Secret Lives of Horses

Quarter Pounder does Double Duty

Article By Nancy Johnson, Photography by Pam Gleason & Great Oak
Beautiful palomino horse

Quarter Pounder, a 25-year-old-Haflinger pony, is as popular at Aiken’s Great Oak Equine Assisted Programs as the hamburger of the same name is at McDonalds. QP’s memorable name came courtesy of the daughter of his owner Wendy O’Brien when they bought him as an adorable 2-year-old, 23 years ago. She was a fan of the television series Little House on the Prairie, and the name was an homage of sorts to the Laura Ingalls character nicknamed Half Pint.

Wendy, who was at that time focused on eventing and breeding, found QP at a stable in Millbrook, New York. Knowing that Haflinger horses were renowned for their quiet, easy-going dispositions, she bought him with plans for his becoming a guest horse. Since he was not suitable to be an event horse, she decided to try driving him, something she hadn’t done since she was a child. He took to the sport well, and Wendy fondly recalls her early days showing him at the Duchess County Fair in New York, and the culmination of their partnership as they competed in the Advanced combined driving event at Gladstone, New Jersey, and then in Canada where they won their division. “He and I learned the sport of combined driving together and because of QP, I was able to go on to represent the U.S. as a member of the combined driving team,” Wendy says.

Eventually, QP retired from competitive driving but continued to drive for a while as the wheeler of a Halflinger four-in-hand. After that, Wendy thought QP deserved a real retirement, so he came to live on her Montmorenci farm where he was occasionally ridden by her grandchildren, including a six-month-old in a basket saddle. Much of his time was spent relaxing in a big pasture with his buddies, two miniature horses named Jellybean and Egbert.

As one of the founders of the Great Oak equine assisted therapy program, Wendy was fully engaged with getting the program started a few years ago. She had often observed how incredibly gentle and bomb proof Quarter Pounder was, especially with her young grandchildren. Wendy had a feeling that QP had a second career in him. Plus, at 14.2 hands, he was the perfect size for a therapy horse: small enough not to intimidate a child, but big enough to carry an adult.

“We were in the middle of our capital campaign and the Great Oak facility was under construction,” recalls Nicole Pioli, who is the executive director of Great Oak. “Then Wendy realized QP, who was 19 at the time and just hanging out in her backyard, appeared to have the perfect disposition to be a therapy horse. So, we began to go out and work with him.” Following some extensive schooling and de-sensitizing work, QP became one of the first horses to be accepted into Great Oak’s program.

Nationally renowned for its excellence, Great Oak will be celebrating its fourth year in operation on February 14.  “If I could have six horses in the barn like QP, I’d be happy,” Nicole says. “He immediately fit into the job. QP has the best personality. I mean, everybody loves him.”

It’s easy to see why the students and volunteers all love QP. “He is an exceptionally handsome Haflinger,” Nicole notes. “And he’s just such a character! He plays with the kids, picking up tennis balls and cones in his mouth. Yet, he’s a well-trained pony. Our students have ridden him at the Special Olympics and the Horse Show in the Woods.”

Nicole explains that QP is one of the few horses at the farm tolerant enough to be trained to use the lift for those students in a wheelchair. Although regularly schooled at the trot and over cross rails, QP is predominantly ridden by students who only walk. “He’s so valuable with the younger students and those who use the lift, that we don’t want to ask more of him,” Nicole explains.

In a typical week, QP is ridden by 10 students, giving him plenty of time off to relax with his two best buddies. Like his friends at Wendy’s farm, these are minis, but Pancake and Waffles are mini donkeys.

“QP is a really smart pony,” Nicole says. “He knows who is riding him and totally knows whose buttons he can press. He’s been known to try them when one of the volunteers is schooling him, but we can put a 4-year-old child on him and when they whisper ‘Whoa’ in the tiniest voice, he’ll stop immediately with all four feet square.”

While children love QP for his gentleness and endearing personality, adults love him too. Nicole tears up when she talks about an adult student who was especially fond of QP. “Beth was just an array of joy,” Nicole says, describing a student who lost her battle with cancer. “She and QP had a special relationship. At her last time out to the farm, Beth didn’t have the strength to ride, but she wanted to see QP. She sat on the mounting block and QP walked over and just dropped his head in her lap. We all just looked at each other in amazement.”

Dawn is a student who is currently riding QP regularly. Her husband, John, says, “QP has been a perfect match in temperament and disposition for therapeutic riding. The bond created between QP and Dawn has been fantastic.” Although she is in a wheelchair, Dawn has taken to wearing a Fitbit to track the steps she takes with QP. She gets a kick out of comparing their steps with those of the volunteers at Great Oak.

Eva Finnan, Great Oaks lead instructor, says QP is “The most compassionate and understanding of horses, especially with the nervous or small student. He truly knows his job is to give encouragement and to show patience when needed. He is the horse that stands so quietly while we fiddle and fuss with the lift to help our student mount and get settled in the saddle correctly and QP will adjust his manner according to what the student before him requires.” She pauses and adds, “Having been around horses most of my life in one capacity or another I can honestly say that I have never known such a special horse as QP.”

“It’s just amazing to have QP go from being a simple driving pony to advanced combined driving levels and then to have a whole new life at Great Oak – where he is a superstar,” Wendy says.

“I think QP is glad he came out of retirement,” Nicole adds, “He really enjoys his job and he’s just an all-around, incredible asset to our farm!”

The Secret Lives of Horses is a regular feature in The Aiken Horse newspaper, telling the story of a retired horse in the Aiken area, 20 years or older. Do you have an older horse that needs his or her story told? Email us!. Secret Lives is sponsored by Triple Crown Nutrition, providing nutrition beyond compare.