mischievous, handsome, gentle eyed demeanour, usually with slight head tilt or a straight-on “I’m good looking and I know how to work it” look on his face. He did not disappoint this day, he was on-point! Happy mouth and relaxed hind leg, yet ears forward

Melvin Portrait

and alert. The ultimate camera ham had settled in for some pampering on film. This day was a far cry from past his experiences, yet I truly believe he relished every moment, perhaps remembering days gone by, in the limelight, if only for a moment.



In Praise of Older Horses: Part 2 – Dooley

A therapeutic riding horse shows his true value when he is asked to do something extraordinary, and he does it. As if it were nothing. An everyday thing. A thing that any horse could do.



That was Dooley.

Not long after he came to us, we asked Dooley to work with our very first paraplegic rider. That meant tolerating a wheelchair wheeling up the ramp beside him. Standing perfectly still while his rider was hoisted by a pulley, swung over his back, then lowered down onto him. Being absolutely trustworthy in all situations (snow sliding off the arena, cats in the rafters, meteors striking the earth) while his rider was aboard.

He did all that, and never, ever red-lined my blood pressure! Working with riders whose disabilities make them vulnerable or fragile is a huge responsibility for horse and human alike, but Dooley made it all look easy.

Dooley, school horse

Dooley, school horse

He came to us in 2009, donated by a grateful owner who had asked Dooley to re-build her confidence after a bad fall in competition. She bought Dooley to help her trust horses again. To trust herself as a rider. And he did that. To the point that she’d bought another show horse, and now Dooley had no job. We took him gladly, and he quickly became the cornerstone of our therapeutic riding program.

Need a steady-eddy for an anxious rider? Dooley. Need a horse that’s completely trustworthy off the lead for a rider “going solo” for the first time? Dooley. Need a guinea pig to try out that hoist and the scary wheelchair? Dooley.

He came to us as a very well-maintained 25-year-old – an age when most horses would be hanging up their horseshoes – and worked until the age of 30, retiring only once the uveitis he’d been suffering with for years took his vision completely. We had trouble convincing people of his age. He was plump and round and shiny. So when he dropped weight suddenly, we knew something was up. He passed a few weeks later, three days before the vet was scheduled to come out and euthanize him. How very like Dooley to go out on his own terms.

Rest in peace, Dooley. Know that you were loved by many, and your memory lives on.

In Praise of Older Horses: Part 1 – Oscar

At the age of 18, my elegant, cowardly Irish Thoroughbred Oscar began his third career

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Bred in Ireland with the blood of champion steeplechasers coursing in his veins, this tall, big-boned gelding was imported to Canada as an Eventing prospect. He had a big, scopey jump. Moved well enough for dressage. Came from parents who raced flat-out over jumps they could not see the other side of, trusting in their riders to get them through.

It seemed a logical choice but, alas, the lovely Oscar was not born with the heart of a lion. Or even a housecat. Oscar was afraid of things that went “bump” in the night, “tweet” in the trees, “rustle” in the underbrush. Oscar jumped out of his skin at the slightest provocation, swerved at shadows, and flatly refused to have anything to do with water that was not safely contained in a bucket.

Eventing? Not a chance.

So Oscar became a show hunter. This was a job he could be enthusiastic about. A prettily braided mane and tail and elegant bascules over rustic-looking jumps in the very controlled environment of the show ring – THAT was Oscar’s style. No sweaty galloping. No big jumps at awkward angles. No hills. And best of all, no water! Just polite applause from the audience and the most gentle of guidance from his equally pretty, well-groomed rider. Kisses and carrots after the ribbons were handed out.

And then Oscar got hurt in a paddock accident. The hip healed, but never fully. His show career was over.

That’s when Oscar came into my life. My first horse after too much time away from riding; going to school, having kids and starting my career.  He was 12 and finished. I was just getting started again. We hacked, mostly, wandering along the wooded trails and open fields behind the boarding stable where I kept him. There were deer. And squirrels. And even the odd coyote. And the neighbour’s Percherons! The ground shook as they galloped toward us across their pasture and Oscar turned to jelly.

Oscar had a big spook. A big, nasty, drop-the-shoulder, spin and gallop off in the opposite direction spook. The kind of spook that can leave you sitting in mid-air, wondering where your horse has gone. My theory: Oscar thought it wise to dump his rider in the dirt to distract whatever was in those bushes that wanted to eat him. The beastie, he thought, would be too preoccupied with the rider lying dazed on the ground to bother with that fast, elusive horse high-tailing it across the field.

Oscar’s yellow-bellied cowardice added lots of spice to our otherwise pleasant hacks.

And then, at the age of 18, Oscar lost his spook. He must have decided all that leaping about and running away was simply too much work. Or perhaps undignified. Whatever the reason, he transformed from twitchy to bomb-proof virtually overnight. I kept waiting for the punch-line of his little joke, but it never came, and eventually he convinced me. Oscar was a changed horse.

So the newly mellow Oscar became the very first school horse in our new therapeutic riding program. A packer. A baby-sitter. Oscar walked and jogged around with little kids on his back and never, ever spooked. He held his head low, paid attention to his leaders and side walkers and never got ruffled. He let kids play bean-bag toss from his back, guide him through the obstacle course, and hug his neck at the end of the lesson. Even snow sliding off the arena roof or cats in the rafters barely merited a twitch of his extra-long ears.


We lost Oscar when his great yet gentle heart failed at the age of 25, but he will not be soon forgotten. The sweet old soul touched many lives – in his third career as therapy horse most of all.