Embarking On An Amish Adventure

Jan 3, 2014 - 6:25 AM
A veteran horse rescuer, Dr. Liz Arbittier was hoping to find a baggage-free horse for once. Instead, she became obsessed with Ephraim, an ex-Amish driving horse with fear issues and awesome ears.

New blogger and veterinarian Liz Arbittier recently purchased her first former Amish driving horse, and she’s planning to chronicle their training process together for The Chronicle of the Horse.

When I took my dream job as a staff equine veterinarian at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center, I knew it meant huge life changes. I resolved not to have a horse during the transition because I needed to focus on my new job. I made it from June until August before I started jonesing to ride.

Chief of large animal surgery and diehard rider, Dr. Dean Richardson, generously offered me one of his show jumpers, and it wasn’t long before I was ready to own a horse again. I envisioned an uncomplicated mount on which I could bomb around the Cheshire Hunt countryside with friends. I was making inquiries when my trainer of 18 years, Kevin Babington, told me he had a jumper I could ride. Fabulous! I emailed eventer Kate Hicks and arranged to board at her farm.

Fate then intervened as it will. Trainer Kelly Bauer emailed me, responding to my inquiry about a horse. Her email started with two brief sentences concerning the horse I’d asked about, then continued, “But I have this other horse…” The rest of her detailed letter introduced me to the horse now known as Ephraim. That’s Ephraim with a long E, so pronounced Eeeeephraim.

Ephraim, a 4-year-old Dutch Harness Horse-Standardbred cross, was an Amish driving horse. His owner claimed he wasn’t a fancy enough driving horse and sent him to Kelly to be started under saddle and sold. Ephraim had failed a vetting due to abnormal radiographic findings in his feet, so his owner wanted to cut his losses and send him straight to auction. Kelly candidly wrote that he was petrified of people but had not put a foot wrong during his training. I felt bad, really bad knowing his fate, but for once I just wanted to own a baggage-free horse.

Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephraim. I watched his video about 800 times before I emailed again. I also spoke to my friend from CANTER MidAtlantic, Allie Conrad, who knows every human being in the industry, and she confirmed my good gut feeling about Kelly. Kelly clearly was going above and beyond to find a person for this horse, and I knew she wasn’t making a dime on him—his price was slashed to auction dollars. I then made the craziest equine related decision I’ve ever made. I purchased, sight unseen, an Amish buggy horse with significant fear issues and bad X-rays and had him shipped from North Carolina to Pennsylvania.

I emailed Kate that I was no longer bringing a jumper; instead I was bringing an Amish horse, and I waited with trepidation for a response. She remained warm and welcoming and was excited about the project. Relief!

I waited impatiently for his arrival, but I wasn’t terribly nervous. I had skills! I had jumped big fences! I definitely felt that I could help this horse who Kevin and I agreed looked athletic.

The morning that Eph arrived, he stepped cautiously off of the trailer, having shipped straight through the night. Black with chrome barely registered. What stood out were strangely conformed legs, a giraffe neck that went straight up into the air, and the biggest head and ears I’d ever seen. Then I caught his eye—worried but so kind. I was smitten.

Kelly had spoken the truth. He was terrified. When I later sedated him to float his teeth, I saw that his tongue was grossly misshapen, with a deep horizontal scar across it where a bit had done a lot of damage. And I was mesmerized by his HEAD! A friend remarked that his head is longer than my torso, and his ears are longer than my face. He’s about 16.2 or .3, but his neck and ears make him seem 37 hands. Getting the bridle on is funny because to get the ears under the headstall, you have to sort of fold them in triplicate.

Three days post arrival, I got on. I rode by myself (Unofficial Captain of Team Bad Decision!), but folks were nearby, and I was carelessly optimistic. He’d never been ridden indoors, but he went right to work. I asked for a trot and was surprised and thrilled by the springy, uphill gait and a soft mouth. He was very green but perfect and sound. It was an ideal inaugural ride, and it made me a little overconfident that I was in my comfort zone.

Thankfully, our second ride was in the company of a boarder who is a trauma nurse. You can guess where this is going! We trotted around quietly. I asked for the canter and got up out of the saddle. He panicked and threw his head up and connected HARD with my face. It sounded like an open handed slap! Then came an enormous buck—one of those rodeo, back cracking rocket launchers. I ate dirt, and he trotted to the gate where he froze. I walked over to him, and he was shaking. So was I! I’m sure he thought I’d purposefully hit him (with my face). I eventually got back on and trotted around twice. We were both very worried, but we did it. I then apologized and fed him treats throughout the whole untacking process.

Unnerved, I called Kelly, who was shocked and upset. She reminded me that Amish horses wear blinders, so any big move you make up there is scary. I needed to ride sitting up and with a deep seat. I realized I’d been fairly cavalier about his history and my understanding of exactly what he needed from me. Kelly said training these horses is nothing like restarting an off-the-track Thoroughbred or breaking a warmblood, which was my skill set.

I’m definitely feeling my inexperience in this field now (a good thing!), but I know Eph and I are going to be great. I adore him, and he is really starting to bond to me. There’s precious little information out there on restarting an Amish horse, but I’m ready to start our simultaneous education!

Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up casually riding hunters, did IHSA in college, and got started in show jumping before vet school when she took a job managing Kevin Babington’s team. She’s ridden with Kevin for 18 years and, while Ephraim is a departure for both Liz and Kevin, Kevin is excited to meet him!


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