Unbridled Ambition

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

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.”


In 2002, there were 14,289 horse and pony farms in the state, up 80 percent from the 1997 USDA Census of Agriculture, and 92,770 horses and ponies, up 75 percent, according to the latest census. In addition, Minnesota boasts nearly 500 related organizations, including reining, trail-riding, fox-hunting, and breed-specific groups.

The demand for equine medical care has also grown, and the new UMEC is expected to rank among the best in the world in research and rehabilitation, on par with facilities at the University of California–Davis, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Valberg and her colleague Jim Mickelson recently received a $2.5-million research grant to head the Equine Consortium on Medical Genetics that will link 18 academic institutions in nine countries—including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute, which is sequencing the equine genome.

“This center has been a long time coming, and it’s going to be fabulous,” says Valberg, who previously worked at veterinary medical schools in Ontario, California, and Sweden, and is a former three-day event rider—a competitor who knows what performance-horse owners expect from their mounts. “We’re really lucky Minnesota horse owners are so dedicated to equine health and also have the means to make this happen.”

AS THE NEW UMEC rises on the northeast corner of the campus, the transition from agriculture to pet culture continues at the old equine building. Surgical rooms designed for cattle are now used for dog rehabilitation therapy. Corridors once filled with Holstein dairy cows now see high traffic in Hanoverian sport horses. Stalls for Ayrshire cows house ailing alpacas. And the men who dominated the teaching and student ranks when beef and dairy cows made up most of the clientele are outnumbered: today, about three-quarters of the vet school students and staff are female.

Photo by Thomas Strand

April Schroeder, a veterinary student wearing a baseball cap and yellow jersey, runs the joystick controlling an equine treadmill where a sorrel quarter-horse mare trots steadily, going nowhere. “Come on Bailey!” she calls and clucks to the mare as she watches the dials. A small patch on Bailey’s neck is shaved, as is another on her hip—areas where blood and muscle samples are taken after a 15-minute interval. It turns out that she suffers from PSSM, the same disorder that afflicts Dreyri.

Many horses carry the PSSM gene, but the modern pasture-deprived lifestyle—too much grain, too little forage, and too much time in a stall—can result in the disease expressing itself in what old-timers call “tying up” (more technically, rhabdomyolysis). This can cause muscle death and cramps, among other things. Bailey is one of the clinic’s resident donor horses (part of a herd developed in 1992) that aid in Valberg’s research. Because some of these muscle disorders are linked to carbohydrates, the horses have been named for sweets: Rolo, Mars, Malt, Hershey.

The new center will capitalize on the U’s complementary disciplines and research. Already, diabetes research benefitting humans has been conducted on this herd. And John Day, a professor of neurology and director of the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Center, looks forward to putting children in the saddle through the We Can Ride program; UMEC will be part of a year-round research program on physical therapy.

“One of the things [we’ve] identified is that horseback riding is a valuable form of therapy—both physical and psychological,” says Day. “It’s been used mostly for children and young adults with cerebral palsy and helps their sense of body control as well as stretches limbs and increases mobility. We’re interested in seeing whether we can use the same approaches with multiple sclerosis, which causes weak and stiff muscles.”

“UMEC will be unique in the nation because of the connections with an academic health and research center,” says Valberg. “We have the depth of research expertise at the U at our fingertips here—the medical school, the law school, a whole web of experts to draw on.”

Those specialities they don’t have, they are acquiring. Just beyond the trotting mare is a new portable stainless-steel underwater equine treadmill. The new center also will feature a lameness exam area where diagnostic nerve blocks can be done, a digital radiology lab, an arthroscopic suite and computerized image center, a CT scanner, and, it is hoped, an MRI that Valberg describes as the strongest in the country.

“Diagnostics are a big focus, but what’s unique is also our rehabilitation ability—we have vet techs certified in physical therapy for horses,” Valberg explains. If future racehorses that experience Barbaro-like misfortune live to walk again, this is where they might re-learn to do it.


After eight years of planning guided by Trevor Ames, chair of veterinary population medicine, the ground for the UMEC was broken last August by a team of Percherons pulling a plow. As the walls go up, Valberg is busy selecting new staff. One new hire is Travis Sevareid, a veterinary radiologist; another is Mary Durando, an ultrasound, cardiology, and internal-medicine specialist. “I just interviewed an orthopedic surgeon who does infrared spectroscopy, and we have the technology to do what he likes,” Valberg says.

Until the new facility opens, however, the team continues to do soundness checks by trotting horses around a tiny, sloping parking lot in a dead-end courtyard navigable only by experienced trailer drivers. One day, a friend of Robert Bruininks had to bring her horse onto that parking lot. Unimpressed, she got on the phone and insisted the U president come over. “It clarified things for him,” says Valberg.

THE RAFTERS OF Renier’s home stable are so thick with ribbons—red, blue, purple, yellow—that it’s like a cavern of colored stalactites. The horses that won them include her daughters’ performance horses living at a Minnesota training stable. But Renier says her support of the UMEC isn’t just about gratifying her family.

“Minnesota differs in fundamental ways compared to other horse communities,” says Renier, whose daughters have competed coast-to-coast. “We are straight-spoken, honest, high-integrity, with no hidden agendas. We horsey Minnesotans want to learn. We are very high-tech, but are also high-touch. I want to watch the surgeries and get resource information. It matters to the people at the U to get it right. They love what they do and they love my horses. They answer questions, they are compassionate, they can give me the data, and they educate me so what they do for my horses works.”

According to members of that community, the horses give back peace, power, adventure, love, and emotional healing, as well as something elemental and increasingly needed in an urbanizing world. “There is a disappearance of rural agriculture. Horses may be pets now, but unlike most other pets, horses give us a whole new dimension in relation to animals,” says Lisa Borgia, a graduate student who works with Valberg. “Riding gives us a unique perspective; it brings us back to nature.”

As a nexus of academic research, equine knowledge, and care, the UMEC will help keep more horses alive, happy, and able to perform—whether in the ring or on the trail or just getting cuddled. Renier is eager for others to experience this. “If I’d gone to an ordinary clinic, my mare would not have had her foal,” she says. “She was a high-risk foal. The special testing and examinations and injections—the surgeons came in and the repro[ductive] guys. And she turned out wonderful.”

Photo by Thomas Strand

Renier believes the UMEC will provide a unique experience to the growing equine community. “It will be an experience you can only get in Minnesota and nowhere else,” she explains. “We give the horse all the credit, and that’s what will make this place different—no matter what equipment there is. This is a resource for Minnesotans, and they should feel like they own it, because they do.”

Karin Winegar, a former Star Tribune reporter, is director of media for the Animal Humane Society.