University of Minnesota ups its horsepower

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The University of Minnesota veterinary school has long held its own in treating, teaching about and researching horses, but it has never had a building dedicated solely to equine programs.

That’s about to change. The U’s new Equine Center, set for a grand opening on October 15, will house not only an expanded veterinary program but also the university’s mounted police horses and the therapeutic We Can Ride program for children with disabilities.

The center’s director, Stephanie Valberg, is more than a little excited. A recent tour started at the expansive parking lot, which she said will solve the first problem clients have been complaining about when they bring horses to the old facility on Gorton Avenue, where horses share space and resources mainly with dogs and cats.

“We designed this so that you can unload in a nice covered area,” she said — then waved toward the trailer-length parking spaces and turnaround area — “park and drive out of here without going into reverse.”

Just inside the doors is a room full of leather-upholstered furniture, rather puzzling, perhaps, until one considers that clients have to wait for what might turn into hours while the vet staff figures out what’s making a horse lame. Valberg said Internet hookups and other services will be available to keep clients from getting bored or losing precious business hours.

But beyond that, everything is horse-scale, right down to door-open buttons placed on the left sides of hallways (because you lead a horse walking on the left side of its head) and ceiling beams everywhere rigged with lift equipment to convey a seriously injured or anesthetized horse from room to room.

Valberg said eight years of planning gave her staff plenty of time to figure out exactly what they wanted. They brought in an architecture firm that specializes in equine accommodations to work out the interior details. The place is infused with high-tech solutions, such as a computerized pharmacy that uses fingerprint recognition for security, and an air-mattress chamber that protects a horse as it recovers from anesthesia and wants to stand up too soon.

The 60,000-square-foot, 14-million-dollar facility will mainly serve the growing population of horses raised as pets. Valberg said they expect to see 5 to 10 clients a day. Thirty-three stalls will be available for short- and long-term stays (the university has about 20 horses for study at any given time, many of which will be housed there), with more planned as the means are found to expand the building.

A large arena will be used to watch horses in action, the way an auto mechanic tries to duplicate that clunking under the hood by taking it for a test drive. Along the edge of the arena are video cameras, and in one spot there’s a force-plate that will analyze the force of each hoof as it strikes the ground. This can be correlated with slow-motion video analysis to yield better data than the vets have ever had before.

“We’re going to have to adapt to that,” Valberg said of the piles of data. “What do you do when there’s so much more you can see? But that’s a good problem to have.”

Once the cause of a problem has been identified, a horse can go into surgery if that’s needed. With or without surgery, a whole new world of physical therapy becomes available, including a treadmill on which a horse can run at up to 30 miles per hour (about as fast as a good race horse can go), and an underwater treadmill that will offer fine-tuned resistance training and encourage proper posture as the horse relearns its gait. A powerful MRI machine will be shared with the small-animal hospital.

The new facility will also upgrade the vet staff’s ability to help with breeding problems. Valberg said the campus’s proximity to a large airport is an advantage when the staff wants to send frozen embryos to a remote location.

But the Equine Center isn’t strictly about diagnosis and treatment. Its main functions, as part of the vet school, will be to train students in equine specialties and to support research. And it will house the We Can Ride program and rent space to local horse organizations for their gatherings.

Valberg said the horse therapists have already begun an exchange with the human therapists, to the enrichment of both fields. We Can Ride works mainly with children who have cerebral palsy and other physically limiting diseases.

She also cited continuing collaborations between equine and human health research in muscle disease, genetics and arthritis.

“Results will benefit human health care,” she said, “including muscular dystrophy, obesity, nutrition and arthritis.”

And if the Equine Center seems extravagant in an era of crises in human health care, Valberg said, concerned citizens should know that horse owners and other private donors have picked up half the tab, with the university covering the other half. The center was built at Fairview and Dudley, on land already owned by the university.

“There was no legislative support for the project,” Valberg said. “No human health institution went unfunded because of this addition to veterinary medicine.”

Valberg and others also point to the growing horse population in Minnesota, expressing confidence that the wealth of horse owners will contribute to the region’s economy.

The facility is already drawing top-notch personnel at every level, Valberg said, from beginning students to specialists, and will thus attract a growing circle of clients and researchers.

She said raising a horse in frigid Minnesota requires more commitment than in warmer climates. “We have really dedicated horse owners,” she said, who will seek good care for their financial and emotional investments.

As for neighbors curious about the new Equine Center, Valberg said drop-in touring will be limited, but the grand opening is designed to wow the general public. It will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Monday, October 15. She hopes the U’s summer children’s camps will find ways to use the facility, and interested neighbors can contact her with questions ( lah@umn.edu) or get more information from the Equine Center’s Web site: www.cvm.umn.edu/umec/home.

And yes, the horses will still be turned out to a paddock where neighborhood children can greet them, but the walk might be a little farther now.

Valberg credits University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks, a horseman and educator, for bringing the project to fruition.

“It’s amazing what a building does for you,” she said. “It’s an acknowledgement of the importance the horse has.”