Live and Learn (Equine Education Opportunities)

Educational opportunities abound for horse owners and handlers.

For horse owners and equine enthusiasts interested in increasing their knowledge, training, or skills, there have never been more opportunities to learn. Colleges and universities across the country offer classes in virtually every aspect of horse management. Through special schools and programs, you can get the education and training you need to become an equine massage therapist, a farrier, or a veterinary technician, among other equine careers.

If you're not interested in a college degree in equine science or horsemanship, attending workshops and seminars is a great way to pick up the information and hands-on skills you need to become a better horse owner, rider, or handler. If you'd prefer to pursue your education in the comfort and convenience of your own home, you can take advantage of a growing number of courses offered online.

"Horse owners need to be lifelong learners, because the science of horsemanship is constantly evolving," explains Camie Heleski, MS, PhD, coordinator of the Horse Management Program at Michigan State University.

Two years ago Michigan State University rolled out its online horse management educational program called My Horse University (www.MyHorseUniversity.com). Courses in this program address a range of topics, such as horse health, behavior, welfare, and nutrition. Each online class is offered at a price that is roughly half that of a similar class held on campus. As an added perk, the Web site periodically features free live Web presentations on topics such as vaccination and horse selection.

"This is a great learning opportunity for students who aren't able to pack up and move to campus," Heleski says. "The subject matter is almost identical to the material we offer for credit on campus. The courses include video clips to help horse owners understand visual concepts like equine body language and training techniques. This program has experienced a great deal of growth, and our goal is to add a couple of new educational modules each year."

Online courses designed to provide education about some topics, including principles of nutrition and genetics, for example, are a great way to learn. But for individuals who want to increase their skills in horsemanship and training, online courses might not be the best bet.

"We don't want to encourage inexperienced people to work with horses without the benefit of a good instructor, since it may not be safe," says Heleski.

Workshops and seminars are appropriate for those who are more interested in gaining knowledge than earning a degree, but for those who plan to pursue a career in the horse industry, a course of study that leads to a diploma or certificate becomes far more important.

What Are Your Goals?

"Before you can decide on the university, program, or even the class that's best suited for your needs, it's important to understand your goals and objectives," says Janet Roser, MS, PhD, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. "What is it you hope to gain from your education?"

If you're a mare owner in search of greater understanding about equine reproduction, your educational needs will likely be quite different from someone who aspires to be a stallion manager at a large breeding operation. Likewise, if you're an equestrian in search of a solution for your horse's foot and leg problems, you won't need the same level of training as the individual who is determined to become a farrier or veterinarian. Regardless of your educational goals, it's always a smart strategy to choose an academic institution that is recognized and respected in the appropriate field.

"Make sure the classes you take are offered by a reputable institution," says Roser. "You can get a good idea about the quality of the program you're interested in by asking your vet or the extension agent in your area. It's also important to request references and to speak to former students about their experiences." A number of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the Better Business Bureau, often can provide additional information about the institution's licensing, accreditation, and business practices.

"It's relatively easy to find state universities and research facilities that offer courses and degrees in equine science," says Roser. "If these programs are out of range because of location or price, horse owners might be able to find a local community college that offers similar courses at a lower price."

The Department of Animal Science at UC Davis offers a variety of courses in genetics, exercise physiology, horse production and management, farrier science, and equine nutrition. Students in the animal science major can specialize in the field of equine science. The university also hosts a number of seminars and symposiums each year.

"Members of our faculty present various topics at a two-day horse seminar in October," says Roser. "We also offer five-day reproduction courses in which students learn how to collect and evaluate semen and artificially inseminate mares. These programs provide a great opportunity to learn at a reasonable cost, and they're not just for our students; they're open to anyone who's interested in attending."

Hands-On

The equine science program at Colorado State University attracts students from around the world--approximately 450 are currently enrolled. For nearly four decades, Colorado State has also offered a popular four-day course entitled Reproductive Management and Artificial Insemination.

"Its half lecture, half lab," explains Edward Squires, PhD, professor of equine reproduction in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State and a pioneer in the field of modern equine reproduction. "Students learn how to collect semen and breed mares. Everyone gets to participate, and they get a lot of education and hands-on experience."

Attendees typically have a variety of backgrounds. Some students own small horse breeding operations, while others are seasoned professionals with a great deal of knowledge and years of experience.

"We welcome people of all levels of experience and education, and with all breeds of horses," says Squires. "I've been teaching these classes for 34 years, and it's always the people that make them fun and interesting."

Like Colorado State, Texas A&M University offers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in a variety of equine sciences, including nutrition, reproduction, exercise physiology, and genetics.

"One of the best opportunities for horse enthusiasts to further their education is through the university-based workshops and clinics," says Dennis Sigler, PhD, professor of equine science in the Animal Science Department at Texas A&M. "We have at least two breeders' schools each year. We also have a horse judging school, a workshop for new horse owners, a mare and foal school, and a performance horse workshop. We're currently developing several online courses for students interested in basic horse care and therapeutic riding."

At the University of Montana Western, horse enthusiasts can sign up for a variety of three-day workshops on topics such as equine law, reining, dressage, and shoeing. Students can also enroll in programs leading to a degree in equine studies, biomedical science, business with an equine option, or natural horsemanship.

"University of Montana Western is the only institution in the U.S. offering a university education in natural horsemanship," says Sid Gustafson, DVM, professor of equine studies at the university. "It's a great program."

Some schools, like the Northwest School of Animal Massage, combine online education with on-site training. According to Lola Michelin, founder of the school and director of education, "After students complete their distance training at home and take their quizzes online, they'll complete 50 hours of hands-on training at one of our campuses in Seattle, British Columbia, Portland, or Philadelphia."

The horse massage program is divided into three levels. The first level consists of approximately 150 hours of foundation training, including Swedish massage strokes, equine anatomy and physiology, first aid, and behavior and handling. The second level focuses on care of performance horses, while the third level is an equine rehabilitation massage program.

"Most of our students are between the ages of 30 and 70," says Michelin. "Some are horse professionals, like farriers and vets, and some are horse owners who just want to improve the lives of the horses in their care. Many of our students have no prior experience with horses, but want a career in animal massage."

Equine veterinarians remind horse owners and enthusiasts that there isn't any formal regulation of massage or some of the other certification programs available. Keep that in mind when assessing programs and deciding which to choose.

Credentials

Before signing up for any course, it's wise to find out as much about it as you can beforehand. Start by requesting a course description, which should provide information about the teacher, including educational background, qualifications, and past experience. Find out if the instructor will be teaching the class exclusively and, if not, what percentage of the class will be taught by assistants.

"It's important to have an open line of communication with the instructors," says Roser. "At most colleges and universities, their phone numbers and e-mail addresses are listed on their Web sites. There's no need to be intimidated; the instructors are there to help you learn and to answer your questions."

You'll also want to make sure you know the total cost of the program ahead of time. Find out if you'll be expected to have any specific tools, equipment, or tack that might require a significant investment. Even if the tuition is affordable, don't forget about the cost of commuting to classes or traveling to a workshop or seminar. Textbooks, materials, equipment, and certification testing can add additional costs.

Roser emphasized the importance of balancing hands-on experience with classroom education. "Practical experience is very important, because we learn by doing," she says. "But the lectures are equally important, because these give you important knowledge that completes the total picture. They give you information and understanding that you might not learn otherwise."

Take-Home Message

Regardless of experience or educational background, horse owners and enthusiasts have access to a growing number of learning opportunities on virtually every aspect of the horse industry, and it's never too late to take advantage of them.

"You're never too old to learn," says Sigler, "I see a lot of adult students who continue to prove that."

About the Author

Rallie McAllister, MD

Rallie McAllister, MD, grew up on a horse farm in Tennessee, and has raised and trained horses all of her life. She now lives in Lexington, Ky., on a horse farm with her husband and three sons. In addition to her practice of emergency and corporate medicine, she is a syndicated columnist (Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister), and the author of four health-realted books, including Riding For Life, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.ExclusivelyEquine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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