When Jessica Berman enrolled at New York’s Cazenovia College (“Caz”) to study equine business management, she knew her course work would be both practical and theoretical. But when her Business Operations for Farm and Stable Owners instructor handed her a budget and told her to figure out how to design, build and maintain an equine facility, she had no idea how quickly she’d put her newfound knowledge to use. On a trip home to Rumney, New Hampshire, soon after completing that assignment, she met with the builder who was putting up her family’s new horse barn and consulted on everything from fencing to the width of the doors to the placement of the hay racks and water buckets.
At Caz, the 20-year-old junior maintains a full schedule: In addition to her courses, she rides on both the intercollegiate dressage and hunt-seat teams, takes lessons before or after class and is a member of the Equine Ambassadors Club. Most days this means traveling back and forth between the main campus and the school’s 240-acre Equine Education Center. But being busy suits her. Berman, who began riding when she was 6, knew in high school that she wanted to work professionally in the horse industry. The question was how to pursue her dreams. “I knew I didn’t want to be a vet or ride or train professionally. For me, the business aspect was perfect.”
With classes like Equine Anatomy (where she and her classmates dissected a horse) and Theory and Methods of Equitation Instruction, courses in accounting, marketing and management as well as hands-on experience with the school’s 70 or so horses, she believes her concentration offers her a solid foundation for a variety of jobs.
“When I was considering equine business as a major, people told me I should go into something like nursing or law and keep the horses as a hobby,” she explains. “But I knew this was what I wanted. Wherever I end up, I feel I’ll be successful.”
Preparing the Next Generation of Horsemen
Equine studies programs have undergone a dramatic shift since they first began appearing at colleges and universities around the country. Options were limited when Dr. Karin Bump, a professor at Cazenovia and the founder of the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics (NAEAA), started in the industry nearly 25 years ago: “Equine studies were mostly two-year, vocational-tech kinds of programs. If you wanted to do something with horses, you got an animal-science degree.” Today, 596 colleges and universities across the United States offer some sort of equestrian opportunity, and 197 of them have full-scale equine programs. “And within those 197 colleges, there’s a breakout of 464 different offerings,” Bump says.
Today, the success of equine-studies programs depends on their ability to connect traditional coursework to the horse industry, according to Eddie Federwisch, director of Equestrian Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia. A veteran collegiate team coach, competitor and USEF judge, Federwisch also built the Equine Studies department at Virginia Intermont College into a top-notch program and served as its director for 18 years. The task for these programs, Federwisch says, is to prepare students for professional careers with horses. “In my mind, they ought to be divided three ways: mounted courses; professional courses like horse care, stable management, barn construction and management and rules; and the animal-science part—the veterinary care and anatomy classes. It’s about making it in the real world.”
At SCAD, students can earn a bachelor of arts or minor in equestrian studies, taking classes like Equine Business Law and Ethics, Equine Systems, Disorders and Lameness, and Judging and Selection of the Performance Horse in addition to their general education requirements. There are ample opportunities for hands-on experience as well as lectures from leading clinicians and industry professionals. The school’s 60-odd horses live about 15 miles away from campus at the state-of-the-art Ronald C. Waranch Equestrian Center. Set on 80 acres in Hardeeville, South Carolina, it’s the home base for riding and practice classes as well as SCAD’s intercollegiate equestrian team.
Independent educational consultant Randi Heathman, of Equestriancollegeadvisor.com, sees firsthand the growing links between equine programs and the industry. “Noted horsemen and-women are seeking affiliations with colleges and universities as a way of formalizing their own teaching methods and reaching students on a different level,” he says. “And on the equine industry side of things, more companies and equine organizations have opened their doors to college interns and specifically seek students with equine knowledge and experience. As a result, I think some of the equine curriculum is being influenced by the industry so that both can benefit one another in an even bigger way in the future.”
Jackie Dwelle, an equine studies instructor and dressage coach at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, says she’s seen an uptick in students wanting to study therapeutic riding or equine-assisted activities and therapies. At St. Andrews, students can earn degrees in therapeutic horsemanship and business or specialize in equine business management or therapeutic-horsemanship business management. “Our equine business students are required to do at least one internship,” says Dwelle. “They might work with a top trainer or at venues such as the Washington International Horse Show, or they work internally as stable managers, event managers and social-media managers or in our therapeutic riding program.”
Claire Pollard, of Foxfire, North Carolina, once assumed she’d follow in her father’s footsteps, becoming a pharmacist and keeping horses on the side. That all changed when she discovered therapeutic riding. She’s now a senior at St. Andrews majoring in both therapeutic horsemanship and equine business management. “I originally thought I should double major to have a business degree as a backup,” she says, “but I ended up really enjoying the program. I want to combine my love of horses with helping people.”
Pollard says she values both the hands-on and classroom experiences at St. Andrews. “The equine professors understand that working with horses is something that cannot be learned entirely in class. We spend a good amount of time out at the equestrian center gaining experience with a variety of horses.”
Last summer she did an internship at a local therapeutic riding center. The experience was even better than she expected. “I’ll be returning as a program director and instructor when I graduate in May.”
A Viable Career Path?
Though enrollment in these programs has held steady in recent years, many equestrians, like Laura Phillips, of southern California, don’t consider majoring in equine studies. A dressage rider, Phillips was aiming for a career as a veterinarian when she began her college search. Now a junior majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, she says, “I was only looking at schools that had a dressage team or that at least had a barn on campus or nearby that could accommodate my training.”
Karin Bump acknowledges that high-achieving riders often seek more traditional careers outside the industry. “But have they realized what they could do [with horses]?” she asks. “Equine law, equine medicine, sports medicine, equine psychology, sport psychology—those are all great fields. And unless an equine student isn’t willing to relocate, they can usually find a job.”
She points to Cazenovia’s equine business graduates as an example. “One third [of those graduates] will do something hands-on in the industry, one third will end up on the business side of the industry and the remaining third will simply use their business skills and do the horse piece on the side.”
Though parents unsure about equine studies often ask if their children are going to be cleaning stalls their whole life, Bump says that parents and students should be asking questions no matter what the field of study may be. “We get it more with something like equine-related majors because it seems so odd that you could get a job doing the thing you’re passionate about. Are these high-paying jobs? Not necessarily, but neither is education. But do you get up every day and pinch yourself that you’re doing what you love? Yes.”
Randi Heathman has heard the same questions from prospective parents and students. “Higher education has undergone a fairly rapid evolution in the last few years, between the recession and the student-loan crisis, and the main trend I see is a laser focus on outcomes: ‘If I enroll here, what will I get out of it?’ ‘If I pursue this particular major, what will be the return on my investment?’”
A complicating factor is that programs vary considerably from school to school. “Some equine studies programs feature coursework in breeding and stable management, and others center on horse training and teaching students to be riding instructors,” Heathman adds.
In order to thrive, equine-related degree programs will need to keep pace with an industry looking to fill its ranks with skilled personnel.
“As students begin to see more possibilities for working with horses outside the teacher/trainer model, programs will need to respond by evaluating their curriculum and making changes,” Heathman says. “It’s beneficial to both that they work closely together, and I think that’s a direction we’ll see them take.”
Dwelle believes graduates from these programs are poised to become leaders in the industry. “We need people who are able to package these services in a way that is affordable and accessible to the grass roots. Equine studies majors have the analytical and critical-thinking skills to make this happen.”
College Riding 101
Don’t have a horse or can’t take yours to college? The Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA), among others, offer students of all experience levels the chance to compete both individually and on a team for regional and national titles on horses provided by the host schools.
Founded in 1967, the IHSA has grown to include more than 9,000 hunt-seat and Western riders representing nearly 400 colleges in 45 states and Canada. Since it was established in 2001, the IDA has grown to encompass some 800 riders from 65 colleges in the United States and Canada. For more information, go to ihsainc.com and teamdressage.com.