UMass host first Equine Wellness Expo at Hadley Farm

By Katie Landeck

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Tethered to a trainer lecturing on proper horse care, Snowman, one of four draft horses working at the University of Massachusetts this year, pranced around the ring at Hadley Farm. A group of spectators watched him at the first Equine Wellness Expo this past Saturday.

The Expo featured workshops hosted by specialists in horse care on topics ranging from equine massage therapy, to animal communication, to modern approaches to traditional horse shoeing.

The event was coordinated by Nicole Birkholzer. She was inspired to create the Expo after adopting Jesse, a 34-year-old Percheron draft horse. She thought Jesse would have to be euthanized due to severe health problems, but with the efforts of several specialized horse practitioners Jesse was able to return to full health. Birkholzer was amazed by their abilities to aid him in his recovery.

“I thought people had to know about these amazing practitioners,” said Birkholzer.

After “about three months” of planning, and forming a partnership with UMass Stockbridge School and Blue Star Equiculture, the Equine Wellness Expo was created.

The Expo raised money for other horses like Jesse who were rescued by Blue Star Equiculture, an organic farm and draft horse sanctuary in Palmer.

Blue Star is a non-profit organization that provides retired working horses a sanctuary and homeless working horses the opportunity to be useful and positively improve their lives. They promote the use of big draft horses in jobs such as logging, farm work, and pulling carriages.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about horses that work,” said Pamela Riekenbach, director of Blue Star Equiculture. “By giving them jobs, we are giving them opportunities – just like us.”

According to Riekenbach, putting horses to work is not cruel, but what they are made for. She went on to say that the draft horses need work to be happy and healthy.

As part of a new partnership between UMass and Blue Star, this year four draft horses named Mark, Cash, Carter and Bob Too are staying in the UMass stables at Hadley Farm. Not all of the horses were at the Expo. One stayed at Blue Star for the weekend and another was trotting in the Belchertown parade.

According to the Executive Director of Animal Management Stephen Purdy, UMass started its partnership with Blue Star last year after a UMass horse retired to that farm.

“I met Blue Star in February when one of our ex-riding horses was retired there,” Purdy said. “I went down to check the place before she went there, and I just really fell in love with it and what they were trying to do.”

Since then, a new course called “Draft Horse Certification I” has been created in addition to now keeping four draft horses at Hadley Farms.

At UMass, the horses participate in the class where students learn how to use draft horses to do tasks such as draw carriages or plough fields. The horses are also used for basic work around the barn such as raking the stadium or even some farm work.

“There is a real movement to use horses in agriculture,” said Purdy. According to Purdy, over 1,000 farmers in the Northeast are part of a draft animal network that uses horses instead of tractors to do farm work.

Purdy hopes to do more with Blue Star. “We have talked about making this a permanent class. Some of the things we are looking at… is turning this into a foster home for horses that Blue Star takes in and having students have the experience of having a horse come in with some kind of problem, and having us manage the problem and rehabilitate the horse,” Purdy said.

He hopes that by adding programs such as a foster program, UMass will “be part of the solution, not the problem.”

In addition, Purdy hopes to make the Expo a regular event, possibly hosting it more than once a year. He hopes to include other events related to horses and donkeys as well.

Michelle Woodward can be reached at [email protected] Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]