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Unbridled Ambition

The University of Minnesota is being groomed to better serve the state’s growing equine community

Unbridled Ambition
Photo by Thomas Strand

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FIVE HORSES LIVE in what Chriss Renier calls her “nursing home and nursery,” a six-stall pole barn on a north-facing hillside in Medina with views of a marsh and fields. Her herd snuffles through deep, clean sawdust bedding, scouting for morsels of hay. They flap their lips in the water buckets. They are glossy, content, and healthy, but none of them would be here without the help of the University of Minnesota Equine Clinic, which will soon be reborn as the state-of-the-art University of Minnesota Equine Center (UMEC).

¶ Renier owns Darlin’, a bay quarter-horse who was so ataxic from a middle-ear problem that she was body slamming herself to the floor and had to wear a helmet before surgery. Merrilegs, a shaggy white pony, has been treated for an overgrown pituitary gland. Luciano, a leggy warmblood Oldenburg, is on stall rest with a ligament injury. Pashmina, a chestnut Thoroughbred, was diagnosed with a virus as a foal and later with a digital flexor tendon tear. And there’s C.J., who gave birth at UMEC after the reproductive team found a detached placenta in the last weeks of her pregnancy.

“I’ve been at the U so often it feels like an extension of my barn,” says Renier. She doesn’t ride, but more than a dozen years ago she began supporting three horse-loving daughters in their passion for riding—and hauling their horses to the U. Now she is helping the U build a world-class research and rehabilitation center scheduled to open this fall on the St. Paul campus. Renier predicts the $14-million facility will be “like the Mayo Clinic for horses, the go-to place when you don’t know what the problem is.”

THE HORSE COMMUNITY in Minnesota is “growing like crazy,” says John Curtin, an engineer from Grant who rides with his wife, Pat, five or six days a week. “We have a plethora of riding trails and a lot of people with disposable income. The reason is that the bond with a horse is amazing. It is wonderful therapy; horses just take the tension away. You just rub ’em and scratch ’em—you don’t even have to ride to feel good with them.”

Photo by Thomas Strand

When the Curtins ride Washington County’s Gateway Trail from Pine Point Regional Park, their mounts often draw gasps from other riders—“ooh Icelandics!”—who know the famously smooth gait of this Nordic breed. Medically, though, the animals’ path has been bumpy.

The Curtins imported Dreyri fra Streiti (Icelandic for “blood red horse”) from Iceland last year. When he arrived he seemed stiff, and it soon became evident that Dreyi was more than jet-lagged: his get-up-and-go just got up and went after five minutes of riding. The Curtins brought him to the U. “A team of about 10 prodded and poked him and took urine, muscle, and blood samples,” says John, brushing Dreyri’s lush winter coat as the 9-year-old gelding tracks him with enormous dark eyes under an explosively bushy forelock. “At one point, [UMEC director] Dr. [Stephanie] Valberg was pulling hard on his tail while another person led Dreyri around the parking lot as part of a coordination test.”

The team concluded that Dreyri suffers from polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), a muscle disorder almost unknown in Iceland—which happens to be one of Valberg’s specialties. Today, he lives at a boarding stable near Stillwater, where he is a member of the Curtins’ burgeoning herd of Icelandic horses. His prescribed diet prohibits grain and includes lots of hay as well as a vitamin-and-mineral supplement soaked in canola oil.

Up and down the aisles of small barns, boarding stables, and luxurious training facilities throughout the state, horse people tell the same story: horses take our pain away, and those who love them want to do something in return for them. This support has propelled the creation of the UMEC, a center of excellence for equine medical research, rehabilitation, owner education, and conferences—and a testimony to reciprocal love.

IN THE PAST CENTURY, horses have evolved from working partners into pets, part of a national trend resulting in an equine-recreation boom that contributes an estimated $100 billion annually to the U.S. economy—nearly $1 billion a year in Minnesota alone, which ranks ninth among the states in total number of horses.

“Minnesota has more horses now than when they were actually used for farming, which shows people like them as pets, as companion animals,” says Krishona Martinson, who develops extension programs at the U for horse owners. “They want to do what’s right for their animals, and that distinguishes us. In the South, there is more emphasis on reining, cutting, and racing. In Minnesota, most owners are people with a hobby farm, and the number-one activity is trail riding for fun.”

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