A New Era Begins
by Holly Wiemers
On a warm spring day in April, the inaugural class of the University of Kentucky’s new equine science and management undergraduate degree program finished its first year.
That milestone was a long time coming. UK has long been recognized for its equine infectious disease research at the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center and its equine nutrition research and horse outreach programs. The College also had an equine specialization option in animal sciences.
But until 2007, UK had no horse major, though located in the “horse capital of the world” and at the epicenter of all things horsey.
The College launched the Equine Initiative in 2005 and set out with a planning group to create a top-notch equine undergraduate program with a focused idea of what attributes a graduating student should have. The planning group then worked backward from there.
“We had a really strong committee that could bring in both the industry and academic sides but were also in touch with the real world,” said Bob Coleman, associate director for undergraduate education in equine science and management, talking about the planning group.
The planning process tapped some of the horse industry’s most respected members. Dan Rosenberg, recently retired president of Three Chimneys Farm, and Norm Luba, past president of the Kentucky Quarter Horse Association, both served on the committee.
The committee also included wide departmental participation. The departments of Agricultural Economics, Animal and Food Sciences, Community and Leadership Development, Plant and Soil Sciences, and Veterinary Science as well as the School of Human Environmental Sciences all participated.
“It was important to make it multidisciplinary,” Coleman said. “Working with groups and faculty from across the College, we had a real clear picture of what’s out there and what it takes to be successful.”
Three years after planning began, 45 students enrolled for the first year. All but two of them were women, and approximately 65 percent were from out of state. Because the program is currently in the final stages of the University approval process, students are enrolled as independent study majors.
Interest among prospective students remains high. By early spring of this year, close to 280 high school students had officially expressed interest in the equine undergraduate degree program. Roughly 60 percent are from other states.
No fluff here
While lots of schools have an equine major of some type, only two other land grant universities in the United States—Colorado State and Arizona State—have stand-alone equine degree programs, Coleman said.
“Our program offers a specific degree in equine science and management,” Coleman said. Other schools have programs that are part of another degree—for instance, a business major with an equine specialization. Other land grant universities generally have equine courses in their animal science curriculum, and those graduates would get an animal science degree with an equine emphasis. Bottom line, our program is equine first, not something else first and equine second,” he said, explaining the concept of a stand-alone program.
Students have the option of specializing in one of two tracks. The first, equine science, is for students who want to develop a deeper understanding of animal biology and biochemistry and who might want to work in farm management or a similar field. The second option, equine management, requires students to take courses focusing on business, agricultural marketing, and hospitality.
UK’s goal is to graduate students who are an asset to UK and to Kentucky’s signature agricultural industry. Students have to be well versed in the scientific principles behind successful agricultural practices and horse farm management, even if their focus is business and marketing.
“Science concepts are primary; we’re just using the horse as a model for putting those concepts into practice,” Coleman said.
Students’ academic experiences also include a wide range of concepts, from animal physiology and reproduction to principles of agricultural economics and tourism marketing.
All students are required to complete several biology and chemistry courses in addition to courses in economics and math. They also take courses in agricultural and horse management, equine health, horse behavior and handling, and anatomy and conformation. At least one internship is required.
You will not see equitation courses listed in the curriculum, because the program is not riding focused.
For students who want a riding fix, the College hosts several active horse teams and organizations, including an equestrian team with hunt seat and western components, a horse racing club, a horse judging team, a dressage team, and a polo team.
At the end of the four-year process, students will have earned a bachelor of science in equine science and management.
The College has also hired several new equine faculty members, primarily in the departments of Animal and Food Sciences and Agricultural Economics. One is Mary Rossano, who came to Kentucky from Michigan.
Rossano earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and her doctorate from Michigan State University, where she specialized in epidemiology and parasitology. At UK, she is currently slated to teach 70 percent of the time and conduct research the other 30 percent.
“I’m very happy. It’s the job I’ve wanted for years,” Rossano said. “I like the climate, the department, and the people. Kentucky is a great place to be.”
Rossano said that one of her biggest surprises with the new program was the wide range of prior horse experience her first-year students have, from those who are highly accomplished in multiple equine endeavors to those who have very little experience around horses.
One of the students in the “highly accomplished” category is Kelli Mardell, a freshman during the 2007-2008 academic year whose equine resume is certainly original.
After graduating from high school in Paris, Ky., Mardell began working at the Kentucky Horse Park and learned some of the tricks of the circus trade from her manager, a woman who had performed with circuses in the past. When her manager left Kentucky to tour with a Florida-based circus, Mardell eagerly followed and spent a semester touring and performing on horseback.
Of all the trick riding stunts she performed, Mardell said the most outrageous was probably riding a horse sidesaddle while jumping a car.
“It wasn’t a big car, really only a convertible, and we performed to smaller groups of people,” she said.
Some might also consider her fire stunts daring, but Mardell explained that jumping through a ring of fire is “not that big a deal since it’s only about 2 feet off the ground.”
After realizing that life in the circus might lead to her getting hurt with no backup plan and also facing the immediate prospect of running out of money, Mardell returned to UK just in time to start with the inaugural class. She’s back to working at the Kentucky Horse Park and now has the opportunity to incorporate some of her entertainment experience into the shows there, most notably in the Parade of Breeds, a half-hour presentation highlighting the unique characteristics of some of the Park’s different horse breeds.
Mardell’s plans when she graduates?
“Eventually, I would like to start my own lesson program and teach kids,” she said. “Ultimately, I would really like to open an equine therapy program for kids with behavioral disorders. I feel equine therapy helps them so much.”
For prospective students who are more inclined to pursue a traditional hands-on role with some of Kentucky’s finest horses, current equine student Michelle Beaver might have their dream job. Beaver, who attended The Ohio State University for almost two years before coming to UK, currently works as the assistant broodmare manager at Gainesway Farm and ultimately plans to become a horse farm manager.
“My typical day involves treating and medicating mares and foals, meeting with veterinarians, farriers, owners, and anyone else who comes to the farm, along with attending foaling,” she said.
Beaver came to Kentucky through the Kentucky Equine Management Internship, which offers college students the opportunity to work in the Thoroughbred industry. “After the internship I wanted to stay and work, and I heard UK had started an equine major,” she said.
The work experience of Mardell and Beaver show what’s available to students who come to Kentucky, Coleman said.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in this part of the world. Central Kentucky is where it’s at,” Coleman said. “This degree will just help open the door. Which door? That’s your choice.”