The Bridger Mountains rise up to the north, crystal clear on this cold winter morning. The bright sunlight reflected from the snowy pastures surrounding our train of horses makes me squint. From the back of a horse named Kid, I look around, surprised to be here.
A few months ago I didn't know what equitation was (it's horseback riding) and now I am two months into a beginning Western equitation class at Montana State University. I am the oldest person in the class by at least 15 years and the only one to never have ridden a horse before the class.
Our class is made up of ranch kids, an MSU rodeo team member, a dude ranch wrangler, kids that have grown up around horses and me--a writer, cross-country ski enthusiast and a mother of two small sons who must admit to being a little frightened of horses. I love throwing myself into things that are new and totally out of my element. When I discovered this class while researching this story, I knew I had to sign up. But the rest of the students seemed so accomplished that the first day of class I had to double-check to make sure I was in the beginning level class.
One of my fellow students is Colin Mesh, a geography transfer student from Bloomsburg, Pa., who has been riding horses most of his life. With a calmness and grace that I just can't muster, he expertly guides Jake, the horse he is riding, through the snow.
"I'm new to the area so I'm taking the class to get to know some horse people," Mesh said. "Even though I've been riding since I was a kid, I'm learning some new techniques since there are so many ways to do things."
University Studies freshman Emma Anderson grew up on a ranch in Monarch, Mont. She has also been riding horses most of her life.
"I'm having fun and getting help with fundamentals," Anderson said. "It's good to find out what you don't know."
Many of the students taking equitation classes are participants in the MSU equine science program, which is one of the fastest growing programs in the MSU College of Agriculture. The program has already been recognized by Western Horseman magazine, and others, to be one of the finest new equine science programs in the country. The program distinguishes itself by its location in horse country, hands-on experiences and producing graduates with a firm foundation in basic sciences, communication, leadership, ecology and business that are ready to meet the needs of the equine industry.
Many students enrolled in the program and equitation classes hope to make a career working with horses. Others, such as I, just want to learn from the best.
"The classes help students grow as people and allow them to interact with students in other majors whom they don't normally interact with," said equitation instructor Andi Shockley. "Horses build confidence in people, and I can see a real change in students from the beginning of the semester to the end."
Shockley teaches Western and English equitation classes and manages the university's 30 horses. MSU's horses are used in the equitation classes, and Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) members practice with them. Students who want to be able to ride their own horses while in school can board them with the MSU herd.
Shockley's equitation classes, equestrian instruction and a colt breaking and training class taught by Jess Halloway, are part of MSU's equine science program, but the classes are open to all students.
I'm a long way from colt breaking. Riding between the horse pastures, I keep my reins a little tight on Kid. This is our first day riding outside and he is excited to be in the snow. He keeps breaking into a trot, punching through the snow and trying to pass the horse ahead of us, throwing me off balance. Inside the Miller Livestock Arena, where we normally ride, Kid is mellow and hard to motivate to even trot.
I chose Kid for two reasons. First he is darker than the other horses and easy to identify in the pens. I didn't want to bring the wrong horse into the arena (which I did anyway one day). Secondly, Shockley said he was sweet and relaxed, maybe even a bit lazy. In other words, he was the perfect horse for someone like me.
Kid and I are part of a long tradition of equine programs at MSU. Bob Miller (for whom the Miller Livestock Pavilion is named) taught the first horse management class in 1960. Sandy Gagnon taught equitation starting in 1967 when he was a graduate student in animal physiology. He became a faculty member in 1969. When Miller died in 1974, Gagnon took over his classes. He continued teaching equine courses until he retired in 2009.
"A few horsemanship classes evolved into the equine sciences program," Gagnon said. "Now students have more opportunity to work in the horse industry; not just horse management and riding, but the allied industries such as nutrition, reproduction technology and veterinary science."
In 2002 a few classes became a new major and the equine sciences program was born as an option of the animal science degree program.
"It was initiated by students who were looking for a specific horse option rather than the traditional beef option," said Shannon Moreaux, assistant professor of equine science. "The program started with 11 students, and now has 65. That's a pretty substantial growth in student enrollment."
Ninety percent of equine science majors are women, and according to Moreaux, 80 to 90 percent of the students have been involved with horses most of their lives.
"This program gives them an opportunity to mix their passion and education and make a living," Moreaux said.
An article in the January 2010 issue of Western Horseman magazine emphasized how far MSU's equine science program has come in the eight short years since its inception. The profile underlines the prestige of MSU's small program.
"Western Horseman is probably the most-circulated magazine associated with the horse industry and the Western lifestyle, so it's a testament to the quality of our program to be in the magazine," Moreaux said.
Examples of students who major in the program include Hillary Carroll, a senior in animal and range sciences from Walpole, N.H. She has applied to veterinary schools and hopes to become an equine veterinarian.
"When I was choosing colleges it was between MSU and Dartmouth, and I chose MSU because they have a higher acceptance rate into vet school," Carroll recalled. "And Montana is horse country, which is a definite plus."
Carroll is taking as many classes as she can from Moreaux because he has the type of veterinary practice she hopes to own one day. In addition to teaching at MSU, Moreaux is a practicing veterinarian with an ambulatory service and a "lifetime horse person." He lets students ride along on his horse calls to see what the practice is like and to gain the volunteer hours they need for veterinary school.
When Carroll rode with Moreaux on house calls, she helped with vaccinations, minor surgeries, paperwork and hoof-related problems, which is Moreaux's specialty and something that interests Carroll.
"I got to experience the whole gamut of a small vet practice," Carroll said. "I've learned so much from Shannon; the standard he holds himself and others to is a step above."
The equine science option isn't just pre-vet-specific. Science and technology are combined with the practical aspects of management, horsemanship and training. Students take classes in equine physiology, business and marketing, land management for small acreage grazing and equitation.
Graduates of the program can be found working as veterinarians, training horses, working at feed and nutrition companies and employed in the horse breeding industry. Some, like Shockley, teach equitation to students like me.
Kid and I, along with the rest of the class, return to the arena after our first trail ride. I dismount and feel the jolt shock my knees as I land. How do people ride all day? I can barely walk after a couple hours. I shake it off, remove Kid's saddle and bridle and return them to the tack room.
After letting Kid roll around in the dirt, I halter him and return him to the pen outside. I pet him a little on his neck and give him a quick kiss when no one is looking, before saying goodbye until next week.
Two months ago I didn't know how to approach a horse and now I can tack up and ride. I'm comfortable catching a horse in the corral and slipping a halter over its nose. Safety around horses and proper knot tying are foremost on my mind. All this from just eight weeks of equitation classes. I have a better understanding of the Montana culture I am part of, and my young sons are now chomping at the bit for a horse ride. Yet, other students in the equine sciences program will leave MSU ready to work with horses in their professional lives.
"We have a responsibility to produce an employable product, not just someone who wants to play with horses," Moreaux said. "Our students get a substantial animal science education and applicable tools so they are prepared to work in the horse industry. It's not all cowboy hats, belt buckles and spurs. This is one of the best programs in the country."
Montana State University Equine Research
Equitation classes are just a part of the equine picture at MSU. Several MSU scientists are doing groundbreaking science and research involving horses. There are about 150,000 horses in Montana, about one-sixth the number of people living in the state. Whether they are used for pleasure riding, racing, ranching or hunting, all of these horses are susceptible to illness and disease.
Jovanka Voyich-Kane, assistant professor in MSU's Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology, and Shannon Moreaux, assistant professor of equine science, are studying the prevalence of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) in horses.
Voyich and Moreaux are trying to determine if horses in Montana are infected with methicillin-resistant S. aureus or MRSA. MRSA strains are problematic because they are resistant to many antibiotics and difficult to treat.
Moreaux also works as an equine veterinarian. From his work with horses, he suspects that there are many more cases of MRSA than are diagnosed. Equine S. aureus infections can range from mild to severe and include skin infections and pneumonia. The infected horses can transmit the bacteria to other horses or even people. MRSA in humans can cause a range of symptoms from skin infections to death.
If Moreaux and Voyich determine that MRSA is prevalent in Montana, horse handlers can take precautions to protect themselves and their horses from acquiring and spreading the bacteria. Infection-control practices depend on the location and other conditions, but may include isolating infected or colonized horses, use of gloves and gowns when handling such animals, improved general hygiene and sanitation among farm workers and veterinarians, screening of horses for infection and limiting contact between different groups of horses.
Moreaux and student Morgan McElwee have collected samples from nostrils of horses in the MSU herd, looking for the bacteria. Using molecular typing, McElwee and Voyich isolated two strains of S. aureus that have not been previously characterized. Typing of MRSA strains is key to understanding how and why infection rates are growing.
Benfang Lei, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology, is studying strangles--a parallel to strep throat in humans. Strangles has cost the horse industry millions of dollars, according to an article in The Horse magazine.
Also known as horse distemper, strangles is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacteria Streptococcus equi subspecies equi, which infects the upper respiratory tract of equine species such as horses, mules and zebras. While the death rate is fairly low (only 5-10 percent of cases are fatal if well managed), the disease causes enormous pain to the horse and can spread rapidly among equines housed together. About 50 percent of horses worldwide that are exposed to the bacteria get sick. It is one of the most common equine infectious diseases.
The infection starts with nasal discharge and fever, and leads to swelling of lymph nodes under the horse's jowls and throat. The swelling can interfere with the horse's ability to breathe.
A vaccine is available that can reduce the symptoms of strangles, but it does not completely prevent it, nor is it always safe. Lei hopes to develop a more effective and safe vaccine based on protective antigens--proteins produced by the strangles bacterium. Immunization with these proteins prompts the horse's immune system to respond and prevent infection.
Lei hopes to have his vaccine ready in a few years. Jyme Peterson, a graduate student in the equine science program, is researching ways to prevent and treat obesity and insulin resistance in horses. Insulin resistance can be a serious problem, but actual statistics on insulin resistance are currently unavailable.
Insulin resistance in horses is similar to Type II diabetes in humans, except the horse's pancreas does not stop producing insulin. Eventually, the horse's body becomes resistant to the insulin being secreted.
Horses with insulin resistance are prone to regional adiposity (fat accumulation in parts of the body) and inflammation within the hoof, called laminitis or founder. Acute laminitis is a medical emergency and can prevent a horse from walking.
Peterson conducted a study on 16 MSU horses to see if psyllium--a water-soluble plant that acts as a laxative--affected horses the same way as it did humans with Type II diabetes.
After 60 days, horses fed a daily dose of psyllium had lower concentrations of glucose and insulin in their blood compared to the horses that were fed grain alone.
Horses with insulin resistance are particularly prone to laminitis and founder in the spring, when the grass is lush and high in sugar content. According to Peterson's findings, these horses may benefit from a psyllium supplement, which lowers the circulating glucose and insulin levels after consuming a meal high in sugar.