Saskatoon horse owners Shirley and Murray Popplewell. Photo: Christina Weese.
Saskatoon horse owners Shirley and Murray Popplewell. Photo: Christina Weese.

A life-saving gift

It was nearly 20 years ago when Murray and Shirley Popplewell visited the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) for the first time – but it's a story they still tell.

The couple had just witnessed the birth of their first Arabian foal. The foal lay on the ground, its head limp. Beginning to worry, they picked up the baby horse, packed it up in the cab of their truck and headed for Saskatoon. They were new horse owners, and they didn't have a trailer.

"We arrived at the WCVM, carrying the foal. When the veterinarian on call asked us where the mare was, we said there was nothing wrong with the mare – we left her at home. We brought the baby in without the mamma, and the mamma was very upset in the stall back home. We didn't know any better," says Murray.

Most equine enthusiasts will tell you that there's a lot to learn about owning horses – especially when it comes to keeping them healthy. Now, more than two decades later, the Popplewells' initial experience at the WCVM is the genesis for a new project that will improve the hospital experience for mares and foals as well as for owners and clinicians.

With their $200,000 gift, the Popplewells are helping to establish the Rae-Dawn Arabians Equine Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and Foal Centre, a special facility in the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre's (VMC) Large Animal Clinic that will enable the best care for mares and foals and other sick horses at the WCVM.

"The support of great clients like the Popplewells is so important — for the hospital and for the students in particular. They have a first-class operation that is really well run, really well managed. It's a great place for students to learn about breeding farm medicine," says WCVM Dean Dr. Douglas Freeman. "We're thrilled that on top of all that, they've provided a gift to make the creation of this facility possible."

Since their first encounter with the WCVM, the Popplewells have developed a strong relationship with the college as their herd has grown from one purebred registered Arabian horse to a world-class business with breeding farms in Saskatoon, Sask., and in Scottsdale, Ariz. — the hub of the Arabian horse industry in the United States. "The vet college has been right there for us, and that's why we feel we can invest back into the facility, because of what it's done for us," says Murray.

For the clinicians who spend years in the WCVM's equine ward, the constant activity becomes routine. But for a tiny foal trying to recover alongside its mother, the hustle and bustle can be overwhelming.

The new centre will give mares and foals a quiet space to rest in stalls outfitted with oxygen lines, video monitoring and other tools for delivering specialized care. The centre will also have a small stocks area for mares and foals along with direct trailer access to minimize biosecurity risks.

"Having this space will make our work more efficient, allowing us to focus even more on our patients," says Dr. Katharina Lohmann, a specialist in large animal internal medicine and an associate professor in the WCVM's Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

Technologies and treatments have advanced greatly in the five decades since the WCVM's original hospital was designed. For years, clinicians have "made do" with the current equine ward's one-size-fits-all design – whether that's duct taping oxygen lines to the floors or balancing supplies on carts. "It's been on the wish list as long as any of us have been around. It's the perfect donation for them," says Dr. Steve Manning, who works regularly with the Popplewells as a member of the WCVM's field service.

"They've spent the last 20 years breeding and building a herd of the best Arabian horses in North America, maybe the world. It seems like it's a natural fit for them to support a mare-foal unit. The minute it opens, it will benefit every mare and foal that comes through the door."

The new equine ICU will bring together updated technologies and equipment, and a client area will allow owners to spend time with sick horses in the ICU. This new space will also be a place for clinicians and clients to talk privately without having to meet in the horse's stall. These small details will make a big difference for clinicians and their clients.

"It's about better care for animals, and allowing us to provide better care for clients," says Lohmann.

For the Popplewells, having this new resource will help them continue their legacy in breeding success. Their award-winning herd sire Bey Ambition, a 2006 bay stallion, has won the Arabian Breeders World Cup twice along with numerous Canadian and U.S. National Championships in the past decade. His progeny have gone on to win prestigious awards and championships in both performance and show rings around the world, and the Popplewells have also received awards for their success as breeders.

"I just love working with the animals," says Shirley Popplewell, who is modest about her accomplishments in the equine world.

She especially enjoys working closely with the WCVM veterinary team members who help her to manage her horses' health. "I'm learning every single day and I'm always asking questions. I love the way the vets work there, and [how] they involve me."

The WCVM clinicians all make mention of Shirley's incredible knowledge of animal health. "She could probably have an honorary veterinary degree with the amount she knows and is capable of," says Dr. Kate Robinson, a field service clinician and assistant professor at the WCVM.

Foals are born on the Popplewells' farm near Saskatoon, and the WCVM's equine field service is actively involved in the farm's breeding and foaling operations. The Popplewells hire students for foal watch each spring, and for some students, this involvement has helped shape their career.

"It's amazing to have a place that's so willing to let us see everything, to watch and learn," says Danica Wolkowski, a third-year veterinary student who plans on specializing in equine medicine. Wolkowski's relationship with the Popplewells began during her first year when she helped with foal watch. Since then, she's gone on to work on their parasite surveillance program and do regular chores at the Saskatoon farm. This fall, she will complete three different externships at equine referral centres across the United States.

Manning says the Popplewells' contribution to the WCVM's teaching program over the past two decades has been invaluable.

"They've always been the perfect client and host for students. Before they gave this gift, they'd improved our teaching program in the horse program immensely just by being who they are and allowing our students to learn. This gift just continues that in an even greater way," he says.

Clinicians say they're happy to have the support of these successful breeders who are making the dream of a foal centre a reality. "I think it's fantastic that they wanted to make this donation," says Lohmann. "They're lovely people who really care about their animals and their welfare." The college's leadership team echoes this sentiment.

"I've really enjoyed getting to know the Popplewells. They're wonderful, gracious people who really care about their horses and the people who work with them on their horses," says Freeman.

What is the Rae-Dawn Arabians Equine ICU and Foal Centre? 

The Rae-Dawn Arabians Equine Intensive Care Unit and Foal Centre is a dedicated intensive care unit for critically ill or injured horses in need of specialized and 24/7 monitoring. This centre will benefit foals, post-surgical equine patients and cases that are in need of long-term critical care. This new facility, which makes use of a pre-existing space in the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre, will include:

    • specially designed stock area for mares and foals
    • a nursing station with an observation room for 24-hour care
    • four larger, quiet and private stalls
    • oxygen lines, winches, power and vacuum plug-ins in every stall
    • built-in shelves and tables for supplies and storage for equipment
For more information about contributing to this new centre's development and resources, contact Jennifer Molloy, WCVM Director of Development ( | 306-966-7450).
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