Today equine majors have become a popular choice for many college-level equine enthusiasts. It is not uncommon to hear of degrees ranging from associate to doctorate, with many focuses ranging from equine studies to equine-business management. Collegiate riding groups and organizations are also becoming more well known and it is now entirely possible for those wishing to continue on in the industry to further their education with these programs. There are more than 50 colleges and universities in the United States alone that offer many different equine-related degrees. The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) has over 490 teams and a total of 9,250 members, while the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) has a total of 500 competing members and more than 50 teams actively participating in collegiate dressage.
Though many equine professionals go on to learn from other top riders, trainers and clinicians, some have also participated in collegiate equestrian programs, whether they be strictly academic, athletic or a combination of the two. Advanced education numbers are on the rise and scholarly establishments are seeing the numbers for these programs increase yearly. The question is, what gives these programs value? What lessons do they teach their students and what tools do those students then bring out into the equine world?
Kimberly Herslow is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. Her most recent accomplishments include finding and training her horse Rosmarin, with whom she went on to have many wins in the Small Tour CDI in Wellington, Florida, and the pair took the title of National Champions at the Small Tour in the United States Dressage Finals in Kentucky in 2013. Herslow and Rosmarin were also on the 2013 and 2015 Nations Cup gold-medal-winning team in Wellington, were undefeated on the European tour for the PanAmerican Games qualifiers in Munich, Germany, and Achleiten, Austria. They were also the top PanAmerican horse-and-rider combination for the team days in Toronto, Canada, clinching the gold medal for the U.S. team and the 2016 Olympic berth for the country. Currently based in Stockton, New Jersey, from April through November and in Wellington through the winter, Herslow continues to train with Debbie McDonald and is aiming to participate in the 2018 World Equestrian Games with Rosmarin.
When Herslow was 18, she entered the equine science program at Delaware Valley University (formerly Delaware Valley College), in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Commuting 30 minutes to and from campus, building a farm and taking care of four horses at the same time, Herslow says the program helped her with self-discipline and credits part of the success in creating her business to her hands-on experiences at the college. Herslow entered the program as the equestrian center was being built. “We were the freshmen grunge workers doing a lot of glossing of the wood and stall preparation with stone dust. Needless to say, many of the other students weren’t very happy to be doing this as part of their learning experience.” Herslow, however, was grateful for these tasks as they gave her the hands-on experience she needed to improve her learning. “As a whole, college was a great experience in teaching me responsibilities pertaining to my own farm and being accountable for everything getting done in a consistent time frame.” Herslow remembers some of her favorite courses, such as equine anatomy and physiology and breeding, as being very informative, highlighting the fact that the information has stuck with her throughout her career.
“I did it all myself when I opened my barn and continued on during the first five years of boarding and training after I graduated. It was tough but somehow I made it through. Now I look back and think about how grateful and humbled I am to have really done it from the ground up.” Herslow believes that the benefits of going into a equine-education program had a lot to do with learning so many different aspects of the equine-business industry and how to apply that knowledge to what she was developing within her own business.
Virginia Tech intercollegiate dressage coach Cody Armstrong didn’t graduate with an equine degree, but she did participate in IDA throughout her time in college. As a graduate of Virginia Tech, Armstrong was a First Level rider as well as team captain. In 2011 she qualified for IDA Nationals and placed eighth in her division at the National Championships that year. Before attending Virginia Tech, Armstrong was an eventer and at one point was ranked 10th overall in the Young Rider National Standings at the Preliminary Level. Currently, Armstrong is campaigning her Hanoverian, Lhincoln, at Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I. She is also a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and has her USDF bronze, silver and gold freestyle bars.
Under the instruction of Armstrong, the Virginia Tech team qualified for Nationals in 2015 and 2016. She says that she is lucky to have been able to ride for the IDA as well as coach for it. “Going back and teaching the very team I rode with was an amazing accomplishment for me. Being a coach has taught me so much about myself as well as given me the opportunity to work with an amazing group of individuals.” When asked about what skills she took from IDA with her into the real world, she elaborated on leadership, team cohesiveness, organization and most importantly, confidence. “The ability to sit on a horse for 10 minutes and be able to ride through the dressage test has given me the confidence to think on my feet and alter my plan while riding each individual horse. IDA is also a wonderful way to gain experience with many different horses.”
Dressage professional Greta Friesen also took some valuable tools with her after participating in intercollegiate dressage. Graduating in 2010 from St. Andrews Presbyterian College (now St. Andrews University) in Laurinburg, North Carolina, Friesen was a First Level IDA rider throughout her time on the college team. During her junior year she was Regional Champion and took 12th at the IDA National Championships. Her senior year, she was Regional Reserve Champion and fifth at IDA Nationals. “Catch-riding and precision at the lower levels were some of the most helpful tools I was able to work on during my time in IDA. I gained a true appreciation of just how many points are lost in a dressage test by simply riding inaccurate lines. Focusing on this at lower levels created the habits that translated to the precision needed in upper-level test work,” says Friesen.
After graduating, Friesen spent several years in Wellington working and riding for international dressage rider Arlene “Tuny” Page at Still Point Farm. Friesen believes that the skills she learned from IDA were all incredibly helpful to her as she transitioned into jobs in the horse world. “I spent a fair amount of time riding sales horses, which depended on my ability to get on a horse, analyze him or her quickly and then show the horse to the greatest advantage.” Today Friesen is working as a freelance dressage trainer and resides in Kona, Hawaii.
Shannon Dueck is an international rider, trainer and clinician as well as a 1999 Pan Am Games individual silver medalist. Along with winning the Canadian League World Cup Final in 2002, Dueck represented Canada at the World Cup Final in Sweden in 2003. In 2003 she was also a member of the Canadian Team at the Open European Championships in England, whose performance secured an Olympic berth for the Canadians at the 2004 Olympic Games. Throughout the course of her adult life she has had help from Bert Rutten of the Netherlands, Lars Peterson of Denmark, America’s Kathy Connelly, Robert Dover and Steffen Peters, Hubertus Schmidt and Wolfram Wittig of Germany and Carl Hester of Great Britain.
Dueck completed a bachelors degree in animal science at the University of British Columbia and a masters degree in equine nutrition and exercise physiology at Texas A&M University. She then went on to become a faculty member at Lakeland College and Olds College in Alberta, Canada. Later she moved to Massachusetts to work at Johnson and Wales University. When she became established in her riding career, she stopped teaching to pursue her dressage business.
“No matter what happens in my life, I will always have my education to rely on if I do ever need to change careers,” says Dueck, “While my education was fairly thorough before going to university, I think my in-depth knowledge of equine physiology and nutrition has helped me manage my horses so much better over the years.” Dueck is currently based out of Loxahatchee, Florida, and spends the majority of her time training horses and riders.
Heidi Degele also took the equine education route when she attended Michigan State University and studied animal science with a focus in equine and preveterinarian. There, she was the vice president of the Michigan State Equestrian Team.
Degele is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist who started her career by training a 3-year-old stallion, Ramiros, eventually to the FEI level and taking him to Europe to train and compete. Since Ramiros, she has trained several horses to the FEI level. Degele competed with Don Fredo HD in the Young Horse 6-year-old division, placing 10th in the nation in 2013 at the Markel/USEF Young Horse Developing Horse National Championships. She received the USDF Rider Achievement award with Benson HD in Open Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I and the USDF Rider Achievement award with Lakota HD in Open Intermediaire II as well as ranking fourth in the U.S. in 2015. Degele also lived in Germany for three years, working and training with Olympic gold medalist Schmidt.
Currently, Degele runs a sales business, Heidi Dressage, out of Wellington with top FEI dressage imports. She continues to train with Danish Olympians Bent Jenson and Petersen on a regular basis. When asked how the Michigan State program contributed to her career, Degele highlighted the importance of understanding the anatomy and physiology of the horse along with learning how to maneuver within the business side of the industry. One of her favorite courses was equine nutrition and she enjoyed it so much that she even spent time the following year as a teacher’s assistant for the class. “It really helps as a farm owner to truly understand the digestive system of horses and what they really need and what they do not need so much of. I can attribute the care and the understanding of my horses feed and management here at my farm to the classes I took in college.” Degele also attributes many of her organizational and leaderships skills to the Michigan State Equestrian Team. Highlighting the importance of being a good leader, she states that the success of her clients begins first and foremost with her motivation, care and support. “I have top horses stabled at my farm that I am solely responsible for. They get optimum care, my riders get supportive coaching and I attribute those elements of my success to the skills I learned in college.”
As equestrians, we know that we are never done learning. Regardless of location or background, all five of these dressage professionals took the lessons that they learned from higher education and used them successfully in the equine world. As equine-related education becomes more prominent all over the country and the world, we must remind ourselves that there is value in each of the learning paths that we choose.