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Choosing an Equine Studies Program

Are you seriously considering a career in the horse industry? If the answer is "yes," or even "maybe," an objective approach to choosing the avenue of education which best suits your needs is paramount. Selecting an education in the horse industry is no different than identifying the colleges, study programs, or trade schools required for a liberal arts or engineering education. However, due to the unique nature of the equine market, objectivity in the self-evaluation of career goals and the evaluation of the institution are required no matter what area you choose to work in.

How do you start? Begin by realizing that formal education in this field is both necessary and available. The key word here is "available." Many people entering the horse industry are unaware of the opportunities currently in existence for obtaining worthwhile, marketable skills. With that in mind, let's look at some of the myths that commonly abound in the minds of nonprofessionals. Four of the major myths are:

  • Riders are born, not made.

    Just think of the Native American Indians, possibly the bravest horsemen that ever lived. They just jumped on a pony and fell off a lot until they learned to ride. Read the ads in any equine journal, the good jobs require demonstrated ability and special training. Few read, "Learn as you earn." Arm yourself with experience and an education to make yourself marketable.

  • The only way to gain saleable skills within the horse industry is by apprenticing to a competent professional.

    This is one approach, but a difficult one. How do you identify a competent professional? After you have ascertained that they are competent, other questions surface, such as: Can they teach? Are they willing to share their knowledge with you? How well rounded are they within the industry, or is their expertise limited to the specific area in which they teach or train? And the last and perhaps most important question: Is what they do now merely "in vogue," or are they well rounded in the basics of their profession and able to adjust to the flux of demands within the industry? Are the skills that you will be acquiring marketable today? Next year? Ten years from now?

  • The key to success is knowing exactly what you want and going after it!

    This misconception is closely related to the concept of apprenticeship. Specialization can be a major factor in assessing the values of educational institutions offering training in a chosen field. That is, if you truly do know what facet of the field that you want to pursue.

    If you have decided which specific aspect of the horse industry-breeding, jumping, eventing, dressage, Western riding, farrier work, saddle making, horse racing, and so forth-to which you have unalterably committed yourself, then your pursuit of the "right " program is perhaps easier, and an apprenticeship or a highly specialized educational program is desirable.

    After success is won by the individual who admits his goals and aggressively seeks them, however, the accompanying problems in specializing can arise. Haven't we all known someone who started out as a barrel racer and is now successfully showing open jumpers? Or someone who bought a horse to ride on the trail for fun and is breeding, training, and showing a specific breed of horse on a major scale? As a consequence, committing yourself too early in your professional development has inherent problems.

    Like retracing your path after taking a wrong turn on a long cross-country automobile trip, backtracking to acquire the basic skills needed for different aspects of the horse industry can steal time from your professional career. Getting lost in the car is irritating, but adding one or two years to several that you have already spent in acquiring an education can be an economic hardship. Choosing the nature of your horse-related education is of major significance!

  • A college education is not needed to purse a career in the horse industry. Technical skill is all that is required.

    By and large, the professional horseman today offers a product that is in demand for recreational purpose, not as part of a necessary function in our daily lives. The need for a well-schooled riding horse as a mode of transportation, or a team of competent draft horses, has disappeared-the Amish, after all, train their own horses. The clientele for the horse industry today is the hobbyist, and the professional's economic survival often relates to his or her skills of salesmanship, public presentation of self and product, and general business acumen.

    The ability to communicate with and motivate the hobbyist is a necessary addition to the technical expertise you will offer him. These additional skills are acquired through a broad exposure to people, ideas, and an education which tends toward the liberal arts. A college degree, along with the development of the technical skills demanded by your chosen facet of the horse industry, probably offers the quickest, most organized approach to developing those polished skills of communication, which enhance your chances for success.

    Proceed with caution, however. The college program you may enter could give you the peripheral polish that enhances your business acumen, but may not offer the professional skills you need not only to "survive" in the horse industry, but to achieve a thorough, broad-based level of technical expertise. The right program for you might well be a combination of choices.

With these considerations in mind, a person opting for a career in the horse industry is faced with several major decisions and choices. The following guidelines should help you focus your approach:

  1. Consider the whole, give some thought to what careers and opportunities exist.
  2. Make an objective self-analysis of personal goals and educational needs.
  3. Develop a plan to acquire needed training, objectively assess the type of educational institution needed, eliminate those that do not fit.

Putting in the time and effort now to arrive at a reasonable choice for an education in the horse industry will pay off. Successful fulfillment of professional aspirations in the horse world is far more accessible to those who are professionally prepared to meet its demands.

Self-Evaluation

To succeed in choosing the best educational program to suit your needs, be prepared to honestly evaluate your interests, abilities, accomplishments, needs, aspirations, personality traits, and pocketbook. Two steps are involved in this task. First, you must determine the depths of your interest in order to choose between pursuing a professional's education or a hobbyist's education. Second, you must try to match, as nearly as possible, your goals and needs with the institution which most clearly addresses your individual concerns.

The first step can be highly subjective. It is your own personality you must examine. Feigning an interest or desire because of a friend's or relative's aspirations or expectations can be devastating as well as costly, in terms of time and money.

Also, take a look at yourself physically. If you are 6'4" tall and weigh 295 pounds, working with small horses or three-day eventing may not be in your, or the horse's best interest. Be realistic about physical limitations.

But be neither aggressively negative or overly "puffed-up" in your self-evaluation. Don't think it's impossible to become a professional in the horse world. After all, if you had all of the skills necessary to become a professional now, your education would be superfluous.

Successful professionals are constantly striving to improve their skills. Even our Olympic riders who exhibit a superlative level of competency in their respective fields, still have coaches to refine their skills. Much as we might like to think there is an end to it all, the process of acquiring an education is lifelong; even world class professionals still have to do their homework.

The second step, developing a plan to acquire an education, becomes much easier if you have done a good job at step one: self-evaluation. You can probably limit your investigation to a few institutions which feature a program that "fits" your needs if you have an adequate understanding of what those needs are.

Merely taking your horse with you to college is not what a potential professional does. That may be a part of the process, but if it is your sole step toward acquiring an education in the horse industry, then you might be ill-prepared to enter any significant aspects of the field. The primary question to be answered at this point is, "Do I want to enter the professional world of horses?" Consider the following categories, then decide which one comes closest to describing you.

  1. I am certain I want to be a professional horseman, and I am totally committed.
  2. I know I would like to work with horses, but I am not sure I can make it professionally.
  3. I know I would like to work with horses on a limited basis, but only part-time.
  4. I am training to obtain a non-horse related job, but my hobby is of significant interest to me.
  5. I want to bring my horse with me to college, but I am definitely not interested in pursuing a career in the equine industry.

If you identify with any of the first three categories, be sure to investigate all of the educational opportunities specifically geared toward producing professionals. Eliminate early on in your analysis of schools those programs which are not full scale, or are limiting in their curricular offerings. If you fell into category three, remember an important "given" in the field of education: a little knowledge is often harmful. Mediocrity is too often the standard of "part-time" programs. A community college "Cake Decorating for Fun and Profit" course is of little use to someone who wants to be a professional gourmet chef. Programs such as these are frequently designed for entertainment and not career training. Do not confuse the two.

For all of you in category five, the choice of schools is dictated by the traditional academic rather than equine considerations. If astro-physics, cosmetic surgery, or institutional law are your strong suits, do not muddle the issues. Institutions serving the needs of the professional horseman are not for you.

For folks in category four, you are hobbyists, and another possibility exists. Digest the information on schools oriented toward professionals. Perhaps a semester or quarter of jumping, western riding, dressage, saddle making, or farriery would heighten the pleasure you receive from your hobby for many years to come. Remember, after you enter the real world of work, develop family obligations and the like, you will probably never again be able to invest the time. Enjoy the freedom of this opportunity now, no one will encourage you later. What aggressive "yuppie" can ask for a 12-week leave of absence to "ride his horse?" Your employer probably wouldn't look upon this as a sane request.

Choosing Wisely

What school is for me? How do I judge? An objective evaluation tool is indispensable in making this choice. Use the following checklist when you examine a school. Your concerns should focus into four categories: program, facility, personnel, and financing.

Your next step is to take your checklist and visit one or two institutions that appear to best fit your needs. This sounds expensive and time consuming, especially if the institution is located a long way from your area of the country, but it would be far more expensive to make the wrong choice. You do not buy a horse merely from a pretty picture. Similarly, do not rely on just a brochure and a phone call. Go and look.

Be prepared to ask the kinds of questions you need to know. No one who directs a worthwhile educational program would ever object to obtaining a serious student. Visit classes, and not just for five minutes. Be aggressive (but not pompous) and curious. Keep your checklist in your hand and use it. Talk to instructors, students, and administration personnel, and most importantly, judge for yourself.

Today, a large number of educational programs exist to prepare individuals to enter the horse industry. Consider your choices objectively and as carefully as with any educational institution. A serious career deserves a serious, considered plan of action. Your efforts will not go unrewarded.

Assessing the Field

After you have acquired the skills necessary to function in the particular aspect of the horse industry that you are pursuing, will you find a job? What are the dimensions of the horse industry today? Is it growing? Expanding? Shrinking?

Let's consider the first question, the size of the industry. The horse industry in America today is astonishingly large and rapidly expanding. The American Horse Council tells us that 80 percent of the 8.3 million horses owned in the United States today are kept for recreational purposes. That means over 6.5 million horses are owned by hobbyist who are not engaged in racing, professional exhibition, breeding or agriculture. These owners constitute a significant portion of the clientele for the professionals in the industry. While 27 million people ride horses each year, over 14.5 million do so on a regular basis. Thus, non-horse owners who ride horses regularly are even more numerous, and also quite obviously enjoy the supportive services of a professional.

In 1984, horse owners spent $9 billion for supportive services including farriery, feed, tack, and many others. It is estimated that Americans have invested over $8 billion in horses alone, not to mention the facilities that have been built to support them.

In 1979, over three-quarters of a million nationally sanctioned shows were held (not counting local competitions) generating revenues in excess if $95 million, and employing over 230,000 people, and significant increases occur each year. The horse industry is large, healthy, and growing. If any doubt exists in your mind about the economic stability of this industry for supporting a potential professional career, write to the American Horse Council. They have done your homework for you and they see the overall picture.


Use the following checklist when you examine a school.

Program

  • Philosophy: Is there a clearly stated philosophy or goal at the school? Does the program appear to be carrying out that philosophy?
  • Curriculum: Is there an overall plan in effect? Is it sound and up-to-date? When was the last time it was updated? How long has the school or program been in existence? What is its track record, has it grown and produced successful professionals?
  • Course Outlines: Are courses constructed from outlines? Are the outlines put into effect or merely window dressings? This is a two-pronged problem:
    1. No effective educational program exists without a plan. Too much time is lost because of digression.
    2. The adverse consideration is that programs often look good on paper, but may not be properly supported by the staff.
    Both a plan and the personnel to make that plan work must be in place.
  • Progression of Skills: Are course objectives clearly stated? Are reasonable and realistic goals set? Overall, do the students reach them? Are the skills taught there of a professional nature? For example, if the goal of a quarter’s work is merely walk and not trot a horse, never canter, pass this program by. Can this possibly be a program of substance? What provisions are made for individual differences?
  • Organization of Courses: Is there a hierarchy of courses within the program? Does the progression of skills lead into the overall organization of varying degrees of technical competence? For example, in a multi-year program, certain courses must be a prerequisite to others.
  • Accreditation: Is the program accredited? By whom? Remember state licensing often means no more than paying a yearly tax. Accreditation by an impartial, non-government agency is your assurance that a school meets national standards of educational performance.
  • Grades and Attendance: How often are students graded? What criteria are used? Are these grades frequently made available to the student for evaluation or growth potential? Do you see a grade book in the instructor’s operation of class?
  • Frequency of Riding: This consideration merits a separate category. Professionals aspiring for a career in riding or training must be able to ride many different kinds of horses. This is an area where sheer numbers of horses are of vital importance. If daily riding is not a part of the program, seriously question its viability. Rides per Week Ranking
  • Horses: A highly important consideration. Horse:Student Ranking
    1. Farriers: How many horses are available for shoeing? Are they available for study under saddle? Can you shoe them over an extended period of time?
    2. Instructors: Are horses of many levels of accomplishment available within a given discipline? Are methods courses included, where many levels of students can be taught on horses with varying degrees of training?
    3. Trainers: Are young horses provided which can be used to learn how to start green horses? Safety factors are important here. Learning to train green horses does not mean being assigned one colt to break and "learning to work it out." Is a systematic, supervisory approach used?
  • Class Size: Learning a specific trade can’t be a mass proposition. Even intern physicians learn hands-on work in a ratio of approximately one instructor to seven students. Class Size Ranking
  • Class Construction: How are classes formed? Are there progressive ability groups available?
  • Safety: Are there printed regulations concerning safety? Are these rules followed? Look at the classes! Is Equipment examined and approved? Are rules concerning the handling of horses, and student behavior, explained?
  • Admissions Policy: Is there an admission policy in print? Read it.
  • Tuition: Is a tuition policy printed? Are refund policies or regulations concerning temporary medical leaves from school explained? Beware of the compromise between pocketbook and program. Better to spend another six months saving to afford the higher quality program. Ask what’s included. Room? Board? Riding fees? Workshop material fees? Tuition Ranking

Facility and Equipment

  • Location: A good rule of thumb for ascertaining the credibility of a program is the location of the facility. Seriously question a program whose facility is located miles away from the main campus. Is it merely an "add-on" program at the school, and therefore subject to the demands of budget and non-horse oriented management? Is the facility owned by the school? Is it set up exclusively for the program or is it merely someone’s backyard operation seeking additional monetary support? Facility Ranking
  • Classroom and Theory: Are there theory sessions conducted on a regular and scheduled basis? Attend one. Are there separate and distinct classroom for special purpose which are exclusive to the students, not just a stock room or office which serves as a gathering place? Is there a relationship between theory and application? Who takes these classes?
  • Specialized Structures:
    1. Arenas: Do not confuse the "skin" with the "white meat." Arenas can be pretty or functional. Examine the important features. Is the footing good? Are the riding area and stabling well groomed and professionally kept? Professionalism begets professionalism.
    2. Farrier Shop: Is it safe? Do you learn to hot-forge shoes as well as cold shoe? Is the facility adequate to the task? Are there enough work stations for every student?
    3. Workshops: (saddle making, etc.): Is the area well kept? Is it a distinct facility, or does it share space with another program? Does a curricular plan seem to be in operation? Does each student have a work station?
  • Dormitories: Is student housing available? Are different choices available: private, semi-private, or on campus? Is the cost of housing included in the overall fee? Remember, the education is your primary interest, but affordable housing must also be available.

Personnel

  • Training: Are the professionals competent? Those who attempt to train professionals in any field must be of the highest capability themselves. Do they demonstrate proficiency? Where did they receive their training? Do they continue to refine their own skills through education?
  • Availability: Are the directors of the discipline of your interest actually involved in the educational process of the student? Or, are they merely figureheads? Do the instructors live on or near campus? Remember, a "consultant" who comes into actual contact with students infrequently has little realistic effect on their training. Find the best instructor you can.
  • Credentials and Involvement: Do the instructors have demonstrable credentials? Are they currently involved in the industry in some real way? Watch them teach. Are they willing and able to communicate their craft?
  • Employment: Is there a member of the staff whose responsibility it is, at least partially, to handle job placement? What percentage of graduates find jobs in the industry? Are records kept? Can you see where they are stored? Can graduates use the placement office at any time, even years after graduation?

Financing

  • Student Aid: Is student aid available? Are there scholarships, grants, or loan programs available?
  • Work Programs: Take caution here! Part-time work and part-time study programs often mean students are used as unpaid labor. Make sure that you are paid an hourly wage or get a specific breakdown of the educational benefits you will receive for work done.