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Turning an Equine Passion into a Profession

By Katheran Wasson

Murray State University has a bachelor’s degree program in animal/equine science taught in facilities that include barns, a lighted outdoor riding arena, an outdoor dressage arena, turnout lots, a wash rack and round pens.

Kentucky’s colleges and universities offer degrees in just about anything you can think of – but none are more quintessentially Kentucky than equine studies.

Many of Kentucky’s equine education programs take a classic approach to the subject, with large university farms, plenty of riding and lots of hands-on activities. Students learn about caring for horses, breeding and training in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in equine studies.

Their university barns are full of horses – some brought from home by students themselves – and their students have a wide range of special-interest clubs and riding teams to keep them active outside the classroom.

Several of the broad-based programs got their start in the 1970s, including Morehead State, Midway, Murray State and Western Kentucky University. At 10 years old, the University of Kentucky’s equine degree program is still relatively young, but as a land-grant institution with a strong focus on agriculture, UK already has the biggest farms and largest research facilities by far.

These universities stress the hands-on experience their students get on campus.

“The students can work directly with the horses, help the veterinarians with vet procedures, travel to horse shows and work with faculty on research projects,” said Sara Malone, an agriculture professor who oversees the program at Morehead State.

Students are required to work on the farm, Malone said, and some even live there. Morehead offers a dorm at the Derrickson Agricultural Complex, and the university is just completing a second new student housing unit at the farm.

Midway University’s equine students enjoy a large farm, too – in fact, in terms of acreage, most of the campus is farmland.

“Our students, from their first semester, are in the barns, helping with horse care,” said Janice Holland, program coordinator. “The majority of our equine-specific courses also have assignments directly related to horse care and management.”

At Murray, undergraduates get significant opportunities to research, said Shea Porr.

“I work with undergraduate students on research projects, sometimes for their honor’s thesis and other times because they want more experience to help them get a foot in the door for graduate school,” Porr said. “Students work through a project and often end up presenting at a national or international conference and sometimes end up with publication.”

At Western Kentucky University, students benefit from an exposition center that includes a sales arena, a large classroom and a meeting room.

“This facility has made it possible for the riding team to practice as well as host competitions, for classes to meet for lecture followed by experiential learning, and for the support of the equine industry and local economy by bringing in both equine and other livestock events,” said Linda Brown, chair of the Department of Agriculture in WKU’s Ogden College of Science and Engineering.

As a land-grant university, UK’s students benefit from more than 50 agriculture faculty and the additional resource of county extension agents throughout the state.

“We have really deep, meaningful research happening here,” said Holly Wiemers, communications and managing director for UK’s ag equine programs. “Horses are what make Kentucky uniquely Kentucky – this really is the epicenter of the entire industry, and that’s what makes this program so strong.”

Schools with a niche

Other universities are filling niches for students looking for something specific.

Take Asbury University, for instance. Students at the private Christian college in Wilmore spend plenty of time riding and learning about horses and earn a bachelor’s degree in the process. But the real focus is on service and ministry, said Harold Rainwater, who oversees the program and also serves as the city’s mayor.

“It’s all about God, people and horses in one place,” Rainwater said.

He says his students’ “ultimate service” is training police mounts for departments across the country. In just the last few weeks, officers from Grand Rapids, Mich., and Las Vegas visited Wilmore to pick up horses trained by Asbury students. Training takes years, and Rainwater said police departments “accept our students as professionals” and travel from as far as San Francisco and Miami.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College is home to the North American Racing Academy, founded in 2006 by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron under the guidance of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. NARA is the first and only accredited community-college-based racing school in the United States and offers both two-year associate’s degrees and one-year certificate programs.

“While our roots were in providing a foundation for students interested in becoming professional jockeys, today, NARA has successfully transformed itself into an overall equine industry workforce academy,” said Dixie Hayes, program coordinator and lead instructor.

Because NARA is the U.S. representative for the International Federation of Horse Racing Academies, BCTC graduates have the opportunity to be placed in internships around the world. Recent graduates have been placed in Ireland, Abu Dhabi, France and Australia, Hayes said.

Eastern Kentucky University offers an interdisciplinary minor in therapeutic horseback riding through its occupational therapy department. What started as a single class a decade ago grew into an 18-hour minor four years ago. Now it’s so popular the original class is overfull, said Kathy Splinter-Watkins, an associate professor who started the program.

The university doesn’t have on-site equine facilities, such as a barn, so the program is heavy with field trips and guest speakers. Students also volunteer with Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, which provides therapeutic horsemanship for those with special needs.

Georgetown College doesn’t offer an equine degree, but instead a unique four-year program that finds the equine angle of any of the college’s 40-plus majors.

“Georgetown developed the Equine Scholars Program in the early 2000s, seeking to create a program that allowed students to pursue academics of their choice while preparing them for successful careers within the equine industry,” said Chelsey Reid, the program’s coordinator.

Through the program, about 35 students per year learn how their skills and interests in the classroom connect to a career in the horse industry. This is accomplished through select tours, a guest lecturer series and targeted industry internships. Students who complete the program earn an Equine Distinction certificate from the college.

Business-based at UofL

Unlike programs that focus on equitation or care of horses, the University of Louisville’s equine degree is strictly business.

“What makes Louisville’s equine program unique is that it’s the only program of its type, literally, in the world,” said Tim Capps, the director. “It was housed within the business school intentionally, by a legislative act in 1987.”

The program seeks to teach students how the horse business works, from racing to pharmaceuticals to hay, Capps said. Most students “caught the horse disease at a very early age, and they’re thinking about whether it’s possible to make a career out of it,” he said. “We expose them to just about everything that’s out there and let them figure out if it’s something they’re going to do for a living, or if it’s going to stay a hobby.”

And it’s a win-win, Capps said. Even if graduates decide the horse business isn’t for them, they’ve earned a degree in business that can apply to any other field.

Women take the lead

Representatives of several of Kentucky’s equine programs mentioned a similar trend: The majority of their students are women. None could put their finger on why, exactly, but the numbers don’t lie.

For example, Asbury’s equine program is made up of 115 women and only 10 men.

Capps estimated UofL’s program is 75-80 percent women, and although Wiemers didn’t have figures offhand, she confirmed that UK’s equine program also skews female.

“We hear a lot anecdotally that they’re seeing the same thing in vet schools right now, and the numbers show that universities in general are starting to see more women enrolled than men,” she said. “UK’s program has been predominately female since we launched it.”

Why Kentucky?

Kentucky’s equine programs draw students from all over the country – and the world. And why not? This is the hub of the horse industry, ripe with opportunities for field trips, internships and jobs after graduation.

“There is only one ‘Horse Capital Of The World,’ and there is literally something going on every single day in the horse industry if you want to connect,” Rainwater said, adding that nearly three-quarters of last year’s Asbury graduating class was from out of state. “We help our students find their niches and make sure they’re plugged into the right things at the right time.”

Other program leaders echoed Rainwater’s comments: The Bluegrass is the place to be if you want to make a career out of your love for horses.

“Students come to Georgetown College to have the opportunity to live and study in the Horse Capital of the World,” Reid said. “The program has historically brought students from across the United States to Kentucky, a trend I expect to continue.”

Holland said Midway’s instructors and coaches have many connections within the local horse industry, and that benefits students.

“Because of this, we are also able to help place our students at farms and equine-related organizations for internships and jobs,” she said. “Being located in the heart of Kentucky’s horse country is a definite plus.”

Nestled in a tri-state area, Morehead draws a significant number of students from both Ohio and West Virginia, a state that does not have an equine major. Meanwhile, Murray State attracts students from the states bordering Western Kentucky, Porr said, “but we’ve had students from Connecticut and Washington state, as well as from China.”

At BCTC, Hayes said students come from all over the world to attend NARA. About half of the specialized program’s students are from out of state, though Hayes said the college is working to increase the number of local students through dual-credit initiatives and the program’s emphasis on career placement.

Growth is good

Kentucky’s equine programs are seeing steady enrollment and, in many cases, growth.

Asbury’s program has more than doubled in recent years, Rainwater said, up from 56 majors in 2010 to 125 now. The university is building three barns this summer just to catch up, spending more than $500,000 with local builders on the project. Donors are crucial to the effort, Rainwater said, including Keeneland, which recently donated the Polytrack track surface it used for several years to the facility.

Since BCTC expanded the NARA program “to an equine industry workforce provider rather than just a jockey school, our enrollment has expanded tremendously,” Hayes said. Still, the college is working to get the word out to more students, especially local ones.

And things are growing at Midway University, too. Holland said enrollment in the equine program has steadily increased for the last several years to 100 students, and the university’s goal is to boost that number to 120-130.

Employment prospects

Students just starting out in college are often driven to follow a passion; for seniors, it’s all about getting a job or landing a coveted spot in graduate school. Kentucky’s equine programs are showing success on both accounts.

UK’s program is still young, Wiemers said, having just started in 2006. But figures show 75-80 percent of graduates are staying in the equine industry, whether in vet school, working on a farm, serving as a bloodstock agent or in a communications role.

Murray students show a similar wide range of equine activities after graduation.

“We provide hundreds of students opportunities to succeed in their chosen careers,” Porr said. “We have students who are working on graduate degrees at other universities, students who are in the technical fields, such as pharmaceutical or nutrition, and students who are working and managing breeding and showing operations around the country.”

Capps said UofL’s greatest strength when it comes to job placement after graduation is that whether students decide to go into the horse industry or not, they are armed with a business degree that can help them land work in another field.

Variety is key at Asbury, too.

“One of the things that we are pretty pleased with is the employment rate of our majors,” Rainwater said. “Over the last seven years, 68 percent of our graduates are working in the equine field and 17 percent are in graduate school.”

Rainwater said the key is offering Asbury students options within the equine field – not everyone wants to work in Thoroughbred racing, he said.

That sentiment seems to be what drives Kentucky equine programs across the board: offering students a wide range of experiences to turn their love of horses into a lifetime career.

Kentucky’s Higher Education Equine Programs

Kentucky has 10 higher education Equine programs ranging from niche areas such as therapeutic riding or even a jockey school to business management of horse operation.

Asbury University, Wilmore

Bachelor’s in Equine Management

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Horsemanship Ministry; Stable Management; Horse Training

Bachelor’s in Psychology with Equine Facilitated Mental Health Emphasis

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: General Psychology;
Developmental Psychology; Equine
Facilitated Mental Health

Minor in Equine Management

Minimum credit hours: 17

Time commitment: Varies

Sample courses: Horseback Riding; Stable Management; Equine Health and First Aid

Facilities: 341 acres of pasture land, trails, round pens, two barns and an indoor riding arena.

What makes this program unique? It’s the only equine program in Kentucky with a Christian focus. Additionally, students train horses for police departments all over the world.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Lexington

Associate’s in Equine Studies

Concentrations: Horseman or Jockey

Time commitment: Two-year degree

Sample courses: Introduction to Breaking and Training; Equine Bloodstock

Certificate in Equine Studies

Concentrations: Exercise Rider, Equine Industry Workforce, Equine Veterinary Assistant

Time commitment: One-year program

Sample courses: Racehorse Care Lab; Introduction to the Racing Industry

Facilities: The Thoroughbred Center at Keeneland, featuring stalls, two training tracks, a starting gate and clocker stand.

What makes this program unique? Founded in 2006 by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, the North American Racing Academy at BCTC is the first and only accredited community college-based racing school in the U.S.

Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond

Minor in Horses, Humans and Health

Time commitment: Varies

Sample courses: Horse and Human Co-Occupation; Equine Assisted Therapeutic Recreation

Facilities: No on-campus equine facilities, so students take frequent field trips to the Kentucky Horse Park, Keeneland and the Kentucky Horseshoeing School.

What makes this program unique? This interdisciplinary minor is housed in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

Georgetown College, Georgetown

Equine Scholars Program

Time commitment: 4 years

Sample courses: Students participate in a wide variety of internships, job shadowing, seminars, workshops and events.

Facilities: No on-campus horse facilities.
Program offers dedicated space for Equine Scholars to study, socialize or store barn gear. Space is also used for on-campus lectures.

What makes this program unique? Students can choose any of the 40-plus majors offered at Georgetown, and the program will teach them how their skills and interests in the classroom connect to a career in the horse industry.

Midway University, Midway

Bachelor’s in Equine Studies

Concentrations: Equine Management, Equine Health and Rehabilitation, Science

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Equine Healthcare Management; Equine Anatomy and Physiology; Equine Behavior

Minor in Equine Studies

Time commitment: Varies

Sample courses: Introduction to the Equine Industry; Equine Farm Operations

Facilities: 150-acre working horse farm including stalls, indoor and outdoor riding arenas, a jumping field, dressage ring and more than 70 acres of pastureland.

What makes this program unique? Midway University sits on a 200-acre campus, and 150 of those acres belong to the horses.

Morehead State University, Morehead

Bachelor’s in Equine Science

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Horseshoeing; Advanced Saddle Seat Horsemanship; Principles of Epidemiology in Agriculture

Minor in Horsemanship

Time commitment: Varies

Sample courses: Equitation; Equine Health and Disease

Facilities: 325-acre working farm, including indoor and outdoor riding arena, stalls, three barns and four large paddocks.

What makes this program unique? Students can literally live on the farm. Agriculture science students live at the Derrickson Agricultural Complex, and the university is just completing a second new student housing unit at the farm.

Murray State University, Murray

Bachelor’s in Animal/Equine Science

Concentrations: Science or Management

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Animal Nutrition; Equine Facilities Management; Teaching Horsemanship

Minor in Equine Science

Time commitment: Varies

Sample courses: Equine Nutrition and Feeding; Equine Exercise Physiology

Facilities: Instructional facility, barns, lighted outdoor riding arena, outdoor dressage arena, turn-out lots, wash rack and round pens.

What makes this program unique? Undergraduates can complete research projects, and some have presented their findings at national conferences or had their work published.

University of Kentucky, Lexington

Bachelor’s in Equine Science
and Management

Concentrations: Business; Community Leadership and Development; Equine Science; Forage/Pasture

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Equine Law; Animal Genetics; Fundamentals of Soil Science

Facilities: 100-acre horse unit on the university’s Newtown Pike farm, including barns and more than 25 pastures and paddocks. Additional equine research programs are housed at Spindletop Farm and a university farm in Woodford County.

What makes this program unique? Vast research opportunities and facilities, including the internationally recognized Gluck Equine Research Center. On-campus equine facilities for teaching, research and extension activities are housed on the southern part of UK’s main campus and include the Gluck Equine Research Center, Garrrigus, Barnhart and Ag Science Center buildings.

University of Louisville, Louisville

Bachelor’s in Business Administration
in Equine Business

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Organization and Administration of Equine Operations; Equine Marketing; Equine Commercial Law

Minor in Equine Business

Time commitment: Varies

Sample courses: Equine Economics; Equine Financial Management

Facilities: No on-campus equine facilities, but students have the opportunity for field trips, internships and host industry professionals in the classroom.

What makes this program unique? This program is housed in the College of Business and is not focused on equitation or horse care.

Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green

Bachelor’s in Agriculture-Equine Science

Time commitment: Four-year degree

Sample courses: Basic Equitation; Horse Production; Horse Training

Facilities: University farm features Agricultural Exposition Center, sales arena, indoor and outdoor riding arenas and barns.

What makes this program unique? Riding team uses exposition center to host competitions and other events, supporting the local equine industry and economy.

Katheran Wasson is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].