Red coils threw heat from the ceiling as a sea of bodies wrapped in black broadcloth listened attentively to the speaker at the front of the room. A life-sized horse statue stood to the speaker’s right, his large metal body unruffled by the room’s chilly, garage-like interior or by the incessant, incomprehensible chant of the auctioneer in the adjoining space. Wide-brimmed straw hats sat atop the heads of the seated men, while their miniature, beardless sons fidgeted next to them and avoided the stares of their modest mothers. An assortment of Amish families turned out for the first “Plain Community Horse Maintenance and Care Clinic,” sponsored by the Omega Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, to further their understanding about keeping their horses sound, healthy, and well maintained.
On the evening of February 13, 2015, the PA Auction Center in Quarryville was bustling. As the clock drew nearer to the 6 pm clinic start time, interested parties ambled down the cement ramp to the neighboring room where fifty folding chairs were waiting in front of a blank projector screen. A side table held pamphlets, stuffed ponies to be given to children under ten years old, a scrapbook of rehabilitated rescue horses, large donated horse blankets and halters, and gift buckets full of fly spray, shampoo, sweat scrapers, brushes, and feed. Kelly Smith, director of the Omega Horse Rescue in Airville, PA, passed out raffle tickets for the gift buckets and encouraged folks to take the blankets for their horses. One man immediately took a blanket outside to his buggy horse.
In the eyes of the equestrian community, the Amish often have a bad rap. Owners who think of their horses as family members are appalled by the oftentimes skinny trotters pulling buggies in extreme heat and hear horror stories of overgrown hooves, rain rot, ringworm, or old driving horses being sold for meat. Fortunately, this picture is frequently the exception, not the rule. Despite cultural differences, the Amish do value their horses and want to preserve their wellbeing for as long as possible. This clinic helped bridge the gap between good intentions and applicable knowledge.
Nicole Boyer of the York, PA branch of the Humane Society stressed that when they receive a complaint—usually about an underweight horse—the Humane Society is not trying to seize the animal. Boyer counseled, “I want to come up with a game plan with you to improve the animal’s health and living conditions. We might come back several times to the property to make sure things are coming up to standards, but we do not want to take your horses away from you.”
“English” speakers Dr. James Holt, Greg Hill, Joel Nupp, and Nealia McCracken helped inform listeners about proper veterinary care, nutrition, dentistry, and options for rehoming, while Amish speakers Eli Beiler, John Beiler, and John Glick spoke about harness fitting, farrier, and chiropractic care.
Over the pop-click of soda can tabs, Dr. Holt, a regular at the New Holland Sales Stables, spoke about how the life spans of horses have extended, and with proper care, so have horses’ years of productivity. “What we used to consider ‘old’—horses in their teens—are now considered middle-aged and can successfully move into their twenties.” Dr. Holt compared the high cost of treatment (if even possible) to the much lower cost of recommended vaccinations to prevent deadly diseases such as tetanus, rabies, West Nile, and botulism, and advised regular, rotating dewormers to keep the parasite population down.
A question rang out: “I’ve been feeding my horse the same amount all these years, and suddenly I can’t keep weight on him this year…what’s happened?” Dr. Holt advised that older horses may need an increased amount of feed, or a senior diet, to suitably meet his nutritional requirements. In addition, an older horse may need more frequent tooth care, so he can eat without the sharp edges of his teeth harassing him at every bite. “Tooth care improves longevity the most,” he instructed.
A brief intermission drew winners for the gift buckets, with lanky youths shyly picking out their prizes. Greg Hill spoke next, explaining the anatomy of a horse’s 100-foot digestive track and the importance of small, constant meals consisting primarily of forage.
“To be clear,” Hill explained, “the appearance of a ‘hay belly’ doesn’t come from too much hay. It’s from a poor quality of hay. You should be looking for a good mix of either alfalfa/timothy, or alfalfa/orchard grass with a 12 to 14 percent protein content for a driving horse.” Salt blocks are also a recommended addition. “Horses naturally seek out salt and will start eating dirt or manure if not getting enough vitamins and minerals.”
Joel Knupp, an equine dentist from Westminster, MD, brought a horse skull with an adjustable jaw to the front of the room when it was his turn to present. Jokes spread through the crowd about how he acquired his prop, while Knupp good-naturedly played along. He demonstrated how the lower teeth ground food against the top teeth to eat, and how horses will slowly starve to death without proper dentistry work. Knupp described how he floats teeth, taking the sharp edges off of the molars and putting the correct angles on others.
After Knupp, Eli Beiler stood next to the horse statue to show a correctly fitted harness. “A bit should show three wrinkles at the side of the lips,” he explained, “because the tongue acts like a valve. If there is too much pressure, the horse will evade the bit and the tongue will move away.” He moved down the statue’s neck, telling the crowd to imagine how hard they would like to be worked when they adjust the overcheck rein, and to make sure three fingers are able to get underneath the collar. “A horse needs to be able to take long, deep breaths to take long strides, and that way they don’t hit the ground as hard,” Beiler encouraged.
He advised the crowd to look at their own horses, as most harness choices are up to them. “You can put pads everywhere, it’s your choice, and the thicker the better. However, they are just to help break the movement between the skin and the collar, not to make the collar fit better.” The crowd warmed to Beiler, asking question after question: “What if my collar is rubbing my horse and he’s losing hair?” – “How tight should I make the belly band?” – “Where should I put the breeching pads?” Beiler answered each question with easy-going aplomb, reiterating that each individual horse has different needs.
Eli Beiler’s father, John Beiler, is a blacksmith who advocated proper hoof maintenance. Speaking over his long beard, Beiler promoted the importance of taking care of the hoof’s frog, keeping stalls dry, and remembering to use products that heal thrush. The best way to remember to put it on, he said, was to set it on the harness peg so it’s right there when coming in from the road. “Muddy pastures can cause rotten frogs, but you can treat it. Bring the horse in from the field, wash up his feet and let them dry completely, and then after three or four days of treatment, the thrush will clear right up.” The crowd murmured appreciatively as Beiler unexpectedly set a bottle of thrush treatment on the table with the gift buckets, donating it as a raffle item.
A quiet, soft-spoken man, John Glick spoke earnestly about equine bodywork. “If we listen to the horses when harnessing and while out on the road, they will speak to us…even if we don’t always understand,” he chuckled. He repeated the importance of annual vaccinations, and then started listing familiar symptoms to the audience. Tight shoulders. Crooked head tilt. Limping. Flinching when the spine is touched.
“These can all be addressed with chiropractic care,” Glick said. “If the horse is locked up and tight, then he’s uncomfortable. The more comfortable he is, the better his muscles will be and the better he will work.” Glick also reminded his peers to keep their horses hydrated. “Sometimes I see no hay in the trough and no water in the bucket. That’s bad. The horse’s muscles will not relax if they aren’t watered.”
Lastly, Nealia McCracken stood. She is the owner and trainer at North Wind Stables in Hardwick, NJ, and founder of Saddlebred Rescue. She passionately spoke for retired driving horses that have found second or third careers as riding horses. Through a pre-recorded video, McCracken demonstrated how some retired driving horses, especially Saddlebreds, were originally backed as riding horses and after slowly being restarted, their prior knowledge comes back to them. In person, McCracken emphasized that horses with tendon and ligament injuries are still useful after a few months of stall rest, and normally it is not improper shoeing that causes a horse to become lame, but waiting too long between farrier visits.
Kelly Smith concluded the event three hours after it began, heartily thanking both speakers and attendees for participating in the clinic and inviting all to peruse the rehoming and rescue pamphlets on the side table. Joints popped as men rose slowly to their feet, thoughtful looks on many faces. Some stopped to speak privately with a speaker, while others carefully folded the horse blankets in their arms.
“Another clinic is in the works for this summer,” said Smith. “We’re hoping to have a live horse at that one.” Judging by the focus and attention the crowd gave to this one, another clinic is sure to garner an even larger audience and continue the education on the proper care for these hardworking animals.
A second and larger Plain Community Horse Maintenance and Care Clinic is being planned for July. Sponsors are being sought to donate equine health care and maintenance products. Contact Omega Horse Rescue at (717) 324-1644, email firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook to donate.