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Veterinary Medicine

Veterinary grad and horse overcome odds, look ahead

May 20, 2014
by Rachel Griess

Kelly Lear is trading her veterinary lab coat for glitzy Western wear to compete in her 18th show season with 2007 Pinto World Champion Singing Saddie Sue, a horse Lear adopted as an abused weanling and has nurtured into a top show mare.

Veterinary grad Kelly Lear and her mare, Saddie.“This season is going to be a special one,” Lear said.

That’s because Lear graduated from veterinary school at Colorado State University on May 16, completing her last, rigorous rotations even as she nursed her horse back from leg injuries that required daily treatment. Lear is considering a career in equine acupuncture – a complementary therapy that she used to help Saddie recover – but the new veterinarian’s immediate focus is the 2014 show season.

“Saddie and I have a lot to be proud of this year, with me graduating from veterinary school and with her now recovered from last season’s injury. It was a hard winter, and for a while I thought I would lose her,” said Lear, who woke each day at 4 a.m. to care for her horse, before arriving at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital for a packed school schedule.

“I was absolutely devastated seeing Saddie like that,” she added. “Now, Saddie is back to her old self and ready to do what she does best all summer.”

Faculty impressed

Her dedication to Saddie, and to CSU equine patients, was evident to faculty clinicians who witnessed Lear’s grueling schedule and her determination to help her horse.

“Kelly is a wonderful young lady and is amazing with horses. She has won multiple championships, yet remains very humble about her accomplishments,” said Dr. Dean Hendrickson, an equine surgeon and associate dean of CSU’s Professional Veterinary Medicine Program. “She is great with diagnosing equine ailments and suggesting appropriate therapies.”

Throughout vet school, it was clear to Lear’s professors and others that the aspiring veterinarian and her horse had a special bond. It began when Lear was just 8 years old, growing up in Rock Springs, Wyo.

Lear’s parents were boarding horses on their property when Saddie came into their lives. She was an untamed, grade yearling. The filly had been in and out of four homes. She was terrified of men, apparently the result of being chased by a former male owner with a whip.

Lear nursed her horse back to health last winter after Saddie suffered a leg injury.Saddie was scared of virtually everything and everyone – except a little girl ready to love her unconditionally. Lear said she was “doing cartwheels” when she learned her mother paid $350 and pledged babysitting duties in exchange for the young Pinto.

Unlikely success

It would have been nearly impossible to predict that the fearful filly and the 8-year-old girl would one day claim impressive prizes, including eight Wyoming State Championships, two Reserve World Championships, and two World Championships in Pinto Horse Association of America competitions.

First Lear had to gain Saddie’s trust. Weekly sessions with a trainer helped the filly calm down and learn not to fear people.

“For five months, we worked on ground work,” Lear recalled. “I would spend hours grooming her and talking to her about what happened at school that day. I did everything I could to get her to trust me. We slowly developed an incredible trust as I discovered the impeccable girl Saddie was on the inside.”

The day finally came for Lear’s first ride: Saddie stood with legs rigidly spread and ears pinned back. Not long after, in spring 1996, the pair entered their first show – and placed dead last in walk-trot Western pleasure. Lear then began cleaning stalls and houses to afford weekly riding lessons.

A year later, Lear, in a poorly shaped hat and pigtails, entered a junior Western equitation class and won her division.

Lear and Saddie in show form at the Pinto World Championship.“I couldn’t believe my ears. I was certain they had made a mistake,” she remembered. “I loped Saddie to the exit gate, grabbed the trophy and exited as fast as I could before someone became aware that there was a mistake.”

A neigh sayer

Saddie transformed into Singing Saddie Sue – named for her habit of neighing to Lear when the girl approached – and the two entered many shows, claiming many awards.

In 2007, Lear entered the Pinto World Championship Show at Expo Square in Tulsa, Okla., hoping she and her grade mare, just shy of 15 hands, would place among professionally trained horses with fancy bloodlines.

“Some competitors in the world show ship their horses off to be professionally trained. Because I had gone from knowing nothing about horses to training Saddie myself, our road to the World Championship had been much different,” Lear said. “I couldn’t help but feel like we didn’t belong. But I just kept focusing on our goal to get one top-10 finish in either Western showmanship or Western horsemanship.”

Yet they did belong: The pair cleaned up at that show, claiming World Championships in Western horsemanship and showmanship, a reserve World Championship in Western pleasure, four top-five awards, and four top-10 finishes. Lear and Saddie earned the title of 2007 All-Around Novice Amateur Champion.

Seven shows on tap

This year, Lear has committed to at least seven shows despite a rough winter and lots of labor to be sure Saddie is performance-ready.

Among the many veterinary skills Lear has learned and used with her own horse, acupuncture has proved especially beneficial, she said.

“Saddie absolutely loves the acupuncture. She even fell asleep one time while I was doing it. I can just hear her saying, ‘Gosh darn, it’s about time all this school pays off!’” she said, laughing.

Saddie likewise has helped Lear through veterinary school, greeting her daily with the very neigh that inspired her show name.

Lear’s veterinary path is not yet certain, but one thing is: “Wherever I go, Saddie goes,” she said.