There's a farm in Heidelberg Township where 17 beautiful horses and a cute but mischievous donkey live the life of Riley, or whatever the equine equivalent to that would be. The life of Mr. Ed, maybe, though beyond the occasional whinny I never heard a peep out of any of them when I visited last week.
The sweetest-tempered of them all is an 11-year-old American Paint Horse named Kasper — he is mostly white, like the cartoon ghost — who is amenable to giving a ride to anyone. Children barely out of kindergarten can climb into his saddle without fear, as can grown-ups approaching retirement. Kasper, the story goes, senses the sturdiness and expertise level of whoever is aboard and adjusts accordingly.
"He's a love muffin, is what he is," said Debra Lakatosh, a retired teacher who spends much of her time helping out at Hill Crest Farm and called me the other week to see if I'd write a story about Kasper — not because he is a sweet horse, but because he is a sweet horse with a problem.
Like the rest of the horses used for riding lessons at Hill Crest, Kasper is a rescue, living a far cleaner and healthier life than he did at his old home. But the care and tenderness of his keepers — farm owner Lisa Cope, employee Diane Trexler, trainer Nicole D'Arrigo and Lakatosh — couldn't protect Kasper from the cancer that invaded his eyes nearly a year ago.
"At first it looked like he just scratched his eye," Cope told me as we stood by Kasper in the stables, watching him chew contentedly at a cluster of hay. "We treated it with antibiotics and it was getting better, but wasn't going away."
Kasper underwent a more extensive exam at Quakertown Veterinary Clinic, where his doctor, Brad Scheuch, delivered the diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma in both lower eyelids. Without treatment, the disease would take Kasper's sight.
The treatment, it turned out, is roughly the same as you or I might get: surgery to remove the masses and chemotherapy to kill the cancer. As you might expect, it's been expensive, which is why people are planning fundraising bake sales and auctions and otherwise trying to raise money to defray the cost.
What I learned at the farm surprised me. Horses are susceptible to sun-induced cancers, light-colored horses most of all. They sunburn easily.
"Kasper sunburns as bad as I do," said D'Arrigo, 23, who despite her surname has a quintessentially Irish spray of freckles across her pretty face.
That's why the stable's essential tools, beyond shovels and buckets, include big bottles of Banana Boat SPF 50 sunblock. The horses also wear mesh face masks outdoors. These are primarily used to keep flies off their faces but also act as another layer of sun protection.
Inside the stable, Cope removed Kasper's mask to show me his eyes. They are deep and soulful, of course, as any horse's are, but the right one in particular is raw on the bottom, showing clear signs of the disease and treatment.
Between chemotherapy sessions, Cope's mother, Tina, an 83-year-old retired nurse, gives Kasper daily treatments of warm compresses and eye medication.
Cope said Kasper has shown few obvious signs of discomfort through this ordeal, maintaining his mellow temperament and his appetite for hay and treats.
Trexler, a sort of Jill-of-all-trades on the farm, said he is probably the best-behaved of the horses, whose names (deep breath) are Rocky, Archie, Amber, Willow, Indy, Memphis, Fuller, Secret, Moe, Tony the Pony, Motley (after Motley Crue), Chili Pepper (after the Red Hot Chili Peppers), DC, Rocket, Gizmo and Cady.
The most troublesome beast is the donkey, Wilcox, who seems harmless but is prone to toddler-like outbursts. "He'll bop you in the backside with his head," Trexler warned.
If you want to help Kasper, here are a couple of ways:
•Help Kasper Kick Cancer! Bake Sale and Chinese Auction: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 12 in the parking lot of the Living Things Pet Store, 5350 Route 873, Schnecksville.
•Monetary donations made payable to Quakertown Veterinary Clinic, c/o Kasper Cope, Acct. No. 31604, 2250 Old Bethlehem Pike, Quakertown, Pa.
Incidentally, you can help draw attention to the fight against equine cancer by visiting the Equine Cancer Society's Facebook page and ordering the 2014 calendar.
Kasper is Mr. February.
610-820-6598Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun