What’s in a name?

I’ve touched on this subject in the past, yet every year around this time, it seems to roll around again. So as the end of 2016 approaches, let’s re-visit two of the main descriptive terms for equine-related educational experiences you might encounter and what they mean in context with your own personal college and educational search:

The least specific (and therefore most general) term frequently seen is that of a “horse program” or “equine program.” Not limited to higher education, horse/equine programs come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. (They’re a lot like horses themselves that way.) The primary tenet of a horse program is that in the majority of cases, the curriculum centers on the horse as a species – that is, examining its physiological makeup, nutritional and other health-related needs, and other factors relating to overall care of horses of all kinds. Reproduction and breeding can also be included in these educational experiences but typically, the emphasis is away from the riding aspect of horses and put squarely on managing them from day-to-day. (Note: Riding may be included with these programs but the point is that it’s not emphasized and riding well is not necessarily one of the program’s targeted outcomes.)

Typical horse/equine program descriptions include sentences like this one (courtesy of the horse management program at Michigan State University): “You’ll sharpen your skills in horse production by taking courses in farm management, nutrition, horse judging, breeding, behavior and training, exercise physiology, and health care.”

Horse/equine programs are also frequently folded into a university’s animal science department – which also accounts for their more science-based focus. Programs like the one at Oklahoma State University, which is described as follows: “The equine curriculum consists of the following courses: Horse Science, Horse Production, Equine Evaluation, Equine Training Methods, Equine Industry Internship, Special Projects in Equine. These Courses are incorporated into the Animal Science major which offers a wide variety of options (i.e. production, business, pre-vet, ranch operations, etc.).”

This is different from the more specific Ranch Horse Program offered in the animal and food sciences department of Texas Tech University, whose mission statement reads: “It is the mission of the Texas Tech Equine programs to provide students with educational and leadership opportunities through extensive study, research, and hands on experiences in all aspects of the equine industry. With courses and teams focusing on management, reproduction, horsemanship, evaluation, ranching, rodeo, therapy, and safety; we strive to enrich the future of the equine industry by producing industry leaders.”

Michigan State University and Oklahoma State University are both land-grant institutions created by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which granted federally-controlled lands within several states to focus on teaching practical (hands-on) agricultural, science, and engineering skills that it was feared would be lost with the onset of the industrial revolution and shift to a manufacturing economy. Thus, these institutions and the many others like them will tend to offer a slate of science-based programming in those very fields with robust offerings in animal sciences. Because mechanization relegated the horse to a sporting/leisure role at the turn of the twentieth century, however, the types of horse/equine programs available at land-grant institutions can vary widely as they’ve shifted their curriculum into the twenty-first century. Still, their programs tend to be more deeply rooted in hard science/research traditions than in equine science, equine business, and equine studies programs hosted at other colleges.

Let’s shift now to the other common term you’ve undoubtedly encountered: that of the equestrian program. This is the term that seems to serve as a very broad umbrella under which a host of various programs reside – including the aforementioned equine science, equine business, and equine studies majors. Equestrian programs incorporate a focus on improved riding skills for the most part and many also include skills for training horses and instructing riders in addition to the horse health and stable management elements common to horse programs.

But here’s the kicker: equestrian programs can also include those schools that have no equine major/minor programs and instead only house competitive riding teams.

This is where heavy research comes into play for those of you in  the midst of the college search. Because the term equestrian program is so broad and all-encompassing, you need to determine what your own personal definition of a college equestrian program is before you begin your search so that you can quickly determine whether or not particular programs will be a good fit for your needs and wants. After all, if you have a strong interest in majoring in equine science because you want to work in equine nutrition after graduation, a school that defines equestrian program as only a riding team might not offer the right courses to help you achieve your goal. Likewise, a school that emphasizes horse training in its equestrian program probably isn’t the best fit for you if you hope to acquire the skills necessary to teach riding lessons.

Bottom line: Not all equine-focused programs at colleges and universities are created equal – nor are the terms they use to describe them. Before you start sorting through them all, take the time to list out every single attribute you want your college riding and educational experience to entail. Then when you begin to compare colleges, refer back religiously to the list to make sure that the schools you’re looking at meet the criteria. This will help you get beyond the terminology and hopefully into the right program for you!

(Need help sorting through the terms? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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