Cost Effective enriches the lives of senior citizens and disabled children

story by Rich Fisher

As a small child sat in his electric wheelchair at Camp Sensation, Guthrie Towanda Memorial Hospital’s summer camp for disabled children, a retired Standardbred stallion slowly approached. What had the potential to be a frightening moment if the horse spooked turned into a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting when the animal put his head in the boy’s lap so he could pet him.

That moment in 2008 symbolized what has now become the life of 22-year-old Cost Effective, a diminutive yet tenacious former racehorse who charms everyone he meets after an 8-year career as an overachiever on the track. Simply put, he makes people happy and lifts the spirits of those less fortunate.

When it comes to adorable, he is the Shirley Temple of horses.

“You’d think I was making stuff up,” said Cost Effective’s owner, Colleen Kononov. “If you didn’t see it you wouldn’t even believe it.”

Such as?

“There was this little girl, God bless her, she was on the Autism spectrum and she knew nothing about things that weren’t safe,” Kononov said. “She’d walk in between his legs and we’re all yelling ‘No, no, don’t do that!’ We’re trying to get her moving in the right direction, and she’s just all around his feet, and I always say this—thank God he is the horse that he is. He just let her go and didn’t make a move.”

Cost Effective is the epitome of relaxed, seemingly unfazed by anything. Whatever he is asked, he does, whether it’s pulling a sulky, entertaining disabled children and senior citizens, or performing in a national riding show.

“I honestly don’t think there’s anything he couldn’t do,” Kononov said. “It’s like ‘All right, here you go, here’s your next thing.’ He’s just awesome, just amazing.”

Kononov is the rehabilitation program director at the Mifflin Center, a skilled nursing facility that shares a campus with Mifflin Court Senior Living Community in the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Shillington. When COVID-19 forced the seniors to remain in their rooms, she knew exactly how to provide them some joy.

“There was a resident who has dementia and she was very upset,” Kononov said. “I found out she likes horses, so to try and calm her down I said, ‘How about if I bring my horse in and you can see him?’ I joked for years I was going to bring him inside the facility because he wouldn’t care at all about being in there.”

The woman’s response was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

But Kononov was on a mission.

“Their families couldn’t visit at that point; it really took away a lot of their stimulation,” she said. “Group activities were stopped. It was really taking a toll on them. So we brought him up. We took him around to both our buildings (where he would look at them through their room windows) and it would just bring a little bit of a bright spot to their day.”

News of this, and all of Cost Effective’s other contributions, did not surprise the horse’s original owner, Steve Held.

“Colleen sends us photos every Christmas,” Held said. “I’m 67, and no one at the age of 67 wants to see a year go by fast. But I always can’t wait for Christmas just to get those pictures of Costy.”

Like Kononov, Held works with disabled children. He started the Just Kids Learning Center in New York 40 years ago and is the executive director. He’s also a horse owner who, along with a partner, had a dam named Surprising Sheri in the early 1990s.

“She wasn’t much of a horse, frankly,” Held said. “I was trying to figure out what to do with her.”

His partner had a buyer who would pay several hundred dollars for the mare, but Held feared that meant the horse could fall into the wrong hands. Thus, he bought his partner out for the same price.

In 1998, Surprising Sheri produced Cost Effective, who gained his name when Held’s business received a rendering from the state that it was a cost-effective enterprise. The colt was by Matt’s Scooter.

“That was a real honor and it sounded like a good name,” Held said.

Not everyone held that belief. Despite the horse being extremely small, Held sent him to Joe Pavia Jr. in Florida to begin training.

Pavia was skeptical the horse had a future on the racetrack.

“He said, ‘What did you send me?’” Held said. “‘This horse is way too small. He looks closer to the size of a donkey and I can’t imagine he’ll ever get to the races. And by the way, that was a stupid name. Where did that come from?’”

That got Held second-guessing himself.

“Obviously, I knew nothing about breeding,” he said. “I was really stupid to even think I could do this, and I got what he considered to be a substandard animal.”

Pavia put his apprehension aside and began training Cost Effective—with surprising results. During phone conversations, Held could sense the horse was making an impression.

“[He was] getting into his heart,” he said. “Joe said, ‘Boy, he really tries. Maybe his stride is short compared to another animal, but you know what, there’s something there. He just goes out, does his job and does it honestly.’”

Thanks to that honest effort, Cost Effective lived up to his name. He won 37 races from 218 starts and banked $289,169.

“He averaged only $1,000 per start, which in harness racing you’re not going to get wealthy from,” Held said. “But he more than paid his way. He did it by working hard—not with his skill, but with his desire to race and compete.”

Kononov came on the scene while attending Misericordia University. She groomed him for three years, starting when the horse was 4.

“Colleen wanted to learn the business as a groom,” Held said. “I think Joe was careful to give her a horse that was manageable and they were able to learn together. Cost Effective had such a charismatic personality; it was bigger than his body. That’s what might have connected her with him.”

The two developed a strong bond before Kononov left to become a veterinary assistant. She returned to the stables every day, however, to see the horse because she thought he was so awesome.

“He was a stallion and I had taken care of other stallions and they were stallions,” she said. “He was not. He just wanted to be loved all the time. He wanted to be scratched on. He would follow me around the stall and put his head on my shoulder as I did his stall. He took a nap every afternoon in his stall. He would be so lazy he wouldn’t get up to grab his hay; he would stick his neck out as far as he could and then just pull his hay over and eat it.”

But when it was time to race, he came to life.

“Just on his sheer will he was constantly trying to pass horses,” Held said. “He found a way to get a good check or a win. When he was on the track, he was all business.”

After graduating from college in 2005, Kononov began working in pediatrics at Towanda. She told Held if he ever planned on selling Cost Effective, she would like the opportunity to purchase him if she could afford him.

As is his practice, Held retired Cost Effective when he was 9, figuring he worked hard enough and it was time to enjoy himself. The owner was more worried about giving the horse a good home than anything else. After discussing it with Pavia, they decided to give Cost Effective to Kononov in 2007.

“She jumped at it,” Held said. “Joe Pavia just respected the heck out of her. She was so good. She had that hidden talent to communicate with horses and really seemed to bond with Cost Effective. She immediately took a harness horse that pulled a sulky and broke him to saddle.”

“When they called to offer him to me, I was like ‘Yes!’ and I didn’t even ask my husband,” Kononov said. “Steve was nervous about him racing again and I told him absolutely not. He would never race again.”

A year later, she brought Cost Effective to the Children With Disabilities Camp, where the docile stallion provided the children with rides. It was their favorite part of the camp, according to Kononov.

When the coronavirus hit, it was a natural to take the horse in to meet with the quarantined senior citizens, along with another horse, Toad. As the weather improved, Kononov planned on taking Cost Effective back to the facility to interact with the seniors outside.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Cost Effective came to the rescue of 9-year-old Sasha Kononov last year. Kononov’s daughter was preparing for a show when her pony came up lame. It was suggested she climb on Cost Effective and trot him around.

“He actually looked pretty good,” Kononov said. “So, I said, ‘Why not?’ At the ripe old age of 21, why not show him? We basically pulled him out of the field and said, ‘OK, here you go, buddy.’”

Sasha rode Cost Effective in the National Standardbred Show’s adult classes, and the duo won several ribbons. The pair was third in showmanship, fourth in under saddle and won the Good Sportsmanship award.

It was just another chapter in the continuing saga of Cost Effective, who mesmerizes everyone he meets.

“He’s always had a look in his eye, like he was staring into your soul,” Kononov said. “I can’t say enough good things about Costy. He’s a tiny little racehorse, but he has the biggest heart and it just shows in everything he does, whether it’s racing or interacting with people.”

And in these dark days of COVID-19, he’s also a gift to many.

Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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