The University of Arizona's incoming class for the fall semester will go down in history as the most diverse class to date, but some of the students won't be found sleeping in the residence halls or eating at the Student Union Memorial Center. Instead, they will be at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Equine Center, where 11 equine students are beginning classes this fall.
The horses were bred by the UA Equine Program and born earlier this year at the Equine Center at the UA Campus Agricultural Center on North Campbell Avenue. The 11 youngsters all are enrolled in ACBS 271A, Weanling Management, where they will play dual roles of both student and teacher. As the weanlings learn the basic lessons that will form the foundation of their training, such as leading and picking up their feet, students learn how to safely handle and train young horses.
"My first class was equine reproduction last spring, and I fell in love with it instantly," said Natasha Dush, a veterinary science senior who always has loved horses but didn't have the opportunity to work with them until attending the UA. "I'm taking this class to better myself when handling foals and weanlings — desensitizing them, training them and teaching them the basics of what they are going to learn."
Dush plans on pursuing a master's degree in equine reproduction, which will prepare her for a variety of careers in the equine industry. According to the American Horse Council, there are an estimated 9.2 million horses in the U.S., resulting in an industry that contributes $102 billion to the gross domestic product through direct, indirect and induced spending. Additionally, the equine industry is responsible for creating 1.4 million full-time equivalent jobs in the U.S. alone.
"The students really get integrated with the faculty and the staff here at the Equine Center," said the center's manager, Kacee Richardson. "They come out and work here all summer. They work as teacher assistants for us once they finish a class. They really try to get their hands into every piece of the pie — they do the young horse training, they do the riding class, they do the breeding, they do the foaling. They try to do a little bit of everything so they can really figure out what path they want to take."
The human students who attend classes at the Equine Center represent a broad range of majors, although most are pursuing degrees in animal science or veterinary science. Some, such as Marlena Long, grew up with horses, while others, like Dush, never had touched a horse before enrolling in a course held at the center.
"I've had horses my whole life and ridden since I could walk, pretty much," said Long, who showed horses in 4-H in her hometown of Elizabeth, Colorado. "I really wanted the out-of-state experience, so when I first thought about where I was going to go to college, I tried to pick places that were near Colorado but not in Colorado. Now I'm on the UA equestrian team — I hold two officer positions — I'm a teaching assistant for another class at the farm, and I help with breeding in the springtime. Equine science is one of my biggest passions, so I figured that's the major you should choose, something that you're passionate about."
Regardless of whether a student begins with any horse experience, faculty and staff at the Equine Center work to make sure they leave prepared for anything.
"Our goal is to produce students who not only understand the science side and why we do things the certain way we do, but are actually able to do it," Richardson said. "It doesn't do us any good to turn out students who can tell their employers the theory of catching a horse safely, but aren't actually able to do it. It's about turning out hands that are experienced working with horses and are in a good spot to learn and grow."
Unlike their human counterparts, the UA's four-legged freshmen probably won't declare a major for another couple of years, when they are old enough to be started under saddle. Some will be sold to new homes, where they may pursue careers as competitive show horses, while others might stay at the UA to teach the next cohort of Wildcats.
No matter what their future holds, one thing is certain: The horses at the Equine Center, like all great teachers, have a tremendous impact on the students whose lives they touch.
"I took horsemanship last fall and that was my first horse class and my first experience with horses," said Southern California native Jaclyn Cubillas, who transferred from the University of California, Davis, to the UA because it is one of the few universities in the West that offers a bachelor's degree in veterinary science. "And I was deathly terrified of horses when I started! They're very unpredictable and very large. But I had a great professor and she really gave me confidence to continue on in pursuing more equine classes.
"I can proudly say now that definitely equine physiology and anatomy and equine diseases are probably my strongest areas in vet medicine, so I'm going to continue onward. I'm pursuing mixed practice, but I'm definitely going to include equine into the large animal aspect of vet school when I start. That would have never happened if I had never taken a class at the UA."