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|Feather River College freshman Ellen Hollifield rides her assigned 2-year-old, Bebe, in a class on training young horses. Bebe will eventually be sold in the annual Feather River College Production Horse Sale after another year of training.|
When most teachers enter a classroom they are met with a uniform environment. They walk into their white-walled classroom filled with the glow of florescent lights, the glare of a shiny white board and a group of students, some ready to learn, and others that are probably not.
There is little risk that when the teachers sit down, their chair will buck them off. There is little worry that a desk might trample a student, or that pupils might not know how to properly groom and saddle their fellow students.
But for the teachers in the Feather River College Equine Studies program, these are everyday concerns.
Established in 1981 by Agriculture Department Director Russell Reid, the Equine Studies program specializes in teaching students how to train and manage horses.
“It is kind of a risk for us to put students and horses together, but when you do it and it works it is extremely satisfying,” said Reid.
With more than 30 years of training techniques, around 200 horses and more than 60 students a year, the college’s Equine Center has proven itself a risk worth taking.
The program started when Reid, a part-time faculty member, wanted to figure out a way to prepare Feather River College students for careers in agriculture and the horse industry. After receiving support from the school and funding from a Kellogg Foundation grant, he was able to build a small arena and some stalls in the back corner of the college’s 240 acres.
It was then that he established the pack station and stable operations degree program, focusing on horsemanship and management skills. This was a revolutionary style of degree, and at the time his program was the only one of its kind in the country.
Reid said it wasn’t long before the facility was running out of room. Soon there were too many students and too many horses.
In the late ’90s the school purchased 100 acres next to Highway 70. Reid and his program then raised more than $200,000 to build a state-of-the-art facility with three arenas, two round pens, numerous stalls and corrals and a classroom.
The expansion made room for many other areas of growth including the hiring of full-time faculty member Chuck Mills in 2003. Reid said he and Mills worked together to create three Equine Studies degree programs as well as many certificate programs.
The Equine Center now boasts specialties in ranch skills, pack station and stable operations, and training young horses. Reid also founded the Feather River College rodeo team in conjunction with Equine Studies in 2005.
“At the end of the day we are here for the students,” said Reid. “The program is shooting to provide students with opportunities to set their own goals.”
The breeding program
The curriculum at the Equine Center entails learning horsemanship for horses of all ages and all stages of life. Its high-quality breeding program fuels the center because it fosters the young horses from newborns.
According to instructional assistant and barn manager Crystal Anderson, the facility has greatly expanded its breeding program over the years. She said when she started working there in 2007 they only had one stallion and a small band of mares. Since then they have grown to three stallions, including a donated stallion, with superior bloodlines, worth more than $100,000.
The students begin to work with the foals right when they are born. When they are a year old the students teach the horses ground manners, such as how to be tied and led, and how to behave around people.
When the horses turn 2, Mills instructs the students on how to “start” their young horses. They will learn how to saddle and bridle them, and begin the training process via horseback.
“We put a lot of effort into training our horses, and we do our best to produce a very high quality,” said Anderson.
A unique final exam
Throughout the year the young 2-year-old horses continue to be trained and exposed to things such as cows, ropes and various obstacles. The students are graded based on their ability to reach certain benchmarks with their horses.
After a summer off the horses and students return to the school older and wiser, and ready to take their learning to the next level.
Each student is then assigned a 3-year-old to take through to the annual Feather River College Production Horse Sale in May. This event offers students a chance to sell the horses they have been working on for the past two years, and receive public feedback on the success of their efforts.
“Our annual sale is the ultimate student learning outcome,” said Reid. “If a student is able to sell a horse with a certain level of training then we must be doing something right.”
Anderson said the horse sale is growing more successful each year. In 2008 the average sale price was $2,300 per horse. Last year’s average was $4,000.
“I think people are starting to see that we really do put everything into the horses and they really are nice horses to ride,” she said.
According to Anderson it is each student’s job to be there every step of the way with his or her “sale horse.” It is the student’s job to clean the horse’s stall and be present for veterinary checkups and shoeing. He or she must groom and maintain the horse and ride it at least four times a week.
“We set the horse sale up as the ultimate final exam,” said Reid. “If we could set up practical learning outcomes for our students then they’re better prepared to go out and get a job or transfer to a four-year college.”
Reid said the horse sale is really a proud moment for the teachers.
“The real product is our students, not our horses,” he said.
Though many students are sad to say goodbye to the horses they grow to care for, the lessons they learn throughout the process is what Reid says the program is all about.
“The horse to me has been a wonderful partner in teaching,” Reid said. “I have so much respect for a teacher who teaches tough subjects like math. I have a partner in this, they don’t. For me, it makes teaching effective, and a lot of fun.”
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