Friday, November 7, 2014

Horse, Heal Thyself | 11/7/2014

Regenerative Therapies

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

All horses have one thing in common: They are susceptible to injury. Horses that are athletes are at an even greater risk. Not only do they get cuts, bruises and hoof troubles, they can also be prone to a whole litany of sports injuries, from strained tendons and ligaments to sprained joints and broken bones. Keeping horses sound is a main goal of most training programs. Restoring them to soundness after an injury has traditionally been a long, and sometimes frustrating endeavor.
Dr. Jamie Carter with an IRAP kit. Blood is collected in a
syringe that has a small collection of glass beads in it. The
beads encourage the production of enzymes and anti-
inflammatory chemicals when the blood is incubated. Then
the red and white blood cells are spun off in a centrifuge,
and the serum that is left becomes a personalized anti-
inflammatory join injection.

The likelihood of a hurt horse returning to work depends on what structures he has damaged and how badly. Another factor is how the horse handles his recovery. By their nature, horses with orthopedic injuries are not good patients. You can’t tell them to stay off their feet. If they were very fit at the time of their injury, they are likely to become restless and possibly self destructive when they are suddenly confined to a stall.

To complicate matters, athletic injuries in horses often do not heal very well. The most common injuries are to tendons and ligaments, and these body parts are notoriously slow to mend. They also tend to heal with scar tissue that is both less flexible and weaker than undamaged tissue. Because of this, horses with serious tendon and ligament injuries have traditionally not been able to return to their previous level of competition.

Over the centuries, there have been many ways that horse owners and their veterinarians have tried to encourage tendons and ligaments to heal successfully. Early on, veterinarians recognized that neither tendons (which attach bones to muscles) nor ligaments (which attach bones to bones) have very much blood flow, which is one reason why they heal so slowly. Early methods of increasing blood flow included putting blistering agents on the skin, or even pin firing the damaged tissue, which involved sticking it with a burning probe. These “counter-irritation” methods may have done some good, and they are occasionally still used, although they are decidedly old school. How old? Counter-irritation was once commonly used on people, too, and has its origin in the ancient medical theory that says that sickness and injury is the result of an imbalance in the body’s four “humors” (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.) Blistering and its cousins, bloodletting and induced vomiting, were supposed to help bring the humors back into balance.

Today, there are more modern ways to promote healing based on recent advances in science. The so-called "regenerative therapies" use small amounts of the horse’s own blood, fat and bone marrow to create custom-made, personalized medicines that can be injected into damaged tendons, ligaments and joints. These relatively new treatments provide the horse with concentrated amounts of his body’s own healing and anti-inflammatory chemicals delivered directly to the site of the injury. With their aid, along with a prescribed regimen of rest and progressive exercise, horses with injuries that once would have been career-ending have been able to return to the racetrack, the competition arena and the trail, with tendons and ligaments that truly are as good as new.

These therapies may sound out of the reach of the average horse owner, but they are not. Veterinary clinics here in Aiken use them on a regular basis. If your veterinarian does not have the technology inhouse, he or she can work with one of the larger clinics, or even with a company such as Comprehensive Blood Management that specializes in providing custom blood products to veterinary and human clinics. There are several different types of regenerative medicine that are available now, and veterinarians who use them say they have greatly improved the prognosis of horses with serious injuries.

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cells are immature cells that have the ability to turn into any kind of cell in the body. True stem cells are found only in embryos and in navel cord blood, and they are not currently being used in any commercially available veterinary treatments. The type of stem cells used in veterinary medicine are called mesenchymal stem cells. These cells have the ability to become connective tissue (bones, ligaments, tendons and so on.) They can be isolated from the bone marrow and fat of adult horses. Stem cell therapy requires the veterinarian to harvest a small amount of bone marrow or fat from the injured horse. He then sends that tissue to a specialized laboratory for processing and culturing to increase the concentration of stem cells. The concentrated product is then shipped back to the veterinarian who injects it into the injured structure right at the site of the injury.

This injection doesn’t necessarily make a tendon or ligament heal faster, instead, it is said to help it to heal with healthy tissue instead of scar tissue. Exactly how it works is still being studied, but it is likely that the positive effects come from a combination of the stem cells turning into healthy tissue, along with natural growth factors, anti-inflammatory factors and other chemical signals that recruit cells to come to the site of the injury. The idea is that the injection, made from the horse’s own body, super-charges the horse’s ability to heal himself.

Stem cell therapy takes several weeks, since the raw material needs to be shipped to the lab and cultured for several weeks and then shipped back. It is also expensive, costing somewhere in the $2,500-$3,000 range.

Bone Marrow Aspirate

Before concentrated stem cells became available, veterinarians tried to improve healing through injections of raw bone marrow. Bone marrow can be drawn from the horse’s sternum, at the area of his girth, with a long needle. It can then be immediately injected into a damaged tendon. This technique came into use in the mid-90s and it is said to be helpful for horses with both chronic and acute tendon and ligament injuries.

The original theory behind bone marrow aspirate is that it works by delivering stem cells to the injury. More recent research has shown that the concentration of stem cells in the bone marrow is relatively low, and that any positive effects of this treatment may come from various growth factors and other chemicals present in marrow. The procedure is quick and relatively inexpensive, with a price of less than $400, making it the least expensive of all the biological therapies.

PRP

PRP, which stands for platelet rich plasma, is the latest entry into the equine regenerative therapy market. PRP has a history that goes back to the 1970s, but it didn't come into common use until the 1990s when the machines needed to make it became more convenient and affordable. It was most commonly used by dental surgeons who wanted a way to help their patients heal, and was first used on human tendons in 2006. It entered popular consciousness in 2009 after Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver, used it on a sprained knee before his team went on to win the Superbowl. Other athletes who have been known to use PRP include Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal and Kobe Bryant.

Platelets are cells that circulate in the blood and bind together when they find an injury. They also contain at least nine different types of growth factor that are assumed to help speed healing. In the veterinary clinic, PRP is made by drawing a large syringe full of the horse's blood and putting it into a centrifuge that separates the platelets and the plasma from the red blood cells. Then the plasma is put through another machine that concentrates the platelets. PRP may also include some factors from white blood cells, such as Interleukin 8, a signaling protein that stimulates the creation of blood vessels and recruits other types of cells that combat infection and heal wounds. PRP can be made in a matter of 15 minutes or so, and then injected directly into the site of the injury. In horses, it is mostly used in tendons and ligaments, but it can also be used on other types of injuries, such as lacerations.

Although practitioners say it may not be entirely as effective as stem cell therapy, PRP has many advantages. First, it can be created and injected right away: you do not have to wait for it to be cultured and shipped to and from a distant laboratory. Second, it is significantly less expensive, costing an average of $800 to $900.

IRAP

Dr. Tom Stinner demonstrates the Magellan PRP
machine at South Equine Service.
IRAP stands for interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein. Like PRP, it is made from the horse’s own blood and can be processed right in the veterinary clinic. For IRAP, the veterinarian draws a large syringe full of blood from the jugular vein. The blood is incubated in a special syringe that contains a collection of small glass beads. The beads encourage the white blood cells to secrete various enzymes and therapeutic proteins. Then the blood is put into a centrifuge and the red blood cells are spun off, leaving behind a protein rich serum. This serum is split into six to eight 3 mL doses to make up a course of treatment. One dose can be used right away, while the rest are frozen until they are needed.

IRAP is generally used for damaged joints rather than for tendons and ligaments. It has potent anti-inflammatory properties, and is used for horses with arthritis, for horses that have recently undergone joint surgery, and for horses that have traumatic damage to their joints. IRAP injection can take the place of an injection of corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid. Its main advantage is that, where corticosteroids tend to have side effects, IRAP does not. Veterinarians also say that IRAP tends to last longer than traditional joint injections. A course of IRAP therapy is usually three injections given a week to 10 days apart. Extra serum can be saved for later injections: it is supposed to be used within a year. The cost to make the course of injections is in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $1,200.


Right for Your Horse?

"We do these therapies almost every day," says Dr. Jamie Carter of Southern Equine Service on Banks Mill Road. "The treatment we use most is IRAP."

"It isn’t just a high end treatment any more," adds Dr. Tom Stinner, who also practices at Southern Equine Service. "Part of it is that people are more educated about it and ask for it; part of it is that it isn't as expensive as it used to be. We also recommend it. Any horse that does enough that it might injure a tendon is a potential candidate."

Dr. Carter agrees. "I've done hunt horses, even trail horses. I've done it for people who love their horse, and he might have strained something or torn something, and they'll do it because they know it is right for him."

The clinic at Southern Equine Service is technologically up to date and has a room with machines for making PRP and IRAP injections. IRAP is so popular that there is even an entire freezer dedicated to storing injections for clients’ horses, about 100 at this writing. Dr. Carter says that in addition to IRAP for joints, he is also a proponent of bone marrow aspirate for tendons and ligaments, and has been using it since at least 1999. Dr. Stinner says that stem cell therapy has gotten less popular recently, mostly because PRP is so much more convenient and effective.

"A few years ago stem cells were supposed to be 'the thing,'" he says. "And they have been very helpful. But now, as far as the end result of having a sound horse that can return to his former level of activity, there isn’t that big of a gap separating stem cells from some of the other therapies."

Dr. Eric Johnson, who practices at Performance Equine Vets on route 78 is also a proponent of regenerative therapies.

"These are therapies designed to produce the best possible results when faced with fairly traumatic, sometimes career ending injuries," he says. "If we want to give a horse the best possible shot, we employ them."

He stresses however, that none of these therapies is magic. The horse still needs to be treated like an injured horse. It still needs stall rest followed by a progressive and controlled exercise program.

"How well it turns out depends on a case by case basis. A fair amount of having a good result is patient compliance. If everything is done as recommended by the veterinarian, we're pretty confident of a good result. We don't usually stop with just PRP or whatever we have used. We usually follow that up with shockwave therapy and a very restrictive exercise regime. If all of these procedures are followed, we get very, very good results in terms of animals returning to performance and their tendons healing well."

Drs. Carter and Stinner agree, saying that any biological treatment is just a part of a comprehensive rehabilitation program that might include traditional supportive therapy (wrapping, poulticing) as well as newer treatments such as shockwave therapy. Controlled, progressive exercise is also crucial to help the recovering structure heal correctly. Although the veterinarians say that there are some types of injuries that are unlikely to be cured by the regenerative therapies available today, these therapies seem to be helpful for many different conditions.

"Condition for condition, you have a better shot with these things than without them," says Dr. Stinner. "You may have no shot without them."

Dr. Carter adds that, with regenerative therapies, as with any other new technology, there is a tendency to think that the new treatment might be a panacea. It is important to remember that a new technology or a new machine is only as good as the person using it, and none of these technologies can take the place of good vet work.

"The number one thing I always tell everyone is that when you go to use any new therapies, be sure you are treating what is causing the lameness," says Dr. Carter. "The lameness needs to be localized, and you have to have a clear idea of what you are doing. It all boils back down to good veterinary medicine: palpating, blocking, x-raying, ultra sounding. Blocking is extremely important so that you are sure you are treating the right thing."

New Treatments, New Hopes

Although you could not yet say that regenerative therapies have provided the ultimate solution for orthopedic injuries in horses, they have at least brought their treatment into the 21st century. Research is still being done on other uses for IRAP, PRP and similar therapies, and there is still work to be done on making the treatments more effective. Although most practitioners probably recognize their potential, everyone doesn’t agree on how useful they are, and some studies have failed to show that they are particularly more effective than supportive therapy and controlled exercise alone. Elite human athletes use PRP and IRAP and swear by it, but it remains a controversial treatment in the U.S., and does not yet have solid backing in the scientific community, either for people or for horses.

In the future, biological treatments will probably be fine-tuned and adjusted. There will also probably be new treatments developed as researchers search for cures for major conditions such as arthritis and spinal cord injury. Advances in veterinary treatments tend to follow advances in human medicine, and even, sometimes, to precede them, simply because it can take so long to get something novel approved for human use.



"There are a lot of great new things coming, I'm sure," says Dr. Carter. Dr. Stinner agrees. "We are probably only scratching the surface."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, October 31, 2014

All Eyes on Normandy | 10/31/2014

Getting Ready for the World Equestrian Games

By Pam Gleason

The Alltech World Equestrian Games are coming to Normandy, France on August 23. The "WEG" are the world championships for the eight equestrian disciplines that are governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). They have been held every four years since 1990, alternating with the equestrian sports at the Summer Olympic Games every two years. Like the Olympics, the WEG travel to different locations around the world: this is the first time they will be held in France. The last games were in 2010, when they were at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The next games, in 2018, will be back on this side of the Atlantic at the Olympic Equestrian Park in Bromont, Quebec, a venue that was built for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

This year's WEG will run for two weeks, from August 23 until September 7. Championships will be decided in these disciplines: showjumping, dressage, eventing, combined driving (four-in-hand only), endurance, reining, vaulting and para-dressage. In addition, there will be two demonstration sports. One is a polo match, the other a horse-ball tournament.

The majority of the competitions will take place in the city of Caen, the region’s capital, where there are four competition sites: D’Ornano Stadium (opening and closing ceremonies, jumping, dressage and the stadium phase of eventing); Prairie racecourse (combined driving), the Exhibition Center (reining) and the Zenith indoor arena (vaulting.) The dressage and cross country phases of eventing will play out at Le Haras National du Pins, an equestrian and breeding center built under Louis XIV in the 17th century. Le Haras du Pins is about an hour’s drive from Caen’s city center, and is famous for (among other things) being the birthplace of the Percheron breed. It has a new cross-country course designed for the games by Pierre Michelet, who will also create the course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The endurance competition will be run in the countryside to the west of Caen, with a loop along the beach on the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. Mont St. Michel, a spectacular island fortress and monastery, will be visible in the background.

The exhibition polo match is scheduled for September 6 in Deauville, which is one of France’s top polo destinations. Deauville is on the Normandy coast, about 60 kilometers east of Caen. The 18-goal polo match will pit a French team against a mixed team of one player from Europe, one from North America, one from South America and one from Australia/New Zealand. The actual teams have not yet been announced, although presumably the rosters will be drawn from players already in Europe for the season. This is the first time that polo has been included as an official exhibition at the World Equestrian Games, and some polo enthusiasts hope that its acceptance might lead to its becoming an official WEG competition in the future. Polo was once, after all, integral to the equestrian events at the Olympics. Its last Olympic appearance was in Berlin in 1936, where an Argentine team defeated a British one by the devastating score of 11-0 in the finals.

The horse-ball tournament takes place from August 27-31 at the equestrian center of Saint-Lo, about a 45-minute drive from Caen. Horse-ball is a highly popular sport in France. Derived from the Argentine game pato, it came to the country in the 1930s and was standardized in the 1970s. Variously compared to rugby, basketball and even quiddich (the imaginary flying game from the Harry Potter book series), horse-ball calls for two mounted teams of four players each. The teams attempt to score goals by throwing a ball equipped with leather handles through a vertical net. Like polocrosse (another polo cousin) it emphasizes teamwork and prohibits ball-hogging. You must pass the ball three times to three different teammates before scoring a goal, and you are not allowed to carry the ball for more than 10 seconds.

There are actually two horse-ball tournaments, one for women and one for mixed teams. Four nations are sending teams (France, Spain, Belgium and Italy) and the matches will be held in the evenings from 6 to 10 p.m. Organizers are promising a good show, including a pregame exhibition on Shetland ponies and professional cheerleaders. France, which is essentially undefeated in international competition, is favored to win. Horse-ball has not yet caught on outside of Europe, and is almost unheard-of in the States, although there have been occasional demonstrations at equestrian trade shows.

As for the official events, the WEG promises fierce competition. According to the Alltech WEG website, 74 nations have been nominated to compete, which represents an increase of about 25% over 2010, as well as an all-time high. Twelve countries will be making their WEG debut, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, Romania, Thailand, Peru and Kazakhstan. Nine countries, including the U.S., expect to compete in all eight disciplines.

How will the U.S. teams fare? A lot is riding on that question, especially in the Olympic disciplines (showjumping, dressage and eventing) where the country has had some disappointing results in recent major world competitions. At the 2012 Olympics, for instance, U.S. riders were unable to take home a single medal, either in team or in individual competition, their worst performance in over half a century. At the 2010 WEG, held on their own home turf in Kentucky, American eventers and showjumpers also came up empty, leaving Steffan Peters on Ravel, who won the individual bronze in dressage, the lone medalist in the Olympic sports. Americans did better in other arenas, winning the gold in team vaulting, as well as in team reining, along with the gold and silver in individual reining.

This year, Americans are once again favored to dominate reining, which is, after all, a quintessentially American horse sport. Other disciplines are less certain. The U.S. dressage team hopes to finish at least fourth, which will ensure that the team will be qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. A team medal, bronze or even a brighter, is not out of the question: Robert Dover, who took over as chef d’equipe of the dressage team after the London Olympics is said to be optimistic. The best hope for an individual dressage medal is generally acknowledged to be Steffan Peters and Legolas, the two time National Grand Prix Champions. The pair have been earning top placings and high scores in Europe. Other team members (especially Lisa Wilcox on Denzello) have also stepped up this summer and may be ready to shine. The U.S. does not have a terrific history in dressage: a third place team finish has often been regarded as “winning” since some of the European nations (Germany, The Netherlands) have been seen as unbeatable. But national dominance can change. After all, Great Britain won the team gold and the individual gold and bronze at the 2012 Olympics. Those three medals were the first Olympic dressage medals ever for the country, which is now seen as a favorite.

In showjumping, the American team shows signs of regaining the world-class form that propelled it to the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In early August, for instance, Beezie Madden, riding Abigail Wexner’s Cortes C, became the first woman ever to win the Longines King George V Gold Cup at CSIO5* Hickstead, England. U.S. teams also won the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup both at Hickstead and at Gijon (Spain.) Hopes are certainly high, although there are no guarantees that the rails will stay up when the competition begins.

Hopes are also high for the Land Rover U.S. Eventing squad, which has some extremely impressive members, including Buck Davidson, who is currently ranked third worldwide by the FEI. Aiken will be represented in Normandy by three members of the squad. These are Phillip Dutton on Trading Aces (owned by the Trading Aces Syndicate LLC), Boyd Martin on Shamwari 4 (owned by the Shamwari Syndicate LLC) and Kim Severson on her own horse, Fernhill Fearless. All three of these riders make Aiken their winter training base, and are frequent participants in the area’s many events and horse trials from January through March. Phillip and Boyd are also listed as alternates on Mighty Nice and Trading Aces, respectively. Jan Byyny, another rider who trains in Aiken, was named as an alternate on her family’s Inmidair, but she recently withdrew him after he sustained a minor injury.

The Alltech World Equestrian Games website says that over 80,000 tickets are still available for many sessions. Ticket prices are more reasonable than they were in Kentucky in 2010: for instance, tickets to watch the dressage start at 12 Euros (about $16), while showjumping tickets start at 30 Euros ($40) and you can watch reining for 20 Euros (about $26.) In Kentucky, the least expensive tickets were $25 and went up to $45 for some other, lower profile events such as vaulting. Tickets to reining started at $90, and most of the showjumping and dressage sessions were $100 or more. Organizers in France say they have sold over 300,000 tickets to the 2014 games so far and are expecting over half a million spectators.

Spectators and competitors alike are looking forward to the WEG experience, which will include a trade fair, equestrian demonstrations and shows. There will be exceptional food and drink (think oysters and Champagne), spectacular scenery and historic architecture. (For instance, you can tour the Chateau de Caen, built in 1060 by William the Conqueror.) All of this is in addition to what will be one of the largest gatherings of equestrian competitors in history. 

Can't make it to France? You can still watch the action if you have a computer and a good Internet connection. FEI TV (www.feitv.org) will be offering live streaming on their website, and you can find highlights on the FEI TV YouTube channel. You can also download the Alltech WEG app on your iPhone or Android device (available August 10) for schedules, live scores, results, news photos and videos. You might not be there, but you can be virtually there. Let the games begin.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ask the Judge | 10/24/2014

Questions About Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is a USEF R judge, qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fairlane Farm in Aiken and judges about a dozen dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers' questions about dressage.

Dear Amy,

I will be moving up to the Novice Eventing Level this fall, and I am planning to show Novice Eventing Test B. Do you have any tips on how to ride this test successfully?

                                                                                       -New Novice Eventer

Dear Eventer,

I think Novice Eventing Test B is a great “move up” test because it rides smoothly and it is symmetrical. It goes by fast, with only 15 boxes for judges to score, and it takes approximately three minutes and 40 seconds. Although it is a step up from the Beginner Novice tests, it is still designed to be ridden in a small arena (20 meters by 40 meters), and a small arena is mandated at all USEF/USEA recognized events. Some schooling shows might run this test in a large arena, so be sure to check with the show organizer.

As in Beginner Novice, all trot work at the Novice Level may be ridden either rising or sitting, unless the test states otherwise. I would rise to the trot if your horse would go forward more freely when you are rising than when you are sitting. You will not automatically score higher if you are sitting. A “10” is possible sitting or rising because what counts the most is how well your horse is moving.

n this test, the medium walk is scored in two separate boxes. In box #12, “Transition to the Medium Walk,” the score includes the transition and the walk itself. Box #13, “Transition from Medium Walk to Free Walk to Medium Walk,” has a coefficient of two (meaning the points count double.) In this box you are being scored on the quality of the medium walk and on the transitions to and from the free walk. Remember to keep your medium walk marching and overtracking (your horse’s hind feet step over the hoof prints of his front feet) with a slightly open frame. For the free walk, allow the horse as much freedom in stride and frame as possible.

The most difficult movements in this test are Boxes #2 and #7. Box #2 reads: “B, turn right in working trot and E turn left in working trot;” Box #7, the mirror image, reads “E turn left at working trot; B turn right at working trot.” B and E are the letters opposite one another on the center of the long side, so these two movements call for the horse and rider to turn to the inside and cross the center of the ring to change direction.

Of utmost importance here is the geometry and accuracy of the turns. For Box #2, plan your turn so that you leave the track to curve onto the B-to-E line: this turn is similar to how you would turn onto the centerline. Ride directly over X: your horse should be totally straight at X. Then start planning your turn to curve off the B-to-E line to join the track again, in the same way as you turn off the centerline and onto the track. This movement can be difficult because the turns onto and off of the B-to-E line are tight. Many people receive disappointing scores because their geometry needs more accuracy: they don’t turn onto the B-to-E line, or they fail to ride over X. (The mirror image movement at Box #7 needs to be ridden in exactly the same way, just in the opposite direction.)

Transitions in the Novice test are similar to those in the Beginner Novice test because they give the rider freedom to make transitions between the letters rather than at an exact point. This gives you time to be prepared and keep your horse in as much balance as possible. As in Beginner Novice, you may include a walk step between the trot and the halt.

Trot work in this test is performed in the working trot. A correct working trot is when the horse is moving forward actively with a regular, unhurried stride. Canter work in this test is the working canter. A correct working canter should be clear three-beat, and not too quick. The horse should be in a fairly balanced position at all gaits. All bending on curves, turns and circles should be executed without any resistance while maintaining the gait.

Here are some final tips for this test:

  1. Ride your horse well forward in ground covering strides.
  2. Maintain a steady frame with some accetance of the bit.
  3. Prepare for all movements, curves and turns.
  4. Maintain bend where needed.
  5. Remember your geometry: it does matter.
  6. Keep your walk work eager and forward moving and be sure your horse is overtracking
  7. Have fun.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Secret Lives of Horses | Wazal the Dressage Master

Wazal the Dressage Master

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography By Gary Knoll

If Wazal ever had the inclination to brag about his life to his pasture-mates, he would start by saying that he was foreign born. Germany, of course, since he is a dressage horse. Then he would boast that he lived in several states before settling in Aiken. This Hanoverian gelding is 33 years old and has packed an incredible amount of travel and adventure into his long life.

These days he is the king of a small herd of mares (three) at Susan and Dave Bender's Sassy Hill Farm, which is located within the gently rolling hills of the Fox Hollow community.

Although his "girls" are all younger than he is, Wazal is definitely still in control, explained Susan. The horses almost always move as a unit, and if Wazal has found a particularly tasty patch of grass he may not head to the barn when Susan calls for them. In such a case, the mares will never leave him – they may move off for a few steps until they catch his attention, but they don’t go galloping in to be fed without him.

"I do think he might be losing his hearing a bit, but not too much else is wrong with him," said Susan. "He was recently diagnosed with Cushing's, but it’s very mild. He still has his teeth and his weight is good."

Like many senior horses, Wazal is graying around his muzzle and eyes, which lends an air of wisdom to his handsome face. The mares fall for the "old gentleman" routine on a regular basis. He has them all trained to scratch him wherever he has an annoying itch.

Wazal wasn't always such a laid-back sort of horse; in fact, the first six years of his life were definitely not the stuff of storybooks.

"I don't know every detail of his life before I bought him, but I do know the basic facts," Susan explained. "He came to this country at age 4 – completely untouched – and was sold to a teenaged girl who tried to do saddle seat with him. That didn't work out and he ended up being turned out in a field with a herd of cows and the man that owned him trained him with whips. It was not a good situation."

Susan purchased Wazal in 1987 when he was 6. She recalls that it was Halloween, perhaps an auspicious day to begin a long-term relationship!

Susan was living in Connecticut at the time and she says that she and Wazal made a huge impact at the stable where she rode.

"I began to notice that people would schedule their lessons before and after we would be in the ring. Wazal could be unpredictable so I thought they just wanted to stay clear and protect their horses. As it turned out – I later learned – they wanted to be free to watch us. He was like a stick of dynamite."

After the trauma of his early life, it's no wonder that Wazal was less than cooperative under tack. "He taught me so many things," Susan said, "but the most important was patience."

Susan's husband Dave was a colonel in the U.S. Army, and the couple moved with some frequency. After Connecticut, they were stationed at West Point, a place that holds fond memories for Susan.

"West Point has quite an equestrian tradition, so Wazal and I felt right at home," Susan said. "The cadets loved to groom him and it made me laugh because of course they did an incredible job. He was spit-polished!"

After three years at West Point, the Benders were sent to Turkey. The decision was made to leave Wazal in the United States, and he went to Florida to continue his dressage training.

"We were in Turkey for two years and during that time I rode show jumpers, but I flew to the states several times so that I could continue my training on Wazal," Susan recalled.

After Turkey, the Benders were sent to Montgomery, Alabama, and then to Fort Stewart near Savannah, Georgia (the largest military installation east of the Mississippi River). There were several elementary schools at the base and Wazal was popular with the youngsters, who occasionally got to feed him carrots.

"Wazal was more than just my dressage horse. He really helped build relationships within the military community. As fiery as he was in the ring, he was an absolute ham with people," Susan said.

By the late 1990s, Susan and Wazal were seasoned competitors, showing up and down the East Coast. They advanced from Training level to Prix St. Georges, but there would still be the occasional fireworks.

"He would often have one big explosion as we started our test, then go on to be brilliant. One judge (Dr. Max Gatewiller) said to me, 'This is a very opinionated horse.'"


Wazal finally began to settle down when he was 16, and the pair made huge strides. In 2000 Susan was awarded the prestigious silver medal by the United States Dressage Federation, a goal that was met after years of hard work and dedication.

"Wazal really loved dressage and his passage and piaffe were incredible, so very powerful. I think he could have done those movements all day long if I had asked him."

In March of 2001, Colonel Bender was in command of the 284th Base Support Battalion in Giessen, Germany. Susan had plans to ship Wazal to Germany to train with Conrad Schumacher, one of the world’s foremost dressage trainers. "It was to be Wazal's homecoming of sorts," said Susan. And then came September 11, and the world changed.

Wazal still came to Germany, but it was on a delayed schedule, and training sessions with Conrad Schumacher were now out of the question.

With army bases around the world on high alert, the time in Germany was difficult in many respects. Instead of her dreamt-of training and competing, Susan used Wazal in other ways.

"We lived in Butzback, which was very close to Giessen, and home to a large segment of the military. Our barn was in front of the army base and Wazal became a source of much interest for the German and American children who lived there."

The Benders returned to the United States in the summer of 2003 and a few years later, Colonel Bender retired from active duty and they made the move to Aiken.

"I already knew many of the dressage gals in Aiken – Holly Spencer and Amy McElroy especially – and my husband had been offered a job at SRS [the Savannah River Site], so it seemed to be the logical choice."

The horses made the change from being boarded to having their own home with multiple large pastures. Wazal has been completely retired for two years, and doesn’t seem to mind it at all when the other horses are ridden.

"I've owned Wazal for 27 years and he doesn't owe me a thing," said Susan. "As long as he stays happy and healthy I cant ask for anything more. He is enjoying his life."

Perhaps life at Sassy Hill is a bit quiet for a horse who once made a habit of two-hour lessons (just to prove who was right) and performing explosive dressage tests; and who, perhaps, should have earned some insignia of his own for living on so many army bases. But perhaps he has found, thanks to his loving owner, that the grass really is greener on this side of the fence.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Aiken Real Estate | 10/10/2014

By Pam Gleason


The most successful equestrian development selling in Aiken today is Three Runs Plantation. Three Runs is unique in that lots there have been selling briskly, even through economic and real estate downturn. The first two phases of the development are sold out, and only a handful of lots and a few builder homes remain in phases three and four. Demand is so great, phase five will be available soon. The development's master plan encompasses 2,400 acres of land bordering Cedar Creek with many acres left in conservation.

Why do so many people want to live in Three Runs? One thing is certainly the equestrian amenities. These include a professional dressage arena as well as a jumping arena with show quality jumps and competition footing. There is also a six acre fenced schooling area with a cross country schooling complex desgined by Hugh Lochore, an FEI course designer. For trail riding or carriage driving, there are 30 miles of groomed trails, complete with maps and picnic shelters. When not enjoying their horses, residents of Three Runs can enjoy various "lifestyle amenities." These include a clubhouse, outdoor pavilion, pool and cabana. There is a strong community feeling at Three Runs, which has attracted an amazing assortment of horse lovers from across the United States and around the globe.

Equestrian real estate in Aiken can be divided into different areas, each one with its own unique flavor. Back before the real estate boom of the 2000s, most horse people wanted to live in town. They bought gracious old estates in the historic district, staying close to the Hitchcock Woods and to downtown's charming shops and restaurants. Some of those estates are on the market today, attracting horse lovers who can afford to reinvest their stock market earning in a $1 million plus property.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A New Venture in Aiken | 10/3/2014

Brain Gjetley, Trainer

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

Freshly back from Germany, 25-year-old Brian Gjetley is starting his own horse training business at his family's stable in Hatchaway Farms in Aiken. Brian spent the past two years working with Helena Stormanns, an internationally known horsewoman, at her training and sales barn in Eschwetler. Now that he is home, Brian hopes to bring his knowledge, experience, and a bit of international flair to his own business, which centers around training and selling horses.

Brian came to Aiken with his family when he was a teenager. He is originally from Orange County, California, where he grew with horses in his back yard. His mother, Holly, is a horsewoman, and Brian says that he inherited his passion from her.

"From a young age I always loved horses," he says. "I love their different characters. Every horse you get on is different, and they all have different personalities. I like learning what they like, and having them learn what I like and creating a bond with them."

Brian was showing horses by the time he was 9. When he was 11, his parents bought him a smallish grey Oldenburg gelding. This horse, Pik's Pistelero, was just 4 years old, but he had a good mind and he and Brian seemed to click. Brian started out showing Pistel in short stirrup classes. As Brian matured and improved, so did his horse, and the two moved up the ranks together. With coaching help from Jim Hagman and Dan Silverstone of Elvenstar in Moorpark, Brian and Pistel progressed to the Level 4 jumpers and the equitation medal classes. After they moved to Aiken, Brian and Pistel competed in Junior/Amateur Owners jumpers, a few smaller Grand Prixes and the 6-bar class. It was a perfect case of a young rider and horse growing into one another.

After graduating from high school, Brian took some classes at the University of South Carolina Aiken. He knew he wanted to pursue an equestrian career, however, and so began working for Daniel Geitnet, one of Aiken's top jumper riders and trainers.

"Working for Daniel was a great experience," he says. "He taught me a lot about how to train young horses. He put me on everything, and that's really where I developed the knowledge and experience to get on any young horse and be able to train him how to do his job. Daniel has a way of teaching the horse how to do something rather than making him do it. The way he trains, the horse almost teaches itself."

After working for Daniel for about a year and a half, Brain decided that he wanted to go ride in Europe to get exposure to the highest levels of the jumper world. He had initially considered going to work at Paul Schockemohle's immense training and sales barn in Muhlen, Germany. But then he talked to a friend who was working at Helena Stormann's barn. She mentioned that she was planning to leave, and she knew they would be looking for someone to replace her. Brian interviewed at both places, and felt most comfortable with Helena. It was a smaller facility, with about 30 horses at a time, as compared to the Schockemohle facility where there are over 300. It seemed to offer a more personalized experience.

"It was a place where I thought I would be able to get a lot of riding and be able to get on all kinds of horses," says Brian. "I think I made the right decision. Helena is there and she's watching you when you ride and helping you. There were only three or four of us working there and everyone does everything. So we'd get up, feed the horses, clean the stalls and then we'd start to ride. I rode about six or seven horses each day."

Brian says one of the things he gained from his time in Germany is that he really cleaned up his riding. "The Germans are very big on having a clean ride and riders are very smooth. You don't see them making a lot of extra moves. They trained me and worked very hard with me to make my riding smooth and seamless."

It was an active sales barn, and turnover was fairly rapid. "In three months, you would have a completely different set of horses," Brian continues. "We had horses of all levels, from 4 year olds all the way up to Grand Prix horses to be sold for the five star level."

Brian also had a chance to show, taking some 4- and 5-year olds to their different rules. For instance, in order to enter a horse show, competitors need to have a showing license. You would normally get this by riding in a school and passing horsemanship tests. Brian got his by presenting his American horse show records. Back in Aiken, Brian has a few young horses he is bringing along, including a 3-year-old that he is taking to DiAnn Langer's youn horse training school in Johnston, and a 6-year-old he is hoping to show in the young horse classes later this year. His main business focus right now in sales.

"I really enjoy sales," he says. "I learned from some of the best in the business, so now I would like to get some new sales horses that I can work with for a bit and then sell. I'd also like to do some training, bring along horses that need work, or help people with horses they are having trouble with. I have had a lot of experience with young and difficult horses and I like horses that might need a little extra help."

In addition to a wealth fo knowledge and invaluable experience, Brian also brought back Zuzana Romanova, his girlfirend, who is an experienced international horse show groom. Zuzama, who is from Slovakia, was the groom for Denis Lynch, who has ridden for the Irish international team. Denis, who started his career working for Helena Stormanns, was back training at her facility, which is where Brian met Zuzana. 

Zuzana has traveled all over Europe on the international jumper circuit, and she has years of experience caring for and turning out showjumpers.

"She knows all the tricks to make a horse look and feel his best," says Brian. "So I think one thing we can offer this area is a sales barn and a training barn with a 5-star level of care."

Brian, like many horse people in the hunter jumper world, is excited to see Aiken becoming known for young horses. With several stables now focusing on hunter/jumper prospects, and with DiAnn Langer conducting young horse clinics here, Aiken is showing that it has the potential to become the premier place where green horses can become made horses. It could also become known as a place where riders of all levels can find good horses to buy.

"Now, when people are looking for made horses, a lot of times they go to Europe because they can find a lot of horses to try there. They work harder at training the young horses over there. In a young horse class here, you might find ten horses. In Europe in almost any show, you will find at least 100 horses in those classes. We have just as good horses here. What we don’t have is a place where you can find lots of horses to try in one area. I think Aiken could become a place like that. It’s centrally located, and there are so many places you can give horses experience at shows."

Looking to the future, Brian hopes to develop his business in training and sales. He is also planning to compete, and has lofty goals. His hero and his inspiration is Richard Spooner, an international showjumping rider who, like Brian, comes from Orange County and worked his way up the ranks.

"I enjoy bringing the horses along, working with the young horses" he says. "
But I also like showing. I definitely look forward to bringing along horses to the Grand Prix level. My long-term goal is to be international, to try to qualify for the World Cup, to jump the bigger jumps. I love to compete."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Double the Pleasure | 9/26/2014

Performing the Pas de Deux

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

On a hot Thursday evening in May, Catherine Respess and Laura Klecker, both dressage trainers, have trailered to the dressage ring at Three Runs Plantation in Aiken. They have brought with them two jet black Friesian horses, Victor ISF and Waverly ISF. A small entourage of people has gathered under a tree near the ring: Nancy Wurtz, who owns Victor, and Carol Pexa, who owns Waverly, along with some friends and family. Laura's car, which will serve as the sound system, is parked at the end of the arena with the doors open.

There are other people using the ring for a lesson at first, and so Catherine on Victor and Laura on Waverly ride around the outside to warm their horses up. When the lesson is over, Catherine and Laura warm their horses are black, and the footing in the Three Runs arena is bright white. The contrast is striking, and the two horses are even more so. They carry their heads proudly with their ears pricked and they move with animation, power and grace. The ample feathers on their fetlocks accentuate their movement, and their long black manes, done up in French braids, draw attention their striking, high-set necks.

Catherine and Laura have come to practice for a Undtied States Dressage Federation Pas de Deux, which is a musical freestyle dressage test for two horses performing together. The Pas de Deux is fairly uncommon at United Sates dressage shows. It is more regularly seen in dressage exhibitions, and in shows such as those put on by the Lipizzans in the Spanish Riding School, or by P.R.E. horses at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. The class is being offered at the Mayday Dressage Show at Highfields in Aiken at the end of May: Catherine and Laura have entered and they are practicing for the test.

When the horses are thoroughly armed up, it is time to start the music and run through the routine. The horses seem to like the theme, and they clearly enjoy performing together. They are not identical: Victor is taller and Waverly is more short-coupled, but when they are performing together, they seem to be mirror images and any differences between them dissolve. After they have run through the whole routine with the music twice, it is time to take the horses home. They look hot, happy and relaxed, and Laura and Catherine are both and smiling.

The two trainers are good friends, and the idea to take part in the Pas de Deux came to them because they thought it would be good for their horses.

"I was training Victor, and Laura was training Waverly, and we just thought it would be great to do it," says Catherine.

Although the horses are not closely related, both were bred at Iron Springs Farm in Pennsylvania, which is one of the preeminent warmblood breeding farms in America, Nancy Wurtz and Carol Pexa, who did not know one another before, had both seen Victor on the Iron Springs website, and they both wanted to buy him. Nancy, who is from Atlanta, got there on e day before Carol arrived from Minnesota, so the horse became hers. Iron Springs trains its horses in dressage and puts some show miles on them before they are available for sale. Waverly, who is a year younger than Victor, was on the developing horse list, which means he was not yet ready to be sold. As soon as he was moved from the developing horse list to the roster of horses for sale, Carol bought him.

By coincidence, both horses ended up in Aiken. Neither has a great deal of show experience, and Catherine says that one reason that she and Laura thought the Pas de Deux would be beneficial is that they hoped it would give the horses confidence. The two practiced their routine once a week for about six weeks before the show. Right away they knew there was chemistry between the two horses.

"We did our first practice at Hopeland Farms, and they seemed enamored of one another," says Catherine. "We think they might have remembered each other from Iron Springs since they were both raised there. Then the next time we got together, Victor was just elated to see Waverly."

Catherine says that a lot of work went into creating the performance. First they had to design and choreograph their routine. The test would be a Training Level, which means that it needed to include certain complusory movements from above Training Level. Once they had the routine, they needed to set it to music. They chose a theme from The Game of Thrones. but the music still had to be edited to suit the choreography and then professionally remixed.

"I have a friend in Pittsburgh who has a recording studio," says Laura. "His wife events, and she stays with me in Aiken in the winter. So once we figured out the timing, he did the music for us."

Ten days after their Three Runs practice, the pair perform their test at Highfields in front of an unusually large crowd. The routine goes off without a hitch, and when they are done, everyone applauds. Their score, 75.25%, is more than respectable: it is the sixth highest in the whole show. If you go by the book, scores in the 70s are considered "fairly good," but in practice, a 75 is excellent.

"It was a wonderful experience overall; the score is icing on the cake," says Catherine. "The end result was exactly what you are aiming for when you are training a horse in dressage. The horses enjoyed it, and they matured from it. The problem we both have had with the boys is they are young and distractible. A lack of matuirty was something we both struggled with. Being together bolstered their confidence, and they were so much better as a result. After the Pas de Deux, I did a qualifying test on my own that was Victor's best performance yet - he was so focused."

Catherine and Laura both plan to train the Friesians up to the higher levels. Can we expect to see more Pas de Deux performances from them? Maybe even, some day in the future, a Grand Prix Pas de Deux?

Catherine laughs. "I would love to! And Laura and I are so close I could even see that happening."

In the meantime, there is a chance that Catherine will adapt their Game of Thrones theme for a musical freestyle she can perform on Victor by himself. Perhaps next year, the two horses will execute the same routine while ridden by their owners.

Catherine says that one thing that made the experience so special was the enhanced sense of teamwork it engendered. "So many people wanted to be apart of it, it was almost like it was a little party every practice. It gave us more energy, a kind of energy you don't alwasy get when you are training by yourself in the arena. Riding is not always a team sport, but is can be so much fun when it is."

What would she say to someone who asked her advice about putting together a Pas De Deux?

"It's totally worth it. It might be a good deal of work, but it's worth every bit of it. When we were performing at Highfields, I had goosebumps the entire ride. It felt so meaningful. It was just us, but it felt amazing to be a part of it."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Secret Lives of Horses | 9/19/2014

Rosie and Flash

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography By Gary Knoll

This was meant to be a love story between two 27-year-old Thoroughbreds, Rosie and Flash, who were inseperable for 22 years. Just days before I went to meet them, however, Flash was euthanized leaving Rosie mourning her best friend.

Because their lives were intertiwned, it is impossible to tell Rosie's tale without hearing Flash's story as well. It is a story that began in northern California and ends in South Carolina, with the horses' owner, Dr. Carol Gillis, at its heart.

Dr. Gillis is a graudate of Univeristy of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and much of her professional career before she came to Aiken was centered around that school. She did an equine surgery residency there, earned a Ph.D. in equine tendon and ligament pathophysiology, and established its equine ultrasound service.

Horses were in Dr. Gillis's personal as well as professional life. She also had a small farm about half an hour from UC Davis. One of the horses at the farm was an ex-racehorse name Scharzi Zaca, who was a sprinter. Dr. Billis had purchased the mare when her racing career was over, bred her a few times and sold the yearllings at the Barretts sale in Pomona. 

Rosie was the offspring of Scharzi Zaca and a California sire named Pass the Glass. She was born in 1987 and Dr. Gillis was on hand for the foaling.

"She was the nicest of all Scharzi's foals," recalls Dr. Gillis. "Fifteen minutes after she was born she was licking her mon's fetlocks. She was always very affectionate."

By their nature Thoroughbreds are competitive. It is in their blood to race and try to best one another, whether they are galloping and playing in their pastures as younsters or at the track earning a living. Dr. Gillis recalls that Scharzi Zaca taught her foals to be at the front of the pack when it was play time and the broodmates and babies were turned out together.

After she was sold at auction, Rosie went to the track and raced exclusively in California.. Her trainer was tough. She often breezed twice a week leading up to a race. She bowed her tendon twice in her short career and when she showed up at UC Davis with her future in racing very much in doubt, Dr. Gillis bought her back. Rosie was just 3 at the time.

"Oce she had recuperated from all the wear and tear from racing, Rosie became my riding horse and then a broodmare," says Dr. Gillis.

Flash came into her life a few years later after his racing days were over. He retired with over $85,000 in earnings and made a seamless transition to the world of eventing and show jummping. 

"Flash was a lovely jumper and enjoyed showing, but he was often having medical issues, for example - two clic surgeris 60 days apart. Thank goodness he was such a terrific patient," laughs Dr. Gillis.

The two horses had an instant attraction to one another, and bonded quickly when they lived together at Dr. Gillis's farm.

"I tried to send Flash away to a professional trainer. He was such a lovely mover and jumper and I thought he might have a real future in the show ring," she says. "All Rosie did was run the fence and he went on a hunger strike of sorts. I had to bring him back after a few weeks, and that was the last I ever tried to seperate them."

Dr. Billis and her husband Juan Bucio made the move to Aiken in the fall of 2009. Flash and Rosie had shipped cross-country a year before and were staying at Ed and Debbie Scanlon's farm in Wagener.

"We had lots of animals to move, and it was easier to ship the horses commercially and ahead of time," expalins Dr. Gillis. "There were 22 animals total: the cats flew, while the dogs and birds rode with us."

About a year after her move to Aiken, Rosie began experiencing severe dental problems and was sent to the University of Georgia where she was a patient of Dr. Michael Lowder.

"Rosie had a rare bone loss disorder of the maxilla and mandible that caused the loosening of her top and bottom incisors and infection around the ottoth roots which was quite painful," says Dr. Gillis. "Dr. Lowder removed all of her incisors and a small portion of her maxilla. She has done very well since and is pain and infection free. Her tongue sticks out, but she can hold it in when she wants to - for example, when it is cold."

Rosie gets a normal diet of hay when in the barn and lots of grass when turned out. She gets a small amount of senior feed, and judging by her body weight and coat health, she metabolized her food very well. 

When Rosie and Flash were together they were never more than 20 feet apart. Rosie was the hyper one, bossing Flash around.

"About twice a week he would have enough and would have to haul off and give her a good bite on the rear," says Dr. Gillis. 

Flash was 21 when Dr. Gillis made the deicision that his days of being ridden were over. 

"He began suffering from shivers - a chronic nervous or neuromucular syndrome - and Juan and I just wanted to keep him happy," she says.

Shivers is often characterized by a trembling of the thigh muscles and a flexed and trembling hind limb. It can be terrifying to a horse. If they are lying down, it is next to impossible to get up. If they are standing they don't want to move.

Over the past severall months Flash began to go downhill and Dr. Gillis suspected nuerologic issues on top of the problems he already had.

"We had been treating him for spinal issues and also had him on GastrGard [an ulcer medication], but he wasn't getting any better," she says.

There were several times when Dr. Gillis thought she would have to put him down, but then the gelding would rally.

"Flash's anxiety level was increasing and in the final week of his life he was foever touching me, giving me these gentle nudges with his nose. The trembling was getting worse and we just knew his time was coming to an end."

When Dr. Gillis had made the difficult decision to euthanize Flash, she called her friend and colleague Dr. Lisa Handy to help.

Flash had eaten a good breakfast and was bright and alert. Rosie, however, seemed to know that something was not quite right. She was on "high alert," according to Dr. Gillis.

"When is was time to put him down, we walked Flash down to the field and the spot we had chosen for him. Juan walked Rosie down as well so that she could say her good-bye. All the other horses were lined up in the paddocks as we walked - silent and watchful. Rosie had the chance to nuzzle him one final time and then he was gone - it was very quick," remembers Dr. Gillis.

Although Dr. Gillis and Juan expected Rosie to have a mourning period, the level of her depression has them both worried.

"Rosie is mad, depressed, and spends a lot of time looking out the window of her stall to where Flash is buried. She goes into an uncharacteristic frenzy over the littlest of things. On the third night after we buried him, Rosie cried all night - it was heartbreaking," she says.

Although Rosie is slowly coming around, Dr. Gillis knows that the mare might never be quite the same. She and Flash were a true couple for more than two decades and her loss is one that Dr. Gillis and Juan understand all too well.

"We miss Flash terrible, but it was something that had to be done for his sake," she explains. "Rosie doesn't understand, so we are just giving her all the time she needs to mourn."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.