In This Section
Off Campus: Pandemic Horse Provides Four-Legged Companionship for Family of Four
mccannn [at] chop.edu (By Nancy McCann)
As the coronavirus pandemic raged on throughout 2020 — keeping many folks working and schooling from home — pet adoptions occurred in record numbers. The desire for four-legged companionship was so overwhelming that one in five U.S. households, approximately 23 million, rescued a cat or dog, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Kathrin Bernt, MD, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Cancer Center physician-scientist, also adopted a four-legged creature during the pandemic, though of a larger sort — a horse named Thor. Measuring in at 15 hands — that’s equine-speak for 60 inches, or five feet tall from the ground to the withers, the highest part of a horse’s back.
The Bernt family first met Thor at the Conshohocken stables where they were taking riding lessons, pre-COVID. Although the farm is within minutes of Philadelphia, it feels as if its miles away in the countryside, Dr. Bernt said. Situated on a hilltop, reached by a long winding drive, the 55 acres of rolling pastures and woods spread-out into view. Looking down, the Schuylkill River and Expressway appear to be far away.
Last March, when the pandemic sent much of the world into COVID lockdown, the stables canceled their lesson program until further notice. No more horseback riding for Dr. Bernt and her teenage daughters.
“But of course, if you own a horse, the stable isn’t going to tell you you can’t visit your horse,” Dr. Bernt said. “You can ride your horse; you just can’t get lessons. So we had a chat as a family and decided that we would take the jump and buy a horse.”
Full of Personality, Thor Joins the Family
Thor is a “sensitive guy” Dr. Bernt said, and he wasn’t happy being a lesson horse for beginner riders. But now that he’s a one-family horse, with intermediate riders, he is much more at ease and thriving. And the girls and Dr. Bernt can continue in an engaging and beautiful sport.
“Opinionated” is another word used to describe the family equine, as he freely lets his feelings be known. In the barn where they board Thor, each stall has a windowed opening, sans glass. During colder months, to keep the heat inside, the shutter is closed, sealing off the outside view, much to Thor’s dismay.
“He made such a ruckus by kicking the walls that they opened his window again,” Dr. Bernt said. “And so he just grows a very dense fur in the winter, because he wants to look outside.”
And “brave” makes the cut too. Oftentimes, when a family member is off the property riding trails in a group, they come across an unfamiliar bridge or creek, which can be scary obstacles for the horses to maneuver. But not Thor, Dr. Bernt said, in those instances, the white steed takes the lead.
De-Stressing on Horseback
Dr. Bernt grew-up in Germany, outside of Munich, where she learned to ride “small fat ponies.” She progressed to horses and rode for years, but with the demands of medical school, a research career, and raising a family, she gave it up until her two young daughters began to show an interest in the sport.
As a blood cancer investigator, Dr. Bernt appreciates the outlet from the rigors of research that horseback riding provides, such as being outdoors in a beautiful landscape or the interaction with another being that demands all of your attention.
“If I tried to think about other things,” Dr. Bernt said, “Thor’s going to let me know pretty soon that that’s not good. So, it really forces me to take my mind off things and concentrate on riding. There’s something amazing too about this human/horse interaction because this is a thousand-pound animal, and if he didn’t want to do something, there’s no way I could make him. For non-riders it sounds bizarre, but he enjoys being ridden. Thor very clearly communicated he did not enjoy the lessons, or his stall window closed, but he actually likes jumping and being out on the trail.”
Thor also likes doing a good job with the dressage they may practice, which is considered the highest expression of horse training by the International Equestrian Federation.
“It’s been such a good, positive outlet,” Dr. Bernt said, “to be outside and to have something that we do together as a family.”