An area veterinarian says obesity is the biggest problem facing horses at Danada Equestrian Center, but there are no obvious signs of abuse.
John Kuhn of the DuWayne Animal Clinic completed an assessment of the 25-horse herd this month and presented his findings Tuesday to the DuPage Forest Preserve Commission.
Kuhn said he conducted brief medical examinations of each horse, reviewed their health care histories and inspected Danada's Wheaton facilities, which he visited three times.
His work is part of a multifaceted review of Danada's operations, launched after 34 volunteers signed a letter to the forest preserve district in November complaining of neglect of some horses by the staff and, in some cases, outright abuse.
"Although I've noted some (needed) changes, the overall review is a positive one," Kuhn said.
Kuhn's review is one of two third-party assessments of the forest preserve equestrian center. The others are being done by the forest preserve staff. Some current and former volunteers have expressed concerns about the format in previous meetings, saying it lacks objectivity.
Kuhn rated 11 horses as overweight on a scale from 1 to 9, with a 5 or 6 being the ideal and 9 being the heaviest. In many cases, he said, the horses need more work or should be walked or ridden for an extra 15 to 30 minutes a day.
He also said the alfalfa hay the horses eat is "very good quality," despite volunteers who spoke earlier in Tuesday's meeting with continued concerns about the horses. Those worries included comments that they've seen hay with mold or other impurities.
Kuhn said the alfalfa hay should be switched to grass hay to decrease the horses' sugar intake.
"Alfalfa has much higher sugar content and the glucose turns into fat much quicker," Kuhn said.
He did note problems with some horses, such as a 16-year-old named Crystal who is lame due to a fusing pattern in her pastern, a joint that is critical for shock absorption. Kuhn said the fusion can happen naturally, but she will remain lame for a long time.
"Really there's no work we can do with this horse," he said. "Even hand-walking would not be advisable at this time."
Kuhn also said a 13-year-old horse named Little June suffers from a neurological disease called shivers. She has been on extended stall rest, but the vet recommended cutting her grain and walking her more.
Kuhn said obesity can be "directly related" to neurological conditions like shivers, and decreasing the herd's weight and adopting more aggressive dentistry are his major recommendations.
District Executive Director Brent Manning asked Kuhn if he observed any signs of abuse or neglect during his Danada visits. Kuhn said he was unaware of the allegations surrounding the equestrian center, but he did not find anything troubling.
"As a vet, you're always on the lookout for signs of abuse, whether they are malnourished, maltreated, have unshoed hoofs, are not taken care of, untrimmed or have problems like granulating wounds," he said. "If something happened in the past, I didn't see anything that I would construe as being abusive.
"I didn't see any marks," Kuhn added. "If a horse is chronically abused ... some may cower, some may be disrespectful or scared of their trainer. Often an abused horse is head shy; that's a good indicator if they've been hit in the head too many times. I did not see that in any way."
But about 10 current and former volunteers spoke out before Kuhn's presentation, continuing arguments on both sides of the issue that have boiled over in recent weeks. Some defended Danada and its staff, while others like Beth Mix of Des Plaines questioned if Crystal's lameness could have been prevented with better veterinary care and accused the district of "harassment and intimidation" toward volunteers who speak up.
Several others protested the firing of a part-time Danada staffer last week, but forest officials would not comment on why the staff member was dismissed, citing personnel confidentiality.
Cynthia Oleynik of Wheaton, a Danada volunteer for three years, said she believes the truth about whether the equestrian center is caring or neglectful "lies somewhere in the middle," adding she never personally witnessed abuse. She also suggested implementing a formal procedure for volunteers to express concerns to the staff in writing and have them addressed in a timely manner.
As part of its Danada review, the district already is implementing a similar system, said Education Director David Guritz. On Tuesday, he also said the district will create better ways to keep volunteers abreast of horse health beyond emails, staff meetings and the barn bulletin board.
"Volunteers will have expanded access to health care records," Guritz said.
In addition, Danada staffers and active volunteers will meet weekly starting Monday through late April, as officials gather input for Danada's five-year plan in June.