Posted December 5, 2000

by Tanya Hopper with Tamara Gavin Kasser

In some ways Gavin Kasser is just like any other 13 year old. He attends school, likes to ride his bike or scooter and play with his dog Eddie. But in many other ways, Gavin is not like other kids his age. Gavin faces challenges in his every-day life and has been through more than most boys and girls his age. This is his story--the story of a special boy with special needs, with a special family.

Gavin and his twin brother Connor were born three and a half weeks early to Tom and Tamara Kasser. The boys were healthy, but at five weeks old, both were hospitalized with a virus and Gavin spent a week in intensive care. During this time, he began having seizures and although an MRI showed normal results, an EEG showed irregular and continuous brain storms.

After six months on medication Gavin's seizures were in check. He crawled and walked just weeks behind Connor, but Gavin's delays became more apparent in speech, resulting in private speech and language services beginning at age two. By age three he had the names for each family member, but he called himself "me." Gavin was diagnosed with motor planning delays as well.

Though Gavin's doctors suspected he had epilepsy during his first seizures, he was not officially diagnosed with it until age four when he suffered a massive half-hour seizure that sent him to the hospital and resulted in a change in medication. Gavin spent the next few years undergoing a battery of tests and trying different medications to control his continuous electrical brainstorms, but none of them completely controlled the seizures.

Gavin's mom Tamara Gavin Kasser says, "Gavin was fortunate in one respect. He didn't have seizures during the day, so that his daily activities weren't restricted." She continues, "However, at night his brain would go into overload and the combination of medications he was taking could not control the seizures."

In the fall of 1994, Gavin's neurologist suggested the ketogenic diet. This is a diet high in fat, and low in protein and carbohydrate. It is used in cases of epilepsy that have not responded to conventional medication. This was quite a coincidence, says Tamara, because at that very doctor's visit, she was prepared to ask for dietary and homeopathic alternative therapies. "It's funny," says Tamara, "when you say to people ‘a high fat’ diet they think ‘yum, yum.’ But the ketogenic diet introduced in the 1920s is very restrictive and is not accompanied by all the sugar we associate with high fat foods. Gavin ate a 75 percent fat diet that included small portions of eggs, bacon, sausage, whipping cream and lots of butter."

Gavin could not have even one cracker unless it was accompanied by at least a tablespoon or more of butter. Each meal was a small portion of meat and a vegetable with two-to-three tablespoons of butter on top. For a snack he might have mini shish-kebobs made on toothpicks with small chunks of fruit alternating with a cold chunks of butter--not a typical kid's favorite diet. Another treat was two tablespoons of butter rolled in crushed peanuts and then frozen--a homemade Payday!

According to his mom, Gavin was quite a trooper and the diet paid off with immediate results. In just eight days, Gavin's brain was 95 percent free of erratic electrical brainstorms. Tamara says, "It was a rough two-and-a-half years, but we didn't let the diet rule our lives." Gavin went to birthday parties, although he could not partake of the cake and pizza like the other children. The family went out to dinner, went to horse shows, and stayed in hotels. "I just carried my gram scale and my cooler full of butter," says Tamara. Dedicated to her son's continued progress, Tamara quit her job and concentrated full time, as she puts it, "on getting Gavin healthy."

Today Gavin has been seizure free for six years. He attends Kirk of the Hills Christian Day School and is in a combined fourth, fifth and sixth grade class. School is a real challenge for Gavin because of the learning difficulties he faces. Even though he struggles with academics, Gavin is interested in science and has won blue ribbons four years running for his science projects at the Greater St. Louis Science Fair.

Reading is also a struggle for Gavin, but Tamara says he when it comes to the Walking Horse Report, Gavin reads it cover to cover. He likes to keep up with who wins at the horse shows, what horses have sold, and to whom they've been sold. Sometimes he even has fun spelling the horses names backwards.Though he may have trouble staying focused at school, at a horse show he stays glued to the rail watching every moment and looking for his favorite horses and trainers.

Gavin also attends the Green Trails United Methodist Church where he serves as an acolyte, while brother Connor and sister Gillian sing in the mid-high and senior high school choirs.

In 1999, the Gateway Leadership Network honored 500 young achievers for their outstanding accomplishments. Gavin was nominated by his school and was selected as the Grade Level 3-4 Gateway Young Achiever, in recognition of his science and horse show accomplishments. He has also been featured in the Epilepsy Foundation's publication for children of all ages with seizure disorders called Kid's News, in their Superstar section.

Like most youngsters, Gavin has special interests and though he loves all animals, his special love is horses. He gets it honest. His grandparents are longtime walking horse owners, exhibitors and enthusiasts Charles and Carol Ann Gavin. The Gavins are perhaps most noted for raising the renowned Pusher C.G. Their Tennessee residence, Belle Meadow Farm, located just outside Wartrace on Highway 64, is a spread of six-hundred rolling acres accentuated by the 100-year-old Victorian house that sits atop a hill at the forefront of the property.

Gavin began riding at the age of two and a half. His grandparents, the Gavins, bought Gavin, brother Connor, and sister Gillian their first spotted pony, Lucy, when Gavin and Connor were two and a half and Gillian was four. The Christmas when the boys were six, their grandfather bought them a three-year-old spotted horse named Dan. Even though he was only three, Dan was quite receptive to Gavin's young age and seemed to sense his inexperience. Tamara says he really took care of Gavin. "They connected immediately," she says. Gavin and his mom covered many miles on horse back at the original Belle Meadow Farm on Highway 82 in Bell Buckle.

Belle Meadow Farm is one of Gavin's favorite places to be. He says his wish is to move to Tennessee so he can do his favorite thing. . .be with the horses. "Gavin is a different child. He's a wonderful child. He certainly lights up our life," says grandfather Charles Gavin. He adds, "But then, all our grandchildren are wonderful."

While Gavin was enjoying trail riding with mom, sister Gillian was in the show ring. Gillian showed Lady Candidate and My Midnight Caller during the summer of 1997 and finished out the season with a reserve tie at the Celebration on MMC. Gillian continued to show My Midnight Caller during the summer of 1998 and after that year's Celebration, the decision was made to pass the reins to Gavin. Gavin and Midnight (or "Teddy Bear" as Gavin refers to him) had a very special relationship. Like his pony Dan, MMC really seemed to sense Gavin's needs and took great care of him.

In the fall of 1998, Gavin and Midnight made their show ring debut at the North Carolina Championships where the duo topped 10 other experienced teams with a unanimous tie. Although he doesn't always have the words to express his thanks to those who generously congratulate him, Gavin hasn't let his good fortune in the ring go to his head. Just after his debut win in Asheville, Gavin went to Baton Rouge and was reserve. Tamara says she wasn't sure how he would handle coming in second, but upon watching the video tape of the class, he said, "That's okay, I like that Candy mare."

Gavin and Midnight went on to claim the 1999 WHOA Juvenile 11 and Under High Point Award, with a record eight blues and seven reserves at 13 horse shows. My Midnight Caller and Gavin enjoyed a successful 1999 season and subsequently MMC was sold to the Cecil Fielder family.

Plans were made for Gavin to show the family's newest purchase, Impressive Rising Sun in the 2000 Youth 12-17 ranks. However, Gavin and IRS didn't hit it off the way he and MMC had, so the family began their search for another horse. They found just what they were looking for in Pride's Sharp Dressed Man, and grandfather Charles Gavin purchased the mount with plans for he and Gavin to share the reins.

After a bit of an getting to know each other, Celebration 2000 saw Gavin claiming his highest accolade in the horse business to date on Sharp. Gavin and Pride's Sharp Dressed Man earned the Owner/Amateur Novice Youth Riders On Walking Mares and Geldings, Specialty, 17 and Under World Championship title. "There were so many other experienced world champion riders in the 12-14 year old division so we felt Gavin would have a better opportunity to make a good ride in the novice class," says Tamara. She goes on to say the family had no visions of grandeur and were just hoping Gavin and Sharp would have a good, smart, safe ride.The pair seemed to really gel the week prior to the Celebration and this was evident by their world championship ride. Gavin's sense of humor is one of his compensating tools and it can pop up unexpectedly. For instance, when asked about his championship ride, Gavin replied, "You know ... it was N-U-F. You know, FUN!

Tamara is quick to give credit to Gavin's trainer, Mickey McCormick, for his patience with Gavin and the confidence he shows in him. She says of McCormick, "It's a real credit to a horse trainer who is also a horseman trainer as well." McCormick is quick to praise Gavin as a good horseman, "Gavin's really come a long way. Riding horses is something he is really good at and can excel in. There's something about when you set him up on a horse. He can really relate."

Gavin loves all aspects of the horse business. Besides trail riding and showing, he also enjoys the breeding aspect. Grandparents Charles and Carol Ann are breeding and starting to show some of the colts by their stallions Bombay Pusher and Motown's Southern Lights. Gavin really loves watching and waiting for the new foals and would really like to start showing some of these Belle Meadow-bred and -raised offspring. Tamara says Gavin is always looking over the stallion directory and making selections for his grandparents' mares. Tamara says Gavin has the hardest time when the colts are sold. He just doesn't understand why Grandfather can't keep them all.

Another interest of Gavin's is gardening. His mom says he especially loves selecting new varieties. He accompanies his mom and grandmother to the nurseries and always finds something that neither of them have in their gardens. In the summer of 1998, Gavin grew tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, okra, eggplant and, of course, carrots for the horses. Last fall, his grandmother gave him gourd seeds, which he planted and then harvested over 100 gourds. With a little help from mom Tamara, he hollowed some of them out and spray painted them to make birdhouses for holiday gifts for his teachers.

Gavin and Tamara have collaborated on three books showcasing each of Gavin's passions. The first book, On My Grandfather's Farm, was put together about five years ago after Tamara began jotting down some of Gavin's ramblings following a spring break trail ride. The storybook of pictures was written by Gavin and Tamara about a boy trail riding on his grandfather's farm. Two other storybooks followed, both also in the Belle Meadow Farm setting. In My Grandmother's Garden is about a boy wandering through his grandmother's gardens and naming all the different varieties. Mares Are Moms and Foals Are Babies, on sale at World Champion Horse Equipment, is about all the things that make mares moms and foals babies. Gavin and Tamara are currently putting together a fourth book titled On A Summer Saturday Night, which is about going to the horse show. These books are a combined effort of mother and son with Tamara taking the photographs and she and Gavin developing the storyline together.

Gavin has a really loving and supportive family. In addition to his parents and grandparents, he is also close to his siblings, Connor and Gillian. All three children love time spent in Tennessee with their grandparents and the horses, as well as their independent interests. Connor is out-going, fun-loving, excels academically and loves sports. Connor has had his successes with science projects as well. He is presently starring as Joe Stoddard in his middle school's production of Our Town. Sister Gillian is, according to Tamara, a "social butterfly and a sweet, sweet, supportive sister." Gillian also enjoys showing horses, loves music and singing and song writing. She is involved in her high school's musical dance group, Razzle Dazzle, and they are preparing for upcoming competitions in Atlanta this spring.

Gavin Kasser is a special child in more ways than one. Each day involves challenges for Gavin, but with the love and support of his family, particularly his mom Tamara, Gavin continues to maximize his potential to the fullest. The strong bond between mother and son is easy to see when in their presence. It's also evident in their horsemanship skills. Trainer Dick Peebles recently commented, "You can tell whose child that is, even in the saddle."

"It's not hard for me to brag on my special Gav," says Tamara, "but then I'm a typical mom who's proud of each of her children's' independence and accomplishments."

So until Gavin's dreams all come true--dreams that include a move to Tennessee--he says he'll just keep riding and see you at the next horse show ... On a Summer Saturday Night!