Losing his eye to cancer surgery four years ago never stopped Rusty from charming his disabled riders. Now that the cancer is back, his caretakers refuse to let this horse call it quits.
With abundant support from his hometown of Oregon, Ohio, the prized therapeutic horse is coming to MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine on Monday for cancer treatment that will take at least five weeks.
“We have a waiting list to get on him ... more because the children love him,” said Wendy Vail, equine health manager at Vail Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center in Ohio. “He’s not perfect, just like they’re not perfect.”
Rusty, a therapeutic riding horse with a spotted coat, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the eye in 1999. He was treated at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The cancer was removed and the horse received a prosthetic eye. Four years later, the cancer has returned in the remaining tear duct.
“If it wasn’t for the community support, we’d have had to put him to sleep,” said Mike McGee, a volunteer riding instructor who works with 9-year-old Rusty. “I can’t tell you how much it means that this horse is given a chance.”
Because initial examination of the cancer rules out surgical or other medical treatments, radiation therapy will most likely be the answer to help the horse. Rusty will go through a Spiral CT scan at MU’s veterinary hospital to generate a computerized image of the cancer. The scan will show the exact location of the cancer and how much and what kind of radiation needs to be used. The results of the CT scan will help to determine Rusty’s survival chances. A linear accelerator will then be used to deliver radiation treatment.
MU is one of between seven and 10 facilities in North America that can do CT scanning and radiation treatment on large animals such as horses, said Jim Lattimer, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, who will care for Rusty.
It’s a change of pace for the horse who works hard to care for others.
At home in Ohio, Rusty touches lives on a daily basis at Vail Meadows.
A nonprofit organization, the riding center’s mission is to increase the quality of life for people of all ages with special needs through therapeutic horse riding. People who benefit include those with physical and emotional handicaps.
“The movement of the horse is the closest thing you can get to the human walk,” said Karen Grindler, executive director and founder of Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center in Columbia.
Grindler said the movement of the horse’s back and pelvis serves as therapy to the rider. Besides being physically therapeutic, riders form an emotional bond with the horse. “The motivation the riders get comes from the horse being so much fun.”
Among the rest of the horses at the Ohio center, Rusty shines as a natural talent with children. “He is an excellent horse with new leaders and with children,” Vail said.
“Rusty is probably the most versatile horse we have,” Vail said. “We can do just about anything with him.”
She works one on one with veterinarians on the horse’s care. From children painting him with their hands to disabled people riding him while lying down, Rusty stays calm and welcomes it all.
“He walks right up to people in wheelchairs and walkers and he actually greets them,” Vail said. Besides his everyday achievements with children, Rusty has received awards in walking horse shows and obstacle competitions.
Rusty’s medical procedures will cost about $6,000. Though the center will receive a discount because the horse is a service animal, more money wasneeded, and the Oregon community helped raise it. Local businesses participated in a fund-raising effort that has included selling paper hearts in Rusty’s name for $1. One child even brought his piggy bank to the riding center, McGee said.
“People donate anywhere from $2 to $500,” Vail said.
Certainly Rusty’s admirers hope for good news. “It’s a guarded prognosis,” Lattimer said. . “When animals come to radiation therapy, they’ve usually exhausted other options.”
But Vail keeps her hopes high.
“It’s actually a tear-jerker when you walk in and hear kids who have never talked before speaking their first words with him,” she said.