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Sensory-challenged horse wins title

Henry and Nicole Gauthier of LaPlaine Quarter Horses and Paints near Duck Lake, Sask. have been actively involved in the horse industry for over 18 years. Their reputation has earned them many accolades but none as honourable as the most recent award.

The Gauthiers entered one of their Splash Overo paint fillies into a Canadian Colours Futurity at Ponoko, Alta., in September 2012. LP Silent Chip, a.k.a. Bella, is a yearling American Paint Horse Association (APHA) Splash Overo, who received top honours in her registered class, which not only pleased her owners but also drew attention from the judges. It was unknown to the Gauthiers at the time that their prizewinning filly could have a sensory challenge, until Nicole was approached by the judges following the class inquiring if Bella was deaf. They explained how Bella’s markings are very indicative of the genetic trait linked to deafness in the Splash version of the Overo paint horse. The characteristic bonnet face, the white encompassing the nose and spreading upwards and stopping just in front of the ears, is considered genetically linked to sensory disability.

“It looks like the horse was dipped in paint feet first,” said Nicole.

Professional judge, Clinton Fullerton from Kansas City, Missouri, was among one of the judges in Ponoko. He said that in his 25 years’ experience with training, showing and coaching paints and quarter-horses, the chance of encountering a hearing-impaired horse was low. “Splash Overo is considered one of the least common paint horse colour patterns and more often than not, horses displaying this form of coat colouring are more inclined to deafness than any other horse type and breed.

“The hearing-challenged horse is either very quiet or very wild,” said Fullerton. “There is usually no medium, it is usually one extreme or the other.

“The ears on a deaf horse are positioned with the ear opening off to the side as opposed to the up and forward position,” he said, who, in his career of training and coaching horses has received 162 world and reserve champion awards.

Congenital deafness associated with the Splash paint breed is a result of the lack of pigmentation within the inner ear causing the death of hair cells necessary to perceive sound. As in many other animal species, the deafness trait is usually associated with blue eyes and white coat colour. In the case of the Splash Overo, the head and legs are also white and the markings are very straight cut and defined. The Overo pattern is controlled by a dominant gene and does not appear to be gender specific.

Bella was chosen from the Gauthiers’ stock at the weanling stage then a slow transition into training was developed. As the trainer-horse bond grew, Bella began to flourish and was quick to respond to Nicole’s body language, becoming an exceptional student once the trust and respect between the two were developed. Last spring Bella was shown as a yearling in a halter class where she did not show any indication of her challenge. In the autumn, Bella competed in a lunge line class, where the horse is required to walk, jog and lope in both directions upon voice command. It appeared that Bella responded to the positioning of her trainer’s arm height in reference to what gait was expected.

“Bella has good herd sense of knowing where she should be in the herd,” said Nicole adding, “It is important for horses to be horses and equally as important that our show horses are able to integrate with other horses.”

Most horses in training are desensitized to their environment to avoid distractions, thus permitting the horse to focus on the matter at hand. In this case Bella did not require desensitizing.

The Gauthiers are eager to begin riding Bella this spring in preparation for the Western Pleasure show in the fall of 2013.

“It will pose another challenge as Bella will not be able to see the rider and thus will not be able to associate the body language with a voice command, however, Henry and Nicole have designed a plan where someone will lead Bella while the trainer is mounted. As leg pressure is applied, the leader will display the hand height signals. Once Bella is able to distinctly associate the leg pressure with the gait, she should be well on her way to the show ring once again.

The couple’s passion for horses is evident and exhibited in all aspects of their lifestyle from leisure to professional levels. Nicole has over 20 years’ experience in the equine industry and has been training and coaching professionally for 17 years, specializing in show horse training and youth show horses. She is an active member of the Saskatchewan Paint Horse Club.

The future looks bright for the aspiring trainers and breeders at LaPlaine Quarter Horses and Paints near Duck Lake, Sask. †

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