Animal Science Programs

From large land grant universities to community colleges, there's a school with an equine program that best suits your desired career path

As the school year starts up again, high school seniors across the country are thinking about the next step in their education: college. Students with a love of horses often gravitate toward animal science or equine science programs with goals of becoming trainers, farm managers, or veterinarians. While countless articles, websites, books, and services have focused on matching these horse-loving students with the right universities, many students don't realize there's more to this process than just picking a school that offers the major they desire; each major's "home department" faculty and mission largely influence a student's college experience and the marketable strengths they develop. And the type of university or college will dictate how these departments operate. Likely, animal science programs at large agriculture-oriented universities will offer different strengths (and weaknesses) than the same majors at small liberal arts colleges.

In this article we will discuss how animal and equine science departments differ at four types of colleges and universities, as well as how a student can go about choosing the best program for him or her. We've used a few schools as examples, but there are many excellent programs to choose from; be sure to explore all the options.

Why Animal Science

In the current economy, students are anxious to earn a degree that will give them the knowledge and skills necessary to land a good job after graduation. (Chances are their parents don't think it's such a bad idea either!) Although the online higher education resource Yahoo! Education picked animal science as one of its "College Majors that are Useless," Margaret Benson, MS, PhD, MBA, president of the American Society of Animal Science (ASAS), couldn't disagree more. According to an official ASAS Board of Directors statement, "Animal science has stayed strong during the recession. ... In 2009 to 2012 unemployment rates for recent graduates with agriculture-related degrees was 7%, below the national unemployment average of 8.9%."

In addition to improving animal health and increasing agricultural productivity, the study of animal science also contributes to our understanding of human ¬genetics and disease. This major isn't necessarily for everyone, but its proponents say it can jump-start a rewarding and fulfilling career with horses.

What is Animal Science?

Most animal science majors' core curriculum includes specialized classes such as animal nutrition and reproduction, along with hands-on practicum classes in riding or judging. Students also take basic science classes such as chemistry, biology, and anatomy, as well as economics and other business-related courses, although this varies considerably among schools. A pre-veterinary major might be required to take advanced classes including biochemistry and genetics, while students focused on horse industry business might enroll in mandatory advanced marketing and accounting courses. Such classes are important because animal science students consume the same material that many other science or business majors learn, which can can prepare them for a variety of jobs upon graduation. The experience a student gains from working various jobs and internships during college can also impact future employment prospects, as employers often look for specific job skills rather than a particular major.

Large Land Grant Universities (>25,000 students)

Land grant universities were established as public institutions both to educate students and serve the community. They often have titles like Agricultural and Mechanical University (A&M) and State University. Animal science departments in large land grant universities generally focus heavily on research, and many are associated with a veterinary school. This provides students opportunities to shadow veterinarians and be involved in research projects, both of which give them a leg up when applying to veterinary school. The downside to this is many professors must spend anywhere from 20% to 70% of their time on research (as is common in most science-related fields), which leaves them less time to devote to students. The advantage, however, is classes are usually taught by professors who are the leaders in their particular fields and who are experts in certain subjects. Some faculty also serve as local county agricultural extension agents. An extension agent is someone who serves the community by organizing 4-H events, answering animal care and management questions, and giving seminars to the public, among other responsibilities. Getting involved in an extension program as a college student is a great way to improve your communication skills and give back to your community.

Although animal science departments are usually smaller than other departments on campus, most have several hundred undergraduate and graduate students, which means students can't necessarily expect small class sizes. However, these schools generally boast high-quality facilities and a wide variety of classes to choose from, which means an animal science major can "personalize" their degree by taking specialty classes of interest. In fact, many larger programs, such as at the University of Florida (UF), offer two "tracks" within the animal science major. The animal biology track emphasizes science classes, especially prerequisites for veterinary school, whereas the equine industry track focuses on business courses. Florida, like many other big schools, also helps students adjust to campus life by hosting a departmental barbeque and encouraging participation in student organizations like the Block and Bridle Club (a scholastic and professional organization), the Collegiate Horseman's Association, and the judging and equestrian teams.

Many large land grant universities have their own equine herds exclusively for teaching and research. This allows schools to offer hands-on classes in subjects such as reproductive management, sales preparation, and starting young horses under saddle. And although many animal science programs offer equitation classes, these are often more beneficial for beginner and intermediate level riders. Some programs don't offer riding classes, or equitation falls within the extra-curricular intercollegiate programs.

Lori K. Warren, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition at UF, says, "With the exception of the 2-year-old training courses, none of (the courses we offer) are equitation courses. UF's equine ¬program is structured around biological and physiological sciences, the management of horses, and business management."

Small Land Grant Universities (<25,000 students)

These schools tend to offer many of the benefits of a large land grant university, while promoting a sense of community. The faculty are involved in both research and extension, and students can choose from many different classes. Generally these smaller universities are not associated with a veterinary school, but most still offer undergraduates the opportunity to participate in research. Some schools do not have extensive equine facilities or large herds of horses for students to work with; those that do often emphasize student participation in caring for and maintaining the department's animals. The University of Connecticut, for example, has approximately 30 student workers who help with everything from barn work to riding instruction to extension activities. These jobs provide students a chance to apply classroom learning to real world situations; to interact with their professors outside of class; and to be involved in their program's success. In addition, skills graduates learn in student worker and work-study positions often help them land jobs.

Sometimes smaller universities offer unique classes and programs students won't be able to find elsewhere. For example, Connecticut has a class called "Developing the Driving Horse," which stems directly from the university's Morgan horse breeding program. Likewise, New Mexico State University has a therapeutic riding program, which offers instruction in using safety techniques, recognizing characteristics of a therapy horse, and interacting with riders of differing abilities. If a student has a particular interest within the equine industry, it's worth trying to find a school with expert instruction in that area.

Private Schools

Private schools often appeal to those who want an animal science major with the benefits of a liberal arts education. These schools tend to have a much smaller student body, which often translates into smaller class sizes and more individual attention from faculty. Most faculty focus primarily on teaching, and generally there aren't as many in-depth undergraduate ¬research opportunities available as there are at larger schools. Many of these smaller schools provide excellent preparation for students to launch specific careers in equine rehabilitation, equine business management, or veterinary support (such as a veterinary technician). Class selection can be limited, however, meaning students might have fewer options if they're not yet on a specific career path.

One strength of private school animal science and equine science programs is they often have excellent riding instruction. And many faculty members have been involved in the equine business as trainers, farriers, or veterinarians, and they have a wealth of real-world experience to impart. This is a real advantage for students looking to go straight into the job market after graduation rather than pursuing an advanced degree. And the smaller faculty size can mean students have more opportunity to build a specialized independent study curricula with a faculty member to explore and prepare for particular career opportunities. On the other hand, fewer faculty at these smaller institutions have advanced degrees (e.g., DVMs or PhDs), which larger universities usually require for employment. This might be a deciding factor for students interested in research or veterinary school.

Community Colleges

Community college can be a great resource for students who need a flexible schedule, don't have the option of relocating to attend school, or who want to take a few classes to boost their knowledge. Not all community colleges offer animal science programs; these departments tend to be more common in regions of the country where agriculture is a major part of the local economy. Because these schools focus on preparing students to enter the workforce, classes emphasize practical knowledge and skills and how to apply what you've learned in class to your everyday life. Generally, community colleges are an excellent value and many allow students to transfer credit hours to a four-year university should they decide to continue their education.

None of the Above

If you've decided that animal science isn't for you, but you can't bear the thought of not being involved with horses in college, many schools have equestrian teams unaffiliated with an animal science department. For example, even top-notch academic institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale boast equestrian teams that compete in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. While most of these teams don't offer scholarships, they do provide students with the opportunity to ride, show, and be a part of a club sport team.

All told, not all animal science majors are the same. Think carefully about your career plans and what you want to gain from your college experience before applying.


About the Author

Samantha Steelman, PhD

Samantha Steelman, PhD, is a USDA postdoctoral fellow at the Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences.

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