A bond, a gift and a legacy – the Holcombes and Dr. Werner

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By Peggy Lareau

A vibrant legacy has emerged from a strong bond between Seth and Lucy Holcombe and their veterinarian and friend, Harry W. Werner, VMD. With an estate gift of over $5 million, the Holcombes of North Granby endowed an academic chair and innovative equine center at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school (Penn Vet) in the name of Dr. Werner, an alumnus. Dr. Werner operates Werner Equine with his wife and practice manager Susan, based at their mini-farm in North Granby.
“Endowing a chair” is a collegiate phrase for a giving a substantial financial gift to an academic institution, which is sufficient to generate income to support a full professor’s salary indefinitely. At Penn Vet, professors’ chairs are typically endowed with a gift of $3 million. The Holcombes’ estate gift establishes the “Dr. Harry Werner Professorship in Equine Medicine “ at New Bolton Center. The additional $2 million donation enables Penn Vet also to fund the creative “Werner Center for Equine Wellness.” As Dr. Werner puts it, “the center is the bus, and the professorship is the driver of the bus.”


Lucy and Seth Holcombe

It is unusual — and a great honor — for a professorship to be endowed in the name of a practicing veterinarian rather than in the name of a researcher, an academic, or a donor. It is all the more unusual because this veterinarian is a traveling horse doctor in a solo practice.  But Dr. Werner is also a nationally and internationally recognized veterinarian who lectures overseas, helped initiate the International Forum for Working Equids, is involved in equine welfare and public policy efforts and has provided hands-on support in the Dominican Republic to Project Samana, a welfare project for working equines. (www.projectsamana.com/samana-equine)  He was the 2009 President of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
In early 2016, not long after Lucy Holcombe passed away, Dr. Werner was very surprised to learn that he had been honored by the Holcombes’ endowment. Seth, Lucy’s husband of 50 years, had passed away in 2009. The Holcombe family trustees honored Dr. Werner further. They asked him to help craft the focus of the Penn Vet programs to ensure that they carry out the Holcombes’ intent. With great support from his wife Susan, Dr. Werner did just that. He will continue to help guide the center.
The Holcombes and their introduction to Dr. Werner
Seth and Lucy Holcombe had a lifelong commitment to Morgan horses. They hailed from the Hartford area. They rode and drove their Morgans near home and in the show ring. The Holcombes were strongly committed to preserving some of the older Morgan blood lines and sturdy type. For years, they were at the heart of the Morgan Horse Club, which evolved into the American Morgan Horse Association.
 In 1974, the couple moved onto 150 acres on Silver Street in North Granby and named their farm “Thorne Bay Hill.” Later that year, the Holcombes called a local veterinary practice for emergency assistance for their gelding “Bay Thorne,” who was colicking (experiencing abdominal pain).  Dr. Werner, six weeks out of vet school, was dispatched. Thus began their professional bond.
When Dr. Werner set up his solo equine practice in 1979, the Holcombes asked him to continue tending to their horses’ veterinary needs. He did that and played a key role in their small breeding program, handling their stunning, gentle stallion “Major.” Dr. Werner also provided veterinary care for their other horses, all fondly remembered by Dr. Werner.
Dr. Werner describes the Holcombes as people of principle. He admired their unwavering commitment to ethics in all matters, including the horse show world and horse breeding. As he puts it, “No matter how much other people tried to obfuscate an ethical issue, the Holcombes continued to see it clearly” and did the right thing. He notes that they were also people of moderation, who lived their lives frugally.
The bond of friendship
As time passed, a strong friendship grew between the Holcombes and the Werners. Often, if the Holcombes knew Susan was not going to be home to share dinner with Harry, they provided supper for him at their home. Much of their conversation focused on horses and veterinary matters. As the Holcombes were well-read, there was also much discussion of education, history and Seth’s passion for the Red Sox. Even in their later years, at Seth and Lucy’s request, Harry shared the details of his day’s veterinary visits. As the years passed and health issues arose, the Werners helped them out.

Dr. Werner checking out a patient.

The Werner Center for Equine Wellness and the Endowed Professorship
Graced with the opportunity to help carry out the intent of the Holcombes’ gift, the Werners worked with the Holcombe family and Penn Vet to structure a position and program that would thrive in academia. This seven-month project involved a great deal of research and input from talented, practicing and academic veterinarians around the world. As Dr. Werner puts it, Susan has taken the “longer view” and has done “the heavy lifting.” The Werners communicated with counterparts in Australia, at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London, and contacts Dr. Werner had made lecturing overseas and in work with the American Association of Equine Practitioners and World Equine Veterinary Association.
The resulting outlines of a “Center for Equine Wellness” and professorship at Penn Vet are founded on a broad view of “equine wellness” and “equine welfare”. In Dr. Werner’s view, this two-pronged focus embodies the Holcombes’ values. The term “equine wellness” reflects attention to all elements that contribute to the well-being of horses and other equines. “Equine welfare” is a component of “wellness,” but in particular aims at improving the lot of working equines globally. Working equines include horses and ponies performing in the sport and show horse world, as well as donkeys, mules and horses carrying loads, hauling wagons and pulling ploughs, often amidst subsistence living or poverty. Both settings at times involve conditions that are adverse to the equines’ wellbeing.
The center will ensure that both equine wellness and welfare are in the mix of veterinary students’ education and practitioners’ resources. It will incorporate ethical standards, a Holcombe priority. The program will focus on preventive veterinary care, equine behavior, living/working equine environments, nutrition, farriery, disaster preparedness, pain management and palliative/end of life care. As Dr. Werner describes it, the endowed Werner chair —which he thinks of as the “Holcombe Chair”— will guide the center to serve as a “think tank” for both veterinary students and faculty, with a global view of the needs of equines. Funds could support visiting speakers, student projects, faculty projects and research, and promote strategies for ethical management of veterinary practices.
Penn Vet aims to fill the professorship in 2017, drawing from international applicants.
A caring legacy
The Holcombes’ gift honors Dr. Werner’s accomplished and caring veterinary career, his family’s personal friendship with Seth and Lucy, and their shared concern for the wellness and welfare of equines around the world. That is quite a legacy.