In Praise of Older Horses: Part 1 – Oscar

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

Oscar 1

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.

Companions NOT Wanted

Moose, Rosie and Ronan as yearlings, 6 months after arrivalWe all know horses are herd animals, and should never be forced to live alone. So far so good. But from the number of “companion-only” ads out there, trying to place unrideable horses, you’d be excused for thinking that hundreds of horses were standing in lonely pastures, pining for a friend.

It simply isn’t so.

Good companion homes are nearly impossible to find, and should be reserved for those horses who need to be retired due to age, lameness, or a chronic condition that makes work impossible.

But those “free to a good home” ads so often tell you that the horse “hasn’t been ridden for a while,” or “needs to be re-started,” or “will make a wonderful partner for the right, experienced rider.”

What the owner is usually trying to say is that he/she is scared to death to get on this horse’s back, and wants someone else to try it. Better yet, find a loving owner who will ask nothing more of the horse except to decorate a paddock. Be pasture art. A lawn mower.

But how many people can afford an unusable horse?

So often, this situation just sneaks up on people. They buy a horse that’s a little too much for them. They don’t have the experience to train the horse or keep it working at the level it’s accustomed to. Maybe they confine it too much or overfeed high-calorie grain. Maybe their saddle doesn’t fit, hurts the horse’s back, and they make it worse by bouncing around on top of that painful saddle.

The list is long and varied, but the outcome is often the same. The horse picks up bad habits, has no way to burn off excess energy, or reacts negatively to the pain. The rider has a few bad experiences, maybe a scary fall, and the horse finds himself left to his own devices for longer and longer periods of time. Eventually, he’ll decide that being a lawn ornament is not a bad deal, and resents any kind of attempt at riding.

And then he ends up in a want-ad.

The problem is that he has to compete with so many rideable horses. Why take a chance on a horse with a broken body or a broken mind?

So, maybe, before it gets to that point, the owner needs to invest some money in a trainer. Or a coach. Or both. Don’t let a perfectly good horse become a problem no one will want to deal with. And forget about that “great companion-only” home.  They’re as elusive as unicorns.


Black Beauty





If you think that Thunder (left) and Memphis (right) might be the same horse, you are correct.

Memphis is one of our most-loved therapeutic riding horses, adored by riders and volunteers, and entrusted with our most fragile riders. But he had a life before, as Thunder, and a voice from his past phoned me, out of the blue, last Thursday.

The caller introduced herself as Lori and said she’d happened across our website, and to her shock and enormous relief, found her horse Thunder – sold years before, but always on her mind.

A quick check of registration papers and bills of sale, and there was no doubt. Memphis was Thunder. Or Thunder Heart – a name inspired by the heart-shaped marking on his forehead.

Within minutes Lori was crying with happiness, knowing “her boy” had landed among people who loved him, and had a job that put his sweet nature to the best possible use.

I invited Lori to visit Thunder / Memphis anytime she liked, and the conversation ended. I opened my email then, and there was a message from Lori’s daughter, Courtney, with a picture of Thunder as a younger horse.

“He got me through some tough times,” she said in her message. She couldn’t believe her mother had managed to find him.

Horses change hands for many reasons. As horse owners, we sometimes need to make the hard decision to let a horse go, but the responsible ones worry. It’s called “Black Beauty” syndrome. A good horse moves through progressively worse homes, sometimes developing a bad reputation through no fault of his own, until he ends up miserable, abused, neglected, maybe sent to slaughter.

It keeps us up at night. Selling a horse isn’t like selling a car. They live, they breathe, they feel, they fear. As a horse rescue, too frequently we see what happens to those horses, even if well-meaning owners try to put safeguards in place when they let a beloved horse move on.

But it isn’t always like that.

Sometimes Black Beauty is lucky enough to never leave the hands of people who love and appreciate him, even if those hands change.

I was happy that a former owner’s fears about her horse were laid to rest for Lori.

In the end, of course, even the fictional Black Beauty finds peace, love, and the promise of a forever home. We’re happy that our own Black Beauty, who bears more than a striking resemblance to the one in Anna Sewell’s book, didn’t have to travel such a hard road to get here.

Special Guest Blog

☆☆ �


January 19, 2014

To parents considering the services of Horseplay Sanctuary….

Colleen Leduc

Victoria Leduc

My name is Colleen Leduc and I have been blessed with a beautiful child with Autism. Victoria is a loving almost 17 year-old who has taught me many things about myself; patience, love, understanding, compassion etc….but most of all taught me to recognize how to help her in discovering what she enjoys which brings me to talking about Horseplay Sanctuary.

I met Lillian Tepera and the gang several years ago. I had heard that there was this “great lady with a big heart doing big things” for children with special needs. I personally had always loved horses my entire life, and actually owned two horses prior to having children. I wanted Victoria to experience equine passion much like I did, but I had no idea how to do this until I met Lillian. I was always worried about finding a place which would accommodate children with special needs.

For the past several years, Victoria has been religiously attending Therapeutic Riding Lessons at the farm. I cannot begin to tell you how this has impacted her in a most positive way. Even though she is non-verbal, when I prompt a conversation about the farm and prepare her for the upcoming lesson, she lights up with a smile from ear to ear. She then starts repeating in her sweet voice “horseback rining” She cannot pronounce the “d”. She knows the routine; we begin to get dressed in our horsegear, drive out to the farm, and are always lovingly welcomed by staff with smiles. You can tell that these people do this for the kids. They are passionate about what they do and take the time to speak to your child, even though that child may not provide eye contact, or even acknowledge them at times.  Wonderful interactive games are played with the children while they are riding and it is wonderful to see and Victoria will even recite or sing what she has learned throughout the week. Victoria is always so calm after riding. The staff will go the extra mile, and offer Victoria to groom her horse once she is done riding and perhaps give the horse a treat. I can feel the bond that my child develops with the horse which is simply magical. In the world of Autism, sometimes our children do not have the opportunity to make friends, and I can assure you that when she rides her horse every week, she is feeling like she has a friend even though she cannot express it.

I am quite a particular parent as to who interacts with my daughter as I am very protective of her, but I can safely say that the staff at Horseplay Sanctuary are amazing with special needs kids. I am now to the point where I can even sit in my car and get caught up on paperwork while she rides, if need be. The trust is there and that is so important to us parents.

I am grateful to have found Horseplay Sanctuary and Lillian Tepera. She is truly a wonderful woman with a huge heart providing an absolutely unforgettable experience for our precious children.


Colleen Leduc ☆☆

Blog Entry 11-13-13

Blog Entry 11-13-13

A Season Ends – A New Era Begins

Another season of therapeutic riding lessons (our seventh!) is coming to an end. As the weather turns colder our riders (and their parents, standing at the arena gate to watch) turn frostier. Fingers holding reins stiffen up with the cold. Feet turn numb in the stirrups. Noses feel like ice cubes. It’s time to take a break until next March.

We’ve had a busy, exciting year. Many of our regular riders came back again for a full season of riding. It’s always a treat to see these old friends return – older, taller, so much more grown-up. And we’ve met new friends, too, many of them experiencing the thrill of riding a horse for the very first time.  I don’t know which I enjoy more – seeing the progress our regulars have made, or watching a new rider’s face light up the first time she sits on a horse and takes those first steps around the arena.

We’ve welcomed two new school horses – Taffy and Melvin – and said good-bye to our trusted Louis, who is now enjoying the semi-retired life of a family pet and occasional trail horse. The patience, kindness, and nobility of these creatures never cease to amaze – especially those who have overcome the worst kind of treatment and still willingly share their strength and grace with us. Thank you to Dooley, Memphis, Taffy, Melvin and Louis for your hard work and gentle ways.

The human heart of our program is our corps of volunteers – students from local high schools, Georgian College and Lakehead University; friends from the horse community; those with a passion for horses or kids or both. Thanks to every one of you for your time, patience and enthusiasm! Our programs could not run without you.

Finally, “welcome” to all the new friends we’ve been able to work with this year as a result of being granted charitable status. Young men and women from the Orillia Youth Centre and adults from the community who are struggling with health and other life issues have been able to enjoy the horses this year despite having no access to funding. This is an area we will be expanding dramatically as we raise more funds to cover the costs.

As winter sets in we turn to the exciting task of developing the new projects and programs we’ll be implementing next year. Say tuned! Much more to come.

Blog Entry 8-4-13

Blog Entry  8-4-13

I decided to start off my blog by posting a letter we received from one of our clients, a woman who has been coming to Horseplay Sanctuary as part of the program we run in partnership with Couchiching Jubilee House, a local women’s shelter. Her name has of course been withheld, but I think her story explains the powerful effect horses can have on the lives of people far better than I ever could. Here’s what she wrote:



Trust is earned

They are highly intelligent.

They are visually stunning.

I’m sure that we have all used similar words to describe horses. But anybody who has spent time caring for and nurturing horses will understand that they are so much more. My description of horses is the same as above, but also includes such words as friend and therapist.

Last year I fled from a bad relationship. I was homeless, living in a shelter, and had nothing as I had to leave everything behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t leave behind my emotional baggage. I have major trust issues, suffer from social anxiety, and I have very low self-esteem.

 I have always been a big believer in animal therapy, so when I heard about Horseplay Sanctuary, I jumped at the chance to visit the farm and work with the horses.  Up until my first visit, I had zero experience with horses, and was quite fearful of them. I felt an immediate connection with the horses and the farm. I have learned how to groom them, do some lunging exercises, and control their actions using the sound of my voice. And after a couple of months I finally got up on a horse. It was awesome.

Working with the horses has become such a big part of my life. It means more to me than words can express. I am so grateful to Horseplay Sanctuary for allowing me to have this experience every week, for it really is making a difference in my life.

Horses Rule!!!