COLUMBIA, Mo. -- He approaches slowly, his head bowed, a kindly giant with a silky mane. Rusty the Tennessee Walking Horse brings joy and confidence to riders with illnesses and disabilities at an Ohio therapeutic riding center.
Now those riders and a host of supporters are returning the favor, raising thousands of dollars so Rusty can undergo treatment in Missouri for his own serious health challenge: the recurrence of cancer that had already taken the 9-year-old animal's right eye.
Hundreds of paper hearts have been sold for $1 each. A riding festival staged with help from Toledo police generated $850. A real estate agent wrote to 200 colleagues seeking donations, which have poured in. In six weeks, $7,250 was raised -- enough to pay for Rusty's radiation therapy at the University of Missouri-Columbia veterinary teaching hospital, plus follow up CT scans.
"I consider Rusty a gentle spirit with that missing eye, which people with disabilities can relate to because he is not perfect, as they are not perfect, and it creates a special bond," said Dan Foote, whose 26-year-old daughter, Katy, has been mentally retarded and deaf since birth. Katy met Rusty at Vail Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center in Oregon, Ohio, a Toledo suburb.
"Katy has called Rusty 'my horse,' and it's because they are so close, and riding him has given her confidence and a sense of independence," Foote said. "Now everyone who loves Rusty is trying to help him and pulling for him."
A crowd of scurrying Missouri vet school students and staffers wheels the 900-pound anesthetized horse down hospital corridors on an oversized steel cart. When they reach one of a handful of devices available nationally to deliver radiation to a large animal, they gently slide him onto its table.
Then the adjustments begin. The linear accelerator, which delivers computer-guided beams of radiation, is lined up, its red targeting lines glowing against the white blaze on Rusty's forehead.
Rusty's head is nudged an inch this way, then a quarter-inch that way, to precisely direct the radiation toward the tumor above and behind the sealed eye socket, now filled with a prosthetic ball, and to avoid damaging healthy tissue and his remaining eye.
"All of the patients we see are important to us, but we know Rusty is very special, and he is getting the best care we can give him," said Jim Lattimer, an associate professor of veterinary medicine who is leading the treatment team.
Five weeks of radiation treatment are scheduled, each lasting about 15 minutes.
The results won't be clear for some time after Rusty returns to Ohio, Lattimer said.
"We do our best and we wait and we hope," the professor said.
In Ohio, they're waiting and hoping as well. Rusty is one of 13 horses at Vail Meadows, where riders range in age from 16 months to 72 years, all with some form of disability.
"Rusty is special because of his tolerance and temperament. Some have to ride actually lying down on their bellies backwards, and he just goes along so sweetly," said Robyn Vail Shinaver, director of Vail Meadows, which her family helped establish.
The entrance hall of Vail Meadows' office "is literally covered" with the fund-raising paper hearts, she said, "and it just shows the love -- the love Rusty seems to have for the riders, and the love they certainly have for him."
On the Net
Vail Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center: members.tripod.com/vailmeadows/
University of Missouri-Columbia Veterinary Teaching Hospital: www.vmth.missouri.edu/