After a 32-year career, Merlin Tris Don, as he is formally registered, can still land in first place in a nationwide competition: He has just been named the American Morgan Horse Association's 2011 Therapy Horse of the Year. The award caps a career highlighted by performances on film and on the competition circuit.
"I definitely see a little more spring in his step since he earned the award," joked his owner, Joan Marie Twining, director of Rose of Sharon Equestrian School, where Merlin has resided since its founding in 1998. "He has had an illustrious career, but we all like to be appreciated."
With the recognition comes a halter with his nameplate and, in March, a display of his photos and accomplishments at the organization's national conference in Orlando, Fla. Audiences will also hear Twining's nomination essay, which details Merlin's lifetime accomplishments and describes what he is still doing today.
"He was selected by a committee of Morgan owners who found his story compelling," said Christina Koliander, spokeswoman for the Vermont-based association. "He has gone above and beyond the expectations for a therapy horse and he is still doing it. He is a marvelous animal, and his is a great story."
Merlin switched focus about 14 years ago. Instead of competing for individual accolades, he was trained in equine therapy, which has grown in popularity as a means to improve the quality of life for children with autism and other special needs.
Merlin was the first horse to move into the school's fully accessible barn and now presides authoritatively over his five stablemates, Twining said.
"He is the leader who lets the other horses know he is boss," Twining said. "There is a lot of bonding among them, and he watches over them."
The transition from show horse to equine therapist took time, but Merlin adapted well to the role, Twining said.
"He had to become accustomed to being groomed, saddled and handled by many people, not just a single rider," said Twining, who offers about 20 individual and group lessons a week at her 12-acre farm.
The 1,100-pound horse has learned to adjust his pace to timid and slower riders. He is comfortable with various tools and toys that often fall at his feet. He waits patiently as disabled riders are helped into the saddle.
"Morgans are such a versatile, adaptable breed," Koliander said. "You can never pigeonhole them into one area."
Merlin maintains a 12-hour daily class schedule, which includes naps and pasture time. Twining describes his demeanor with students as grandfatherly.
"When he works with children who have disabilities, he is often affectionate, sometimes playful, but never silly," she said.
Life for Merlin is not all work and no play. He enjoys the occasional apple or carrot and relaxes to music with a frequency range specific to equine audio sensitivities. He prefers Native American flute melodies and Celtic tunes, Twining said.
With the years have come arthritis and a disease that affects his thyroid, but Merlin has not slowed his pace, she said.
"Despite the ravages of aging, there has been no indication that he wants to stop working," Twining said. "He is a horse with special needs himself now, but he will be part of the program here as long as he wants. And he will have a place here when he does retire."