You Know He's Never Going to Outgrow That, Right?
One sunny Saturday morning Santino and I set out to practice a simple obstacle course set up in the center of our boarding barn’s arena. We just had to walk over four ground poles, loop around, traverse the poles again, and walk off in the opposite direction. Simple. We had done it a million times before.

Sonny successfully picked his way over the first two poles, but before he could navigate the final pair, his ability to focus failed him and he tripped nearly to his knees.

It happens all the time. My barn mates sarcastically refer to Sonny’s condition as Equine ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I call it “premature pony syndrome.”

And he comes by it honestly.

Sonny was born 28 days short of the usual 341 equine gestation period, and while most full-term foals weigh between 60 and 70 pounds, he hit the ground at just 40 pounds.

Says Clara Mason, DVM, of Winfield, West Virginia, Sonny’s premature birth could have caused all kinds of physical challenges—weakness, underdeveloped lungs, and failure to nurse.

“If they are premature, they are slow to adapt because organ systems may be underdeveloped, leading to infections and inability to thrive,” she said. “Often they require extensive treatment in an equine hospital to survive—lots of them don’t make it.”

But he defied the odds—physically anyway—except that he was tiny.

In fact, he was small enough to be carried in his breeders’ arms. Even when he outgrew being carried, they spent hours talking to him, stroking him, and cuddling him every chance they got.

Because he was cuddled so much, he never did develop a concept of personal space.

“They’re just poked and prodded and handled so much when they are very young, they get used to all the attention,” said Evan Scott, DVM, of Sarasota, Florida. “So they either love people or hate to be around them.”

Sonny still believes he’s a cute, 40-pound bundle of mischief.

Fortunately, all it takes is a wag of my finger—or a good shove—to remind him not to push into me.

The ADHD is a whole other thing. Sonny has the world’s shortest attention span. Unless, of course, he locks his gaze on something he thinks is threatening. Then he refuses to be distracted from it and worries himself into a lather.

That’s not to say every presumably preemie-related foible is unpleasant.

In fact, some are downright endearing, such as his tendency to lean in for a hug every time I bring him in from his paddock, and the habit of raising his head at the end of every ride for a pat on the forehead.

The truth is, at the age of 20 Santino is still small—just 14.1 hands and about 900 pounds soaking wet—with a full range of useful skills and lots of habits any self-respecting, mature horse would have outgrown long ago.

Mason put it pretty simply: “You know he’s never going to grow out of that preemie thing, right?”

Apparently not. But that’s OK—we’re managing just fine.