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ST. PAUL, Minn. — A unique friendship has blossomed between a University of Minnesota veterinary student and a blood donor horse.

Zach Loppnow and a 2,000-pound Belgian draft horse named Hercules have been companions for the past three years.

"They love each other," says Sheryl Ferguson, manager of the U of M's equine hospital. "I think this is probably in all my years here, probably been the most unique relationship I have observed."

Hercules serves as a four-legged blood bank for the hospital. He's called into service when a horse needs a blood transfusion after an accident or during surgery. Hercules typically donates two gallons of blood at a time through a pair of needles inserted on opposite sides of his neck.

During his tenure at the U of M of more than a decade, Hercules has donated blood to some 80 horses.

"He's a hero in my opinion," says Loppnow, who visits Hercules two or three times a week, brushing and washing the massive horse and checking his health.

Well into their relationship, Loppnow gained enough of Hercules' trust to climb onto his back. The vet student now regularly rides the 6-foot-tall draft horse around the Leatherdale Equine Center arena. When the weather is nice they go for rides outside.

"It's up here a ways," says Lappnow after climbing three-stair steps to pull himself aboard the 6-foot-tall Hercules. "It's an adventure every time."

As much as the relationship has grown, it's about to come to an end. Loppnow will soon begin his senior rounds leaving him without enough time to tend to Hercules.

To take his place, Loppnow hand-picked Maddy Kalscheur, a freshman veterinary student, to become Hercules' friend.

Already Loppnow has shared important information with Kalscheur, including Hercules' favorite places to be scratched.

In a few weeks, he'll turn over the reins completely.

"I'll have to start asking her for permission to come up and work with Hercules instead of the other way around," he laughs.

Kalscheur knows she can't replicate the friendship Loppnow has developed with Hercules, but she's ready to chart her own horse course.

"It's probably going to be different than Zach's," she says. "But I hope that it's just as special to me."

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