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Take The Reins Supports Melanoma Research

by Nancy Degutis

When an owner loses a battle against her horse's melanoma, it can seem the odds of finding a cure are the same as they were for David when, in Biblical times, he took the field against Goliath.

Melanoma is a slow growing skin cancer that is usually fatal to its equine victims, most often grays. But one woman used her misfortune to found an organization that educates about the disease and is backing research to find a cure for it someday soon.

That woman, hunter rider Karen Witter, was on the verge of beginning her show season with her gelding, Smokin' Magic, aka Chili. A veteran of three races when Witter bought him, she knew the five-year-old had tumors on his tail that wouldn't affect a ring career. He was to have been her daughter, Meagan's, amateur owner hunter, but she moved out West after college graduation, leaving Chili without a job. So Witter decided to show him herself. She started him in the schooling hunters, moving on to the suitable hunters and was on the verge of going into the adult amateurs. Then a large tumor emerged at his jaw line.

"He was having a hard time flexing his neck and jumping; it was affecting his entire balance," said Witter who tried in vain to find someone to work on the problem. "I came up empty, basically."

However, a friend had been a vet student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, and knew Dr. John Robertson of the school's Center of Comparative Oncology in Blacksburg, VA. He was working in translational medicine, a field in which medical procedures and drugs which had helped one species (in these case, humans) could be beneficial to another, as in horses. Scientists are testing the effectiveness of botanical oils, such as frankincense, that attacked tumor cells in the laboratory.


"He was the one I turned to and I eventually took my horse down there" to be the first involved in the clinical trial, she said. Frankincense, injected directly into the tumors on his tail, was a success. Chili's body absorbed the lumps, then sloughed them off. But the growth in his throat latch area was in a place where the oils could not be injected.

So Witter came to a crossroads. She could have approved surgery to remove the growth. She could wait until his air supply was choked off by the cancerous mass. Or she could have him put down. She chose surgery.

He did not make it out of recovery. But because she wanted to spare other owners from seeing their horses fall victim to this disease, she became involved with researching a cure. She founded the 501c non-profit Take The Reins Foundation.

"It has really gone well," she said from Blacksburg, VA, where she moved to be near the center and to help with the work. "It puts the researchers and the scientists and the veterinarians together with the horse people and the response has been terrific within the equestrian community."

Her part in it "is finding horses (with this condition). I have had people say 'my horse has this` or 'I know some people who have a horse with this.'"


Ultimately she would like to see scientists "come up with a vaccine or a blood test that would show if a horse has these tumors growing inside." Another possibility that could come from the experimental work is learning whether gray horses are genetically predisposed to this type of cancer.

After Chili's death Witter agreed to an autopsy which revealed the nine-year-old gelding "was loaded with tumors on the inside as well. The largest one was probably the one that was around his heart and lungs. And there were several down his spine. Basically he was a ticking time bomb."

Witter remains on Take The Reins Foundation's Board of Directors, "which is run by a wonderful group of people who stepped up to the plate to keep things going." She shuttles between her new home in Blacksburg and New Jersey to be at the foundation's board meetings and part of the group's plans for the future. The organization has already held a fundraiser and is planning another on April 18-20, 2008 at the Prallfville Inn in Stockton. Through those venues "we want to educate people about what can be done," said Witter.

It is beginning to work. Witter was contacted "by a woman in York (Pa.) who had an older gelding with it and was thinking of putting him down in a few days. The melanoma was all over the place and there was nothing she could do," she explained. "I called Dr. Robertson who talked to her vet, and blood samples were supplied. She had another gray horse that they are going to treat. That's kind of what I am trying to do and what the foundation's goal is."

For more information on the research, contact Witter at her cell phone number, (908) 963-3002, or Dr. Robertson through his e-mail address,, or his office at (540) 231-4643.

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